It’s the dirt, stupid part 2
An occasional blog post from Nigel Greening.
I spent a pleasing day recently with Professor Warren Morran, who is close to completing his book on terroir. For those who don’t know this internationally acclaimed thinker, he takes a very broad view of the nature of terroir, arguing that as the very nature of a vineyard is a human construct, the various human interventions that comprise the terroir, including its history, its management… in fact every way that human influence impinges on the site… are important factors to include in order to properly understand how terroir works.
We spent the day discussing a huge range of influences as we wandered around our vineyards, raising far more questions than we resolved, as is the way with any interesting subject.
My last piece looked at how wild yeasts form a part of terroir, this time, I’m turning to history both old and recent, and how events both influence and create terroir.
James Millton, perhaps not surprisingly, turns first to the ecosystems of the soil when I ask him for a thought on this. As a biodynamic grower, the dynamic living systems of the soil underpin a great deal of his thinking.
Although most biodynamic growers try hard to create composts and preparations that are grown within the terroir of the vineyard, or adjacent to it, the human act of combining them, of building organic matter and energy in the soils is very much a human intervention. So James can trace an important thread of his terroir back to Germany in the 1920’s when Rudolph Steiner made his eight presentations on thoughts for a new kind of agriculture.
He is very keen to get a greater understanding of what is happening at a chemical level within these soils: studying the cation exchange and also looking to see if there might be a correlation between organic and biodynamic farming and resveratrol levels in red wines. Although many see biodynamics as a rather spiritual and insubstantial concept, those that practice it are undoubting that the changes are both real and substantial.
If the human influence is undoubted, what about the canine influence? Can the winery dog influence terroir? I think it might do. For example, dogs encourage us to walk around our land and to spend more time amongst our vines than we might otherwise do. This probably makes us better viticulturists, as we observe our vines more often and more closely. There is certainly a close relationship between dogs and good wineries, none more so than Palliser, who have a wine named after Bear: their now deceased Labrador.
Many family members tell stories of a very important principle: it takes special land to make special wines. The traditional way to buy land has always been to find something that was for sale then buy it, but most of us have, at some point, realised that it really should be done the other way: find something that is just right, then persuade the owner to sell it. That is how Pegasus Bay found their patch of glacial moraine. Moraine soils seem to be very effective, as they combine stones and rocks of various sizes with fine silts crushed by the ice. As the silts are freshly crushed by the glacier, they will tend to leach large amounts of minerals compared to soils that have been drained for countless thousands of years. The result is a great mixture of heavier textures with free draining larger material. Not unlike Burgundy in that regard.
Craggy Range found their Te Muna site by conducting secret digging sessions in successful Martinborough vineyards: quite what one can learn at 2am examining the soils by torchlight is debatable, but having learned what was working elsewhere, they looked for land that had the same characters and found it on Te Muna Road, outside town.
In other cases, the land revealed its potential after planting. Mate’s vineyard was intended to simply be a source of further fruit for Kumeu River Chardonnay, but it immediately showed its potential to be a standalone wine, fitting for the piece of land named after the father of such an illustrious winegrowing and making team.
The Calvert vineyard at Felton Road has one of the most interesting examples of human terroir. It has a surface soil of sluicings: fine silts washed down from the hills above by gold miners, hosing the soil in their search for the precious metal, so literally a manmade terroir, though below this surface is a rather older fine loess.
The concept of Terroir is shared by a great many indigenous people, not least Maori. Tangata whenua means people of the land, and the idea that there is an enduring relationship between the gifts of land and those that work the land to harvest the gifts is central to Maori tradition. The Donaldsons at Pegasus Bay have lineage to Ngai Tahu whose people have worked the South Island for hundreds of years before the first European sailed by.
A lot of threads connect the land and its harvest and wine growers are one of the few groups of farmers who still pursue the old goals of a unique expression of soil.