Terroirism… a scary scenario

Talking to young sommeliers is very character-building, I’ve decided. These shining early twenty-somethings, armed with the questing mind and capacity for absorbing complex information I used to pride myself on, are a constant reminder to me not to take anything as set in stone. Having clocked up 40-odd years drinking wine (from the sublime to the diabolical ) there’s a tendency to think “been there; done that; worn out, never mind worn the t-shirt” and lapse into a kind of elder statesman cynicism. Which is a shame.

So when something or someone comes along and jogs you out of your complacency that’s A Good Thing. When Michel Chapoutier breezed into town like the mistral earlier this year saying “Don’t worry overly about the nose. Wines with huge upfront noses often don’t give you much at the other end” it caused me to revise my tasting technique. Subsequently, I’ve got much more laid back. In the past, if a wine’s given me little on the nose I’ve noted it as ‘muted’ or ‘dumb’ or, worse, ‘anonymous’ or ‘boring’. It’s consequently been harder for that wine, no matter how complex the favours, impactful the mouthfeel or extended the length, to climb back into my esteem. These days I adopt a ‘wait and see’ policy that’s altogether fairer on the wine.

But altogether the most debate-provoking stuff I’d heard since a certain Spaniard told me, back in the eighties, that in his opinion he made better wine than Latour or Lafite came in the shape of a 90-minute lecture on terroir given by Ed Flaherty of Errazuriz. Ed’s talk and visual presentation was punctuated by a tasting of 24 wines, in flights of 2 or 3, all, save one, Cabernet Sauvignon. The first pair we were presented with were identical, other than that one had been made from grapes picked from a vine that had been trimmed back to 8 leaves per shoot, whereas the other was made from grapes picked where the shoot had been pruned to 16 leaves. The wines were totally different, exhibiting aromas and flavours from opposite ends of the spectrum. Next, a flight of three, from grapes harvested at different times, all else being equal. Again, the wines were spectacularly diverse. And so it went on. We were presented with another flight of three, made from grapes harvested in different plots of the same vineyard – one yielded a blockbuster, originally clocked at 15.4% ABV before dilution to 14.8, the other two fairly ‘normal’, if that’s the word, but diametrically opposed in style. Fascinating thought provoking stuff.

One conclusion, the obvious one, was that terroir works – the time-honoured combination of soil, aspect and climate, especially when juxtaposed with the new sciences like canopy management and modern maturation techniques does dramatically influence the aroma/taste/quality/character of the finished wine, QED.

Reflecting after the event, I became aware of a slightly sinister sub-text. I imagined a scenario where, given the appropriate grape variety (“Please no Merlot” screams Ed Flaherty “It’s wholly unsuited to Chile”), these techno-savvy Chileans could make whatever style of wine they please – easy drinking or big hitting; light and user-friendly or dark and mysterious; for instant gratification or long keeping; right or left bank-style; the technology is in place. All it needs is a Machiavellian mastermind to bend terroir, Svengali-like, to his will. So if tastes change and the mass market begins to tire of huge fruit bombs… Got it? Look out, Bordeaux and Burgundy. And don’t say I didn’t warn you!

News just in on a bilateral agreement between Canada and the EC. The agreement marks the culmination of four years of negotiation and a happy, backslapping time was had by all. EC Commissioner for Agriculture Franz Fishler highlighted the decision by Canadian winemakers to adopt
the “VQA” system of quality standards applied to winemaking as crucial. “This reflects the European approach and enabled substantial progress on the sensitive issue of winemaking standards.” Apparently the decision by Canadian winemakers to turn their backs on use of European names was the key breakthrough needed for an agreement. “No more ‘Chablis’, ‘Port’, ‘Sherry’ ‘Sauternes’, ‘Claret’ or ‘Champagne’ we promise.” Or ‘Grappa’ or ‘Ouzo’ two years hence.

So what do the Canucks get out of it? Well, Rye Whisky will be protected in Europe as a distinctive product of Canada. Doesn’t seem much of a trade off, does it, one concession for so many? Apparently the two sets of negotiators are still locking horns over ‘Highland Whisky’.

Nearer home, in a Dublin wine merchants, we saw a range of what could once legitimately be sold as South African Ports listed as ‘Orts’!

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