Terroir wars, academics come to battle

Academic arguments

Like the planet, the subject of terroir continues to revolve. TKR thinks it’s certainly a subject that will continue to incite argument among wine folk (and quite a few who are not involved in wine but not short of opinion) for as long as grapes are grown and wine made on this Earth.

The email from Dr John Possingham published in last week’s TKR expressing his disappointment in Yalumba releasing The Caley, a cross-regional cabernet shiraz blend, generated a lot of comment (some published and a lot more private).

TKR remained fairly neutral, accepting Dr Possingham’s opinion and publishing the comments submitted. The doctor sent a second email, which we think has a hint of the sulky with an underlying nip of sarcastic flavour, but we are pleased to publish. There really is nothing quite like debate.

Dr John Possingham, (ex-CSIRO), co-proprietor of Possums Vineyard, McLaren Vale:

“The responses I have received for my support of wines of known terroir suggest to me that complex mixtures of wines sourced from different areas and made from different varieties are what we should aim for in Australian wines.   

“Will every wine fabricator then aim for the same set of flavours and tastes? He probably will have to, in order to get tasters to give them high ratings. Perhaps France, Italy, Spain, Germany and even the USA with their addiction to wines of origin are all wrong?   

“Regional wines provide with us with diversity and with an almost infinite variety of flavours and tastes, some of which are the benchmarks the blenders aim for.”

Here is one of the emails we received that answered Dr Possingham’s question, “What has happened to the concept of terroir?”  

Dr Rob Bramley, senior principal research scientist, CSIRO Integrated Agricultural Systems program:

“I think it is about time the special ‘virtue’ of single vineyard wines was challenged. Unless the boundaries of said vineyards have some biophysical connotation (eg defined by waterways, changes in soil type, etc…), then they are almost certainly largely an accident of fate conditioned by things like availability of land, planting material, etc… ; that is, they have nothing to do with terroir, and in the context of reflecting a regional terroir, are not repeatable because the adjacent vineyard will have a subtly different mix of soils, topography, climate, etc… (or it could contrast markedly!). 

“In the region that Dr Possingham comes from, nearly all the vineyard boundaries are straight and approximately aligned N-S and E-W. Against this background, these boundaries have nothing to do with the local biophysical variation or terroir and ergo, neither does the notion of ‘single vineyard’.  

“The wines from single vineyards may well be very good, perhaps because the single vineyard management focus has led to extra care in grape and wine production, but to claim that such wines are more evocative of terroir than wines made from 2, 3, 4 or 5 vineyards has no basis in science.

I have not had the pleasure of tasting the Caley red, but I am sure it is good – just as Penfolds Grange is. 

“Grange has both a multi-vineyard and multi-region provenance. In terms of its terroir, it no doubt reflects the places where its grapes come from, as would Caley, but to suggest that these wines might be less worthy than single vineyard wines simply because they are not from a single vineyard makes little sense; good wine is good wine.”

The exact makeup of The Caley is 52 per cent Coonawarra cabernet sauvignon, 27 per cent Barossa cabernet and 21 per cent Barossa shiraz. Examining Dr Possingham’s first email we wonder if he is also against blending, as his portfolio shows only single variety wines unless he subscribes to the 85-15 rule and doesn’t mention any small amounts of other varieties in his wine.

It appears to TKR that Dr Possingham’s opinion on what constitutes terroir is in fact a single patch of dirt with vines growing on it and his own convictions. That is fine, as it’s fine for Brian Croser to hold the same opinion. What isn’t fine is expecting every other person involved in making wine or somehow aligned with wine to think along the same lines.

Nor, it appears, does Dr Possingham think a great deal of critics or wine reviewers:

Will every wine fabricator then aim for the same set of flavours and tastes? He probably will have to, in order to get tasters to give them high ratings.”

That is also fine, but if he thinks so little of those who voice opinions, why does he pepper his website with mention of critics?

“The first Possums Vineyard Shiraz wine was made in 2000 and became popular with wine critics both in Australia, UK and the USA.”  (Small point, Dr Possingham: “both” refers to two, not three.)

There is also this: Possums Wines is currently a 4.5 Star Winery in James Halliday’s wine companion. The wines have received numerous accolades and medals over the past 15 years.”

Halliday was one of those tasters who gave The Caley a high rating (98).

The TKR view is really very simple: wine is man-made from the selection of site, varieties planted, picking, making, blending and the whole damn box of tricks that a winemaker has at their disposal.

By chance, an article by Jane Anson, The last little guys of Pauillac, appeared in Decanter magazine on 23 March. An extract:

Yannick Mirande of Château Chantecler has experience of exactly that. His family sold 12 hectares of vines in the village of Pouyalet to Mouton Rothschild on ‘May 15, 2004. I will always remember the date’. This was Château La Fleur Milon (you can still see the name on a cellar building, although the vines have become part of Mouton and Clerc Milon today)” 

Who harps on more about terroir then the French? And who of the French bellows the loudest about terroir? Bordeaux and Burgundy come to mind. The Bordeaux first growths are not what they were in the 1855 classification: land has been purchased, vineyards extended, ditches dug and trees planted. The terroir has been altered. Let’s not join them in banging on about single site but follow individual paths. By all means indulge in robust exchanges, but cut out the bullying, “I’m right” attitude.

Is ignorance bliss?

Is ignorance of Australian wines among the younger generation a given? What is the younger generation? For this article we are picking the age of 40 and below, though it could be younger, say 30 and below.

The question was brought to mind reading about Wine Australia’s current hosting of 50 sommeliers from around the world to show them the delights and bliss of Australian wine.

TKR is ambivalent about the exercise. It’s as good as any, though TK, when dining out, often finds sommeliers an insufferable pain in the arse.

An article in The Sydney Morning Herald on 2 April gave a general outline of the visit, with quotes from a couple of sommeliers. One caught our eye:

“Sara Bachiorri, the head sommelier at Chez Bruce in London, said some fine dining customers understand that Australian wines now have more finesse compared to 20 years ago when they were viewed as ‘sun in a glass’ or high-alcohol, big, chunky blockbusters. ‘I think that the general consumer and older consumers could still be attached to that old perception though,’ she said.”

Ms Bachiorri does not look to be over 40. In fact, quite a bit younger, which makes us wonder just how aware she is of drinking habits two decades ago.  Is she relaying what she has heard or picked up during her career in wine? If so, where and who from? More so, how did the myths originate?

On average, Australian wines in 2016-17 have the same alcohol content as they did in 1996. What is true is that in the 1990s there were some 15-16 per cent wines that attracted the palate of Robert Parker. Is it these few on which Ms Bachiorri bases her comment about “big, chunky blockbusters”? Has she tried any of these wines or is she relaying a myth?

Another myth is the “sun in a glass” or sunshine in a bottle aspect. This has stuck to Australian wine like the proverbial shit to a blanket. In our experience, two people popularised the connection between Australian wine and sun. One was John Brown Snr (Brown Brothers), who used it frequently. The other was UK-based wine writer Oz Clarke. This was during an ’80s fad for Australian wine. We do not know the phrase’s origin, but “Bottled Sunshine” was used by Charles Walter Berry (Berry Bros & Rudd) in A Miscellany of Wine, published by Constable & Co Ltd in 1932 (chapter 1, page 3). Ironically, Berry was referring to a bottle of Avelsbacher Herrenberg Beerenauslese 1921, from the Mosel, not a region noted for sunshine.

The article continues with a quote from Wine Australia chairman Brian Walsh:

There is this general sense that even though our [Australian] wines are very popular abroad, often they are under-represented in the fine dining space, where people tend to look to Europe as the mecca.”

TKR agrees with the sentiment, but outside Australia, if you’re trying to impress others at a table, what holds sway is certainly not Australian, but French all the way. Quality rarely comes into the decision to impress; perception is the driving force. Walsh concedes that in the article:

“He does not expect a quick payback from the familiarisation effort, saying changing the perception of Australian wine will take time.”

We hope he is right, and all credit to Wine Australia, which is trying many avenues. Surely one of them will succeed.

1 thought on “Terroir wars, academics come to battle”

  1. Whoah Tony. Where do I start?
    “Let’s not join them in banging on about single site but follow individual paths. By all means indulge in robust exchanges, but cut out the bullying, “I’m right” attitude.”
    …AND let’s not waste 5.6 million Wine Industry/Taxpayer dollars that could be much better used promoting Australian wine overseas – in China most notably.

    “Another myth is the “sun in a glass” or sunshine in a bottle aspect.”
    Australian wine really took off in the UK in the late ’80s thanks to the work of Hazel Murphy. At that time, our alcohols were usually around 12-13%, BUT thanks to our Riverland climate and Australian winemaking skill & technology, our “commercially priced” wines WERE “sunshine in a bottle” compared with the thin acid VDPs from France at the same price points. Our later slavish following of Parker’s predilection for 14-15% reds post dated the “sunshine” tag.

    It would only be a 40 something year old who could confuse the two!

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