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Anson: New Catena Institute study shows the value of terroir

Jane Anson reports on efforts by the Catena Institute to measure terroir in Argentina, and talks about why the concept is so important - from enjoying the wine in your glass to the preservation of great vineyard sites.

‘For there to be a wine future with climate change, we will have to employ science and research to continue to drink these beautiful wines.’

These were the words of Dr Laura Catena, speaking at a seminar this week on the science behind terroir, a follow-up from the study released by the Catena Institute of Wine earlier in 2021 that showed measurable evidence for the existence of terroir in Argentina.

Catena founded the Institute and is also a fourth-generation winemaker at her family’s Bodega Catena Zapata winery.

As someone who has studied wine tasting at the institute of oenology in Bordeaux, and written a book about the subject of terroir in the region, I was predisposed to enjoy this research.

I spent pretty much every Friday afternoon for a year sniffing unidentified vials in an attempt to identify specific molecules or chemical compounds that you find in wine and then work out how to link them with grape, vintage or vineyard conditions.

The Catena Institute study – led by Fernando Buscema and Roy Urvieta, both of whom were speaking at the seminar – went much further than this; analysing the phenolic compounds in Malbec wine to fingerprint not only the growing season and climate but also how specific site and soil characteristics were expressed.

They were able, with a high degree of accuracy, to identify wines from 23 plots from 12 different highly-localised sites in Mendoza – and to correctly identify them independently of the vintage impact.

My role in the seminar was to simply to join the dots between the talks from a range of brilliant scientists, from Benjamin Bois to Kees Van Leeuwen and Patrica Piccoli – namely that the link between site and taste will help consumers seek out wines that suit them, and help draw attention to specific high-quality sites that might be otherwise overlooked.

If this research helps underline the link in the minds of consumers between terroir and excellence, then it will help create a demand for wines that reflect this.

I recommend everyone reads the original study, because you learn so much simply by breaking down and taking apart the methodology that they used.

It shows how knowing the characteristics of a specific site is useful not only for communication but for technical decisions during the growing season and winemaking.

And for the consumer, understanding that there are tangible reasons for wines to taste the way they do is a brilliant way to develop confidence as a taster.

Beyond this, the research just might help us become more aware of the risks of climate change.

If we can prove that certain sites are worth saving, or worth seeking out in wine regions globally – far beyond the same tried and tested French names – then it helps create an economic incentive to preserve these terroirs, giving us a far better chance of passing them on to the next generation.

But what also struck me, as we listened to the talks, was not only how important this research is, but what a terrible job many of us have done in convincing consumers that terroir is a way of not only understanding wine, but of making it accessible.

We’ve got so used to dismissing terroir as unprovable or overly complicated, that we have missed a huge opportunity to get new wine drinkers interested in what it can do to unlock wine’s secrets.

It made me think about natural wines, and how successfully they have connected to new consumers. Terroir wines should tick many of the same boxes in terms of what they’re about, such as authenticity, stripping away layers of marketing, and highlighting winemakers who care about the link between a place where vines grow and its expression in the glass in front of you.

And this makes it clearer why these sites need protecting. It’s in all of our interests to ensure that they are.

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