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Jefford on Monday: Dirt, Time and Terroir

The most significant revolution I’ve seen in the wine world over the last quarter century has nothing to do with micro-oxygenation, 100-point scores or screwcaps.

Vines in volcanic debris

Santorini:Vines in volcanic debris

It’s respect – and particularly the respect given to vineyard soils. When I began writing about wine, Paris’s shredded urban refuse was still being scattered on Champagne’s Grands Crus and Australian viticultural consultants claimed the future lay in the horrible tangle of ‘minimal pruning’. The use of pesticides and herbicides was ubiquitous; and the less time you actually spent labouring your vines, and the more time you passed sitting on a machine or playing with ‘products’ in the winery, the more sophisticated a grower you were.

Nowadays, by contrast, the greatest wine producers tell me that there is little more they can do in the cellar, and all the remaining challenges are out in the vineyard. No one contests the fact that great wine means great grapes – but if terroir is different everywhere in the wine world, then vineyard strategies must be, too. Few growers in Priorat chose Scott-Henry for their Garnacha, and a perfect interplanted sward in Nahe would be a catastrophe in Banyuls.

We have to remember, too, that economics always has the last word, and that sometimes that which is ideal is impossible to attain. “If it wasn’t for herbicide, those vineyards wouldn’t exist,” I was told a little earlier this year. The speaker wasn’t a cynical, subsidy-milking over-producer on the Languedoc plains. It was Jean-Louis Chave, and he was pointing to the steep slopes of St Joseph above his home village of Mauves. Irrigation may indeed be best avoided – but then we wouldn’t be able to enjoy the beautiful Malbecs of Mendoza.

The evident importance of soils has led to many false assumptions about them. Perhaps the biggest of these is that the exact constitution of a soil is primordial as a component of terroir (and the more limestone, the better). That is as nonsensical as saying that the only route to human health and optimal professional achievement is by eating broccoli, yogurt and apricots. Both humans and vines are omnivores, and it’s a balanced diet in a balanced life which matters.

The key element in terroir, in fact, is the complex of factors relating to climate, micro-climate and topography; providing soils are well-drained and not overly nutritious or overly leached, most will keep vines happy. The exact constitution of a soil and sub-soil only becomes of major significance in those still-rare cases where we are able to tease out the great from the good within a very small quality hotspot (like the Côte d’Or or Pauillac). Most of the wine world isn’t there yet.

Another, more recent misunderstanding concerns the age of vineyard soils, and the implication that the older a soil is, the better. Producers in Australia’s Heathcote region, for example, claim that it is their 500-million-year-old “Cambrian soil” which makes local Shiraz so distinctive. Heathcote’s soil does indeed seem propitious, and it may contain some materials derived from mother rock of that age. Soil, though, is like biography – it is the account of everything which has happened to the skin of the earth in a particular place until yesterday. No soil is 500 million years old – and given the dramatic changes which even 10,000 years can bring (such as the ability to walk from France to Britain), few soils will have had their present-day constitution for even a fragment of that time.

Nor is age itself a virtue. The Assyrtico-based white wines of Santorini have some of the most pronounced mineral flavours I have ever come across in wine. They grow in soils which can indeed be dated – to just 1614 BC, which was when the volcano which constitutes this island in the Cyclades last exploded, dumping meters of ash and pumice on the rump of the old island.

It may be unsatisfactory for the systematising human mind, but the truth is that every place where wine is grown and made is different and unique, and you cannot write a formula for great terroir. That, in fact, is why respect for prevailing natural conditions and soil health is so important. Only by working to maximise nature’s gifts can we see each wine’s uniqueness. Only in that way, too, will we find the quality hotspots of the future – those places, in other words, where nuances of soil may eventually count.

Jefford on Monday

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Award-winning writer Andrew Jefford's Monday column on Decanter.com

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