Jefford on Monday: Lifting the Kilt on Terroir

I didn’t know what to expect. No, let me rephrase that. Having thought at some depth about this subject, ever since I wrote Peat Smoke and Spirit back in 2004, I did know what to expect -- but this was a good-humoured debate in the London Gastronomy Seminars series, the cream of the capital’s gastronomic elite sat listening, and I had asked for a vote at the end. Although it was the relationship between malt whisky and place which was at issue, all of this has a bearing on the wine world, as you’ll see.

Bruichladdich DuncanMcGillivray

(Picture: Duncan McGillivray, the Bruichladdich distiller, in a field of Islay barley)

Malt whiskies tend to march to market under regional identities: smoky Islays, soft Lowlanders, nuanced Speysiders, heathery Highlanders. Are the locations causal – or coincidental?

The marketers are in no doubt. Those beautiful landscapes are simply too tempting not to use in publicity shots and ad campaigns. It’s irresistible to suggest that their purity of their loch water or the marine freshness of their air is in some way instrumental in the creation of their aromas and flavours. Skye’s Talisker, thus, is ‘Made by the Sea’.

One Islay distillery, Bruichladdich, has gone much further. (Not coincidentally, since it was being directed by ex-wine merchant Mark Reynier; Reynier, though, has now moved on following the distillery’s sale back in July to Rémy-Cointreau.) Bruichladdich not only carries out every stage of the whisky-making process, including ageing and bottling, on the island, but it has even brought about a renaissance in Islay barley-growing. Arguing the case for terroir with customary passion was the great Islay distiller Jim McEwan, Bruichladdich’s production director, and he brought with him what must be Exhibit A for any malt-whisky terroiriste: a bottle of Bruichladdich’s creamy-sweet Islay Barley 2006. “Chalice barley harvested September and distilled November 2006,” you can read on the bottle.  “Grown on the Jubilee field at the place knows as the ‘Headland of the Gallows’ on Dunlossit Farm. Barley tended by farmer Jim Logan.”

A more sceptical point of view was advanced by McKuen’s fellow Ileach, the Lagavulin distillery manager Georgie Crawford, together with her Diageo colleague Dr Nick Morgan, the former Glasgow University history lecturer who is the multi-national’s ‘head of whisky outreach’. The idea that climate, water, barley origin or a proximate ocean could affect the taste of malt whisky was, he said, “an illusion cherished beyond the bounds of reason.” (Official: no pun is intended by the Talisker slogan.)

When it came to the vote, the Diageo view in fact won the day -- though it wasn’t necessarily a defeat for terroir.  Interestingly, Nick Morgan redefined, or perhaps ‘industrialised’, the term for whisky use. 

The barley may come from anywhere; you either use peat in your malt spec or you don’t; the water is irrelevant and the air in which the whisky ages need be no more than Scottish -- but, he said, every malt is still different, and history shows that those differences are impossible to reproduce, even if determined efforts are made to do so just a mile or two away from the original distillery. (He was thinking in part of Peter Mackie’s efforts to make a second Laphroaig at Lagavulin with the now-legendary Malt Mill.)

Whisky terroir, in other words, is place defined at the micro-level: the architecture of a washback, the shape of a still, the interstices of a condenser. The place which matters is the place where it all happens: the equipment.

I thought of all this when I was in Calfornia recently. Winemaker Celia Welch described how she and her ex-husband once tried to make exactly the same wine in exactly the same way, but in two different winery locations. Sure enough, the two finished wines were different from one another, even though fruit source was identical and the winery gestures were as close as they could conceivably be to one another. The micro-environments in which wine comes into being -- the tanks, the pipes, the pumps, the barrels -- had had a huge influence, as well as the way the winemaker interacted with them. “When you make wine,” said Celia, “there are so many things you have to do, and you do them all in your own way”.

Whisky and wine remain very different, of course, and the reason why (to take another example) Stéphane Derenoncourt’s softly elegant  Domaine de l’A from Côtes de Castillon is different from his voluptuous Derenoncourt California wines has far more to do with skies and soils than it does with tanks and pipes. Anyone trying to come up with a comprehensive theory of terroir, though, would do well to bear ‘the Diageo definition’ in mind. The smallest places matter, too.



Jefford on Monday

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