Coonawarrifying Wine - The New Terroirism
Although novelty may be as old as the world itself every one in the wine trade is constantly aware of the importance of reinvention and relabelling. Wine, as a business, is less concerned with what goes on inside the bottle and more with the notion of pushing product. The notion of terroir, for example, has been hijacked by many people who wish to give credibility to their product. Producers, regions, even countries are highly conscious of image and the necessity to talk up individuality in a competitive global market. In Australia, for example, there is a move away from the well-trodden, well-marketed varietal path towards the notion of promoting regionality, the glimmerings of a foundation of an appellation controllee, encouraging quality wines. Each country wishes to establish discrete terroirs, to differentiate between commercial swill and high quality wine, insofar that the region itself, Coonawarra, for instance, due to the particular properties of the soil, is recognised as a denominator of quality, a form of high level branding. Terroir is subtler than this for within a region there is a sub-region, therein a microclimate, a row of vines, some grapes, a grower’s personality, a range of vinification options and a singular cuvee of a wine from a particular vintage. Regionality is thus not the whole truth. Take Chablis, a classic example of a wine that does not need to be marketed by its grape variety. Not all wines from Chablis are, however, made in the same way - one vigneron may use new oak, another stainless steel, another old oak - and taking into the account the variables imposed by nature, weather conditions, the aspect of the slope, the geological composition of the soil, the yeasts, we can see how a multiplicity of different wines of different styles may derive even from one region. Furthermore, there is a dilution of terroir - just as Chablis widened its remit with the creation of Petit Chablis AOC, so Coonawarra as a region began to encompass land outside the fabled Terra Rossa soil. Given how arbitrary this all this it would be useful to discover a form of categorisation that takes into account what the wine actually tastes like. What thus defines the wine is the accumulation and aggregation of innumerable details; what really defines it further is its taste or, more precisely, our taste-response to it. Which leads to the second point: wine needs to be marketed more imaginatively to achieve a truer sense of what is in the bottle. As Jean-Luc Godard observed: “To me style is the outside of content and content the inside of style, like the outside and inside of the human body”. We should never lose track that we cannot define the essence of wine any more than we can describe a person, but we can describe its most obvious characteristics and say how it affects us.
You’ll have noticed an Australian-shaped aching emptiness in the heart of our list. This constitutes an ambivalence to one of the greatest wine-producing countries. On the one hand is an industry dominated by massive global corporations making perfectly acceptable bulk wine for the supermarkets. The provenance of these wines is irrelevant; the price point is king. Then there are the Braggadocio wines, swaggering with bold flavours, flaunting incendiary levels of alcohol. Finally, there are a number of growers who appreciate that the best way of expressing the regional identity of their wines is to work the vines with great understanding and sensitivity and to diminish the number of obtrusive interventions in the winery.
Terroir is not just about the soil but, philosophically speaking, the way the finished wine bears the imprint of the place it came from and the nature of the vintage. Barossa has indeed its individual sense of place and particular style of wine. In Australia, in particular, there is a kind of prevailing determinism whereby winemakers desire correctness and maximise interventions and so manipulate their wine towards a precise profile. Profiling is taking a product of nature and gearing it to what a group of critics thinks or a perception of what consumers might be comfortable drinking. What they call consistency, others might call homogeneity. Besides all sort of chemical interventions it is the use of oak as the final lacquering touch that often tips these wines into sweetened stupefaction. They become so big they are essentially flavour-inert.
Enjoying wine is about tasting the flavours behind the smoke and mirrors, or in this case, beyond the toasty oak and alcohol. It is not that these components are bad per se, just that they are overdone and throw the wine out of balance. The wines of Barossa have natural power and richness; to add more to them is to, in the words of Shakespeare “throw perfume on a violet”. Having said that I think there is generally a more judicious approach to oaking in the New World than previously. It’s also true to say that we have witnessed the emergence of wines from cooler climate regions in Oz (Mornington, Tasmania, Yarra, Eden and Clare Valley, Great Southern, Adelaide etc, where the winemakers realise that aggressive oaking would mask, if not emasculate, the subtler aspects of the fruit in their wines. This is a positive trend. There is still, however, a tendency to look at super-ripeness as a license to layer on the flavours. A Napa Valley producer once told me proudly that his Chardonnay (14.5%) went through malolactic, lees-stirring and a high proportion of barrique. A transformation from nondescript duckling to ugly swan? The Syrah/Shiraz dichotomy has been mulled over by a few New Zealand growers who are trying to come to grips with the grape. They call their wines “Syrah” to (and I quote) “differentiate it from the typical porty Australian shiraz”.
There are too many unnecessary interventions in wine-making. We keep talking about winemaking as an end in itself rather than considering the winemaker as a kind of chef. The really good cook examines the quality of the ingredient and thinks: �How best can I bring out its essential flavour?� The more interventionist, meretricious chef thinks: “That’s a good piece of meat/fish - it can take a really big/complex sauce and a lot of seasoning”. A lot of wines lack charm and balance because they are being “made” to win prizes at international shows. That’s a style issue because it is about creating a wine to conform to “perceived standards”.