Terroir has long been used to describe the somewhat ambiguous concept of locality and region, but in all the marketing and jargon of wine, has its true meaning been lost? After all, this most ambiguous of terms refers to more than just a checklist of tangible components, surely. To truly understand what is meant by terroir, it may reward us to dig into the winemaking culture from which the word is derived.
The French term appellation d’origine contrôlée (or AOC) literally translates to ‘controlled designation of origin’, and describes a set of guidelines that determine production areas for key agricultural products. Loosely conceived as far back as the 15th century when Roquefort cheese was regulated by parliamentary decree, the concept was extended to include wine in 1937 with the legal recognition of Côtes du Rhône. This then is the origin of modern terroir – in no uncertain terms, a word with a life of its own, one since adopted around the world to describe why a product is unique to a specific area.
“To find out what underpins wine terroir is a holy grail, it is what makes wine so diverse and appealing,” said Associate Professor Cassandra Collins, of University of Adelaide’s School of Agriculture, Food and Wine and co-convenor of 2020’s International Terroir Congress – a virtual gathering of global viticultural experts designed to explore the most cutting edge developments in the field. Conferences like this reveal the serious intellectual consideration given to the subject.
The maritime elements of Margaret River clearly influence the region’s wines.
Detail from the old vines of Henschke’s Hill of Grace.
As defined by Merriam Webster, terroir (pronounced ter-wär) is the combination of factors including soil, climate and sunlight that gives wine grapes their distinctive character. But what does this mean in real terms? Ultimately, it is geography that determines the optimum grape-growing regions across the world, as laid out by latitude. In the northern hemisphere, the best-suited regions lie between a latitude of 30º and 50º, and in the southern hemisphere, between 23º to 45º.
But latitude is not the only factor. The vitis vinifera vine requires a recipe of factors to grow successfully: a complicated and detailed method which starts with the essential ingredients of climate, soil and sunlight.
FROM MACRO to MICRO AND ALL IN BETWEEN
In viticulture, regions are often described as having Mediterranean, Maritime, or Continental climates, descriptions loosely based on the Köppen and Köppen-Geiger classifications, determined by several considerations like the temperature range between summer and winter months, moderating factors like proximity to large bodies of water, average yearly rainfall, significant wind factors, and so on.
For instance, the Central Western zone in Western Australia has a Mediterranean climate with a dry and semi-arid climate due to its inland location, whereas Margaret River GI has a Mediterranean climate but with strong maritime influences due to its closer proximity to the Indian Ocean.
Gathering the grapes by hand at Vasse Felix
This model broadly breaks up climate into mildly digestible pieces when it comes to understanding wine regions throughout the world. Yet another way to understand climate, however, in a more granular viticultural manner, is to break up the location by macro, meso and microclimates.
Macroclimate loosely describes a larger general wine location: for example, the state of South Australia, or perhaps the zone of Barossa GI encompassing both the Barossa and Eden Valley; while meso climate might describe a single vineyard or plot – Henschke’s famed Hill of Grace Vineyard, for instance.
Lastly, microclimate is concerned with the minute details, such as a specific row or clonal planting within a vineyard: say, Hill of Roses, a small selection of Shiraz vines from the Hill of Grace vineyard planted in 1989 and bottled into a wine all of its own. Terroir can therefore be established on a macro, meso and microclimate level, depending on the specific region, site or block one wishes to describe.
THE GROUND OF BEING
Like a curious earthworm that burrows into and through topsoil, the root network of vines extends into the ground seeking sustenance, reaching into the subsoil to absorb moisture, minerals and living organisms, even at times penetrating the bedrock or outside layer of the earth’s crust. The combination of these soil layers alters the way in which the roots develop, and in turn affects the vine’s growth and behaviour.
One region that’s been hugely successful in communicating the importance of its terroir Coonawarra, on the Limestone Coast of South Australia. Its famous red terra rossa topsoils hold moisture yet allow free draining when necessary, helping regulate the amount of water the vine is exposed to. Beneath the red soil is limestone subsoil, restricting root growth and helping the vine attain a more consistent composition.
From here, the job of the winemaker is to translate all this raw data to the wine in the bottle, unearthing a varietal’s intrinsic, place-specific flavours and aromas in the process. This is as true of Coonawarra as it is of the Barossa and Burgundy, regardless of whether the resulting wines are single varietal or carefully crafted blends.
At work in the vines for Vasse Felix’s 2021 vintage
Alex Head of Head Wines, for instance, has always thought it imperative to communicate what’s happening in the vineyard to consumers when tasting his bottle offerings. “I talk a lot about the parent rock and soil profile in each vineyard – how the vines access water from them, and the resulting fruit and tannin profiles,” he says. “It helps me to have an idea and vision of the final wines, before I blend the vineyard parcels to make what I call a ‘complete’ wine”.
Alex finds thinking in terms of terroir most effective in this regard. “Terroir is a wonderful term and a tool to help the winemakers’ customer become comfortable with being a part of the wine and its story,” he says. “It also helps me with the intellectual pursuit of pleasure. Otherwise, it’s just a commercial beverage.”
LET THERE BE LIGHT…
When it comes to sunlight, the aspect where the vineyard is planted affects the angle that the sunlight shines onto the vineyard. In high altitude sites, this can have a marked difference on the total heat balance of the vineyard, thus altering the growth stages of the plant.
Consider the macroclimate of Orange in New South Wales, one of the few Australian regions where Geographical Indication boundaries are defined by altitude. The high altitude on the western face of the Great Dividing Range and proximity to Mount Canobolas are significant in modifying the weather conditions and therefore the style, grapes, and wine product that bears the Orange name.
Somewhat counter-intuitively then, with many vineyards receiving over nine hours of sun exposure during its growing season, Orange is in fact the warmest place making cool-climate wine in Australia, once again revealing the nuances of climate and light and their effect in the resulting wines.
…AND THE SPICE OF LIFE
If climate, soil, and sunlight are the are the foundations of the terroir recipe, then what are the flavour additions that add the spice? Here it pays to consider the importance of other living organisms, and what they add to a wine’s ‘sense of place’.
Animal life might be one such addition: local bird populations that feast on budding grapes; mobs of sheep used to graze cover crops and manage pests; all the way down to tiny, single-cell bacteria that can decimate a vine. And then, of course, there is the human touch, the secret weapon that transmutes these diverse elements into something worth salivating over.
The human touch is perhaps the most unpredictable and erratic ingredient that goes into terroir – yet it is arguably also the most instrumental to the success of any wine. One of the most compelling discussions at the International Terroir Conference of 2020 revolved around humankind’s connection to a place, physically as well as culturally. And if there are lessons to be drawn from the past, then surely no one is better equipped to teach us about ‘sense of place’ than the traditional custodians of the land.
For Australia’s Indigenous peoples, land relates to every aspect of their being: one does not exist without the other. It is not something to own or occupy, but something we belong to and hold great personal responsibility for. Such connection to land is present within every aspect of Indigenous culture, spirituality, family, language, and identity. If we are to truly understand our role in terroir, listening to such voices becomes even more valuable, allowing us to access ancient insights into the intrinsic nature of life on the land and an appreciation for the full circle of life.
Vasse Felix Chief Winemaker Virginia Willcock
The soils of Vasse Felix, Margaret River
One winery that is listening intently is Mount Yengo Wines, whose aim is to “[bring] together the values of the First Nations People of Australia with the advanced technology and innovation from our newest inhabitants to create a community that values bridging the cultural divide, instilling cultural understanding, embracing reconciliation and diversity.”
Established in the Hunter Valley, Mount Yengo Wines is forging ahead to assist in ‘Closing the Gap’ between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians – and wine, they have found, is a perfect collaborative framework to do just that. By asking questions of our Indigenous ancestors and the lineage of people that have come to know the land over hundreds of thousands of years, the collective knowledge gained can facilitate an even deeper understanding of terroir.
Questions like, what did this piece of land hold before it became a part of the agricultural landscape? Was there an ancient water source nearby? How did the tribe of this area deal with rising flood waters or spontaneous bushfires? What trees and shrubs were or are native to this place, and where do they fit in the ebbs and flows of changing seasons? This last point remains especially relevant when one considers the eco-system that grapes grow in.
Consider the influence of Marri and Karri gums on the soils from which many Western Australian wines spring, for instance, as well as other natives. Virginia Willcock, Chief Winemaker of Margaret River pioneers Vasse Felix, has observed how Cabernet Sauvignon “defines the region of Margaret River through perfume and a distinct herbal nuance referred to as ‘peppy leaf’, from the local tree agonis flexuosa, known as Wunil by the Indigenous Noongar people.”
Consequently, she says, the grape also expresses “a transparency of ocean ozone smells and freshness that Cabernet from other places does not.” For Virginia, these combinatory elements impart a certain “transparency, shape, space and a sense of place.”
MAKING SENSE (OR NONSENSE) OF TERROIR
To some, the language of wine is like music or poetry. To others it’s like a foreign tongue; unique sounds and odd tones that can enchant, confuse or bewilder. Yet the ability to describe wine and why it tastes the way it does is key in the narrative of grape to glass. The notion of terroir has helped winemakers and wine lovers alike to identify and understand the many factors that give a wine its distinct regionality. Simply ascribing an exact scientific set of guidelines to it risks robbing wine of its living essence, and rendering it perfunctory.
Of course, terroir is not without its misuse in our language of today. When the word is used without specificity it loses its ability to define its original context. And when wholly applied as a merchandising tool, over time it begins to lose its weight and power, introducing new ambiguities to the language of wine and making it once more inaccessible and unattainable.
It seems terroir must balance clarity and mystery for it to have any real value: to describe what is difficult to express, to capture the fascination of space, to sum up all the multi-faceted inputs of land and people. Our relationship with any place, after all, is both personal and abstract, unique to the individual. Terroir may be made up of fundamental ingredients like climate, soils and sunlight, but people are integral in the formula.
What is certain is that for terroir to be unique there must be, shall we say, a sprinkling of umami in its recipe – that perfect pinch of seasoning that gives us something to truly savour. Would we be amiss to call that ingredient, ‘love’?