Just a case of the right terroir?

Last updated 11:50 08/05/2008

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Food & Wine

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Graham Stringer muses what goes in to creating great regional wines.

I've recently been puzzled by a couple of things – first, the often-heard remark that great wine is made in the vineyard, and second, the French word terroir (pronounced "tear-wah"), which seems to be appearing on our wine labels lately.

Yet no-one I've read or spoken to has been able to explain simply and concisely what they mean.

I have been on a voyage of discovery to find the answers.

To set me on the right course, I spoke first to Roland Harrison, senior lecturer in oenology, and Dr Glen L. Creasy, senior lecturer in viticulture, of the Agriculture and Life Sciences Division at Lincoln University.

The first question was easily answered. Simply put, wine is an expression of the environment it has been grown in. You can make bad wine from good terroir, but you can't make great wine from bad terroir. So the ground that a vine is grown in is all important, as is which clone will be best or which root stock to use.

But so is what happens to the vine during the growing season. As Creasy explains, canopy management is all important. Too many leaves, and the sun can't ripen the fruit. Stripping leaves off the vine also allows air to circulate and help control disease.

Then there's control of pests, when to irrigate, fertilisation and green harvesting (removing a few immature grape clusters in the hope of better ripening and more flavour compounds). The final act in the vineyard is when to harvest, which is done by taste and measuring the sugar content (brix) of the grapes.

Creasy estimates that up to 80 per cent of a Marlborough sauvignon blanc is the result of what happens in the vineyard, with the winemaker contributing the other 20%.

The wine you end up with has the same flavours as the juice you start with, although Creasy qualifies that by pointing out that some producers promote changes by introducing a touch of oak, which provides an extra dimension of complexity.

Cloudy Bay Te Koko and Clayridge Marlborough Excalibur Sauvignon are excellent examples of this style. Omihi Road from Torlesse Wines in Waipara is also a barrel-fermented sauvignon worth trying.

Getting back to terroir, there are a few exceptions, explains Harrison, but when you drink Marlborough sauvignon blanc, it is instantly recognisable as a Marlborough sauvignon blanc. But try a sauvignon blanc from Hawkes Bay and, although the flavours are there, it is quite different in style, tending to be softer and less pungent.

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In other words, through its unique style, Marlborough sauvignon blanc expresses terroir. For classic Marlborough wine examples, try Spy Valley, Shingle Peak or Montana. For a Hawkes Bay style, try Sacred Hill Sauvage or Matua Valley.

What about other varieties? Why can I buy two totally different styles of pinot noir from the same area?

For the final word, I went to David Graham, owner of European wine specialist Decant in Mandeville Street, Christchurch.

Most of the wine producers in Germany grow only two or three varieties of grape, and mainly riesling he said. In the Burgundy region of France, it is chardonnay and pinot noir, because after centuries of growing grapes, growers have worked out what works best where.

But in New Zealand, there can be eight different varieties on a 20-hectare block.

Changes are happening, he said. For instance, only the most stubborn grower still grows pinot noir in Hawkes Bay, for it is merlot and cabernet sauvignon that do best.

Waipara is another region that is beginning to recognise that some wines do better there than others. Riesling and pinot noir for example.

Maybe in another 20 years, that will be all that is grown in the region, and an instantly recognisable Waipara terroir will have emerged.

Montana has increased its range of terroir wines to include three different pinot-noir wines. Perhaps they are saying: "This is the style of wine we think this area should produce." If that is the case, all power to them. They may be proven wrong, but at least it's a start.

- The Press

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