Terroir and intervention

WBM May 2006

When a tree falls in the forest, and there is no-one there to hear it, does it make a sound?

There would be few people now who doubt the influence of terroir on wine.  After initially condemning it as European mumbo-jumbo, even the New World now accepts the concept, and it would be foolish not to.  After all, the proposal that the character of a wine will be a reflection of where the grapes were grown is hardly remarkable.  But what exactly terroir is and the role it plays, or is allowed to play, remains divisive.  Wines at the recent Frankland Estate International Riesling Tasting (FEIRT) posed many questions but provided little unanimity.

Every wine demonstrates terroir – to an extent.  Even Jacob’s Creek and Bin 65 speak of where they come from – warm areas in Australia.  Local regional or site differences may have been lost in the blending – and who cares? – but they are still what they are, warm area Australian wines. 

In Australia, we commonly think of terroir as an expression of broad inter-regional differences, where climate is the main determinant.  Not so in Europe, however, where terroir is more often used to express the differences between neighbouring sites.  At this level, the broader climate is a given, and soil, aspect and local climatic differences play the major role.  It was these differences, and the ways in which they were expressed in the wines, that were the basis of discussion at FEIRT.

When European winemakers speak of terroir, however, they generally avoid discussion of two issues, management in the vineyard and intervention in the winery.  Do these complement terroir or destroy it?  Does carting the eroded topsoil back up the slope of your Rhône Valley vineyard maintain the natural terroir or interfere with a natural process?  Does trucking in river gravel to embellish the soil surface of your Médoc vineyard simply maximise an existing soil characteristic, or is it subversive terroirism?  And in the winery, when should the winemaker intervene?  If a wine is so volatile or oxidised, through poor control of ullage or lack of SO2, that you cannot taste its characteristics, how can it express terroir?

Germany is currently rediscovering its terroir; perhaps “discovering how to express its terroir” would be a better description.  German wine has been going through an upheaval.  The 1970 Wine Law promoted an over-reliance on the oechsle scale – the sweetness of the must – and, in a falsely egalitarian way, suggested that all vineyards were, at least potentially, equal.  Not only was the importance of site disregarded, the Law actually created grosslagen, local regional descriptors, which masqueraded as vineyards.  German wine gradually became damned in the public’s eyes as being entirely lolly-water Liebfraumilch – sweet, simple and the same.

However, since 1980, the top producers have been looking for a way out of the mire and this has led, amongst other moves, to the founding of the VDP (Verband Deutscher Prädikatsweinguter). This group of the top 200 growers has promoted a range of measures to encourage quality and promote fidelity to site.  This has involved lower yields and mostly drier wine styles. In 2002 the VDP published its own unofficial vineyard classification which identified its greatest sites – Erstes Gewächs and Grosses Gewächs – many of which had been recognised for hundreds of years, as had those in Burgundy.
But how do you best express the terroir of these great sites? German winemaking is in a considerable state of flux, as each producer tries to find how best to bring out the characteristics he or she wants from the fruit.  Long skin contact, oxidative (rather than protective) handling, spontaneous fermentations (which may last for three to four months), malolactics, long ageing on yeast lees etc. etc. are all being tried.  Superimpose these on a wine of 13 to 14% alcohol, and you can understand that there are some pretty powerful Rieslings out there, a big contrast to 8% Liebfraumilch.  But do these wines truly express terroir?  What is the level of winemaker intervention that best allows the wines to speak of their origin?

Two groups of Rieslings from Ernst Loosen each showed dramatic differences across different vineyards.  The first were three Spätlese trockens from the Pfalz in 2004.  These were made in what you would call the modern Pfalz style – wines picked late, with around 13% potential alcohol and then fermented largely dry.  (Trocken requires the wine to be less than 9 g/l of residual sugar.)  The wine from the Pechstein vineyard was the most floral of the three, with lime aromas and a very fine palate, a relatively light body and tight acidity.  Ungeheuer was fuller on the nose, with stonefruit characters, a rounder fuller body and slightly softer acidity.  Jesuitengarten was a little more subdued on nose, albeit still intense, yet had the broadest palate, with great body and texture.  These three vineyards all lie within the village of Wachenheim and could be enclosed within a circle of 600 metres, and yet the wines were utterly different. 

The second group was from the Mosel, all again from 2004 and all auslesen in the traditional Mosel style – that is, around 8% alcohol with a substantial level of residual sugar – over 70 g/l – and yet tasting only semi-sweet.   Wehlener Sonnenuhr was limey and very delicate, with outstanding length.  Ürziger Würzgarten was intensely limey and floral, with more fullness than the Wehlen wine.  Erdener Prälat, from a very individual site warmed by overhanging rock outcrops, was by far the fullest of the three, with a softer, rounder palate.  These three vineyards are all on the Middle Mosel and about 3km apart.

Now all these wines had been made in a manner which the U.K. press would patronisingly call “squeaky-clean winemaking” – grapes pressed with no more than minimal skin contact and with reductive handling, juice cold-settled, perhaps filtered, ultra-bright juice fermented cold with a cultured yeast.  After fermentation, the wine cleaned up early after short yeast lees contact and bottled early.  The wines within the two groups had been made in the same way and yet each showed absolutely different characteristics.  All showed pure primary fruit, each different in character from the other two and with a contrasting structure, and with no sulfide, VA or obtrusive secondary characters to get in the way.  What better way to observe differences in terroir?

Other wines showed mixed results from various winemaking methods – Nonnberg from Robert Flick (skin contact and long ferment) was excellent; Lurentiuslay from Nik Wells (3-4 month ferment) was sulfidic and bitter; Morstein of Philip Wittmann (skin contact, natural ferment often well into the following year, maturation in old casks) was clean, intense and soft.  All were from the 2004 vintage.  (Other wines mostly showed their flavours and structure well, while a small number had sulfide and/or bitter phenolics, but I have no winemaking information for them.)

At the previous Sydney FEIRT, in 2002, I tasted six wines from Heymann-Löwenstein, in the lower Mosel, all from the 2000 vintage.  Reinhard Löwenstein has been a very influential winemaker, championing lower yields, skin contact, low-intervention winemaking and drier wine styles, with commensurately higher alcohol, typically around 12%.  He has been described by the erudite Stuart Pigott as “A blend of philosopher, country-boy, one-man show, wine-freak, entrepreneur and salesman, a rarity on the German wine scene.” – clearly the sort of person German wine needs at present.  Löwenstein explained that Heymann-Löwenstein were “Not taste producers.”  Nor did they manipulate wines with acid or sugar.  Instead they favoured a “communication of terroir”. 

I found the wines uneven.  The Kirchberg, off red slate and a first growth vineyard, was intense and tight, with good acidity and floral and lemon fruit characters – an excellent wine.  Von blauen Schiefer, off blue slate, was distinctly different – fuller, rounder and more tropical – another attractive wine.  However, any comparison of these with Röttgen and Uhlen was rendered difficult by the high levels of sulfide in the wines, the former also showing strong bitterness from phenolics.  Schieferterrassen also showed phenolic bitterness.  Didn’t this concern him, I asked after the tasting?  He shrugged his shoulders.  “It’s the terroir”, he said, in effect.  “I don’t like to interfere.”  It’s worth adding that most of these wines come from vineyards which are terraced, to overcome the steepness of the slopes.  Does terracing a vineyard constitute interference with terroir, or is it allowing terroir to speak?

If a vineyard tends to produce sulfidic wines because of nitrogen deficiencies, should a winemaker (or, better still, a vineyard manager) correct it?  In the past, many Chablis – often Grands Crus – Hunter Valley Shiraz and McLaren Vale Shiraz smelt strongly of sulfide. Was this part of regional character or did it confound it?  Surely, wine’s sense of place speaks through its fruit flavours and structure, not through a selection of secondary characters or, worse, faults.

Several of the winemakers at this year’s FEIRT voiced the opinion that, after the eight or 10 years bottle-age that their Rieslings needed to reach their best, all the eccentricities of sulfide, phenolic grip and so on would have dissipated, allowing the true characteristics of terroir to be seen.  But hang on, guys!  Weren’t these terroir differences clearly seen in the Loosen and J.L.Wolf wines at the age of one year?  What’s more, Loosen wines back to 1988 at the FEIRT tastings have opened brilliantly, demonstrating the characteristics of their origin, and have clearly not suffered from “squeaky-clean” winemaking.

So where does that leave winemaker intervention?  Who has intervened more, the winemaker who ferments clean juice or the one who allows calculated skin contact and ferments on solids?  The winemaker who deliberately uses a neutral yeast culture or the one who allows wild yeast fermentation (whatever that means)?  The winemaker who deals with what he or she perceives as blemishes as they arise, or the one who is happy to let the wine run its course?  Many wine flavours are derived from flavourless precursors in the grapes that are converted to aroma compounds during fermentation, so it’s inevitable that even minor decisions by the winemaker can change the way those terroir-derived flavours are expressed.

Ultimately, every single decision a winemaker makes – time of picking, choice of winery equipment, SO2 concentration, time of racking and bottling – is an intervention.  Ultimately, those who are able to make the decisions that best demonstrate the characteristics of their wine’s terroir will be those who get recognition, success and will continue to prosper. 

The forest is always there.  So is the terroir, but no-one can taste it until the winemaker is heard.

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