The concept of Terroir is being widely discussed amongst viticulturalists and winemakers as they seek out the ultimate answers in their quest for great wine. We are fortunate in obtaining permission from Warren Moran, Professor of Geography at the University of New Zealand to publish this paper he presented held at the Michael Fowler Centre, New Zealand. The essay focuses on New Zealand and its experience with Pinot Noir in relation to Terroir. We hope that this paper enlightens you with respect to the complexities of the concept of Terroir.
The French term terroir has entered the lexicon of the New Zealand wine industry as participants, journalists and the buying public has become au fait with the culture of the vine. We have had trouble, however, in coming to terms with the slipperiness of its meaning. French dictionaries list both a narrow meaning that equates terroir to soil, and a broader interpretation similar to that of the English word territory that refers to the natural and human characteristics of a delimited area of land. The two definitions, and the confusion they cause, can be used selectively to make very different arguments about the origins of wine quality (or about policy) - and by those involved in so-called 'New World' wine industries as much as by the French. In this paper I endeavour to offer a firmer grip on the term by spelling out the human dimensions of the development of Pinot Noir regions in New Zealand - not in opposition to the stamp of the physical, but to emphasise the complex interactions between humans and their environments that define wine regions. I hope to dispel any lingering preconceptions about the environmental determinism of wine quality.
There are many physical and environmental variables at play in the growth of the vine and its production of grapes, and much that we do not fully understand about how it transforms a combination of water, minerals and sunlight and its own physiology into grapes of different characteristics. And, of course, different varieties and different clones do this differently. To attribute priority to any particular variable is mistaken. Over the centuries humans have intervened and modified the relationship between the grape and its natural environment continuously - selectively breeding plants, planting them in different climatic conditions and altering radically the physical conditions in which they grow. Vineyard management is only the most visible practice in a much wider set of interventions. And then we make wine - aiming to produce different characteristics and using different techniques in different areas and at different times. To attribute priority to the physical environment over the cultural is also a mistake. The expression of a place and its people in a particular wine is better captured in the term typicité - the distinctiveness of a wine from a particular place/appellation.
In New Zealand we have a very short history of making Pinot Noir, but one in which modern techniques for accumulating, analysing and disseminating information have enabled us to compress into a short period much of the centuries of learning about growing and making wine from this difficult variety. In this extremely brief history, the area in production has gone from 13 hectares in 1965 to 1100 hectares in 2000, with nearly half of that area coming into production since 1997. The area in Pinot Noir is expected to double again to 2036 hectares by 2003.
Pinot Noir is planted as base for méthode traditionnelle as well as for still wine, and this division characterises its regional patterns in New Zealand. Pinot Noir is planted in all our regions, but it is the smaller regions of Central Otago and the Wairarapa (Martinborough) that have to date become recognised as the producers of the premium still wines. Both large corporations and family growers in the country's largest wine producing area, Marlborough, have recently moved to complement the region's traditional base of Pinot Noir for méthode traditionnelle with heavy plantings of new clones for still Pinot. Winemakers in the South Island's two other regions are also turning seriously to Pinot Noir and have won awards for their efforts at different times in the last two decades. Some producers in Auckland and Hawkes Bay have also flirted seriously with still Pinot, although the overwhelming majority of Pinot Noir planted there, and in Gisborne, is for méthode traditionnelle.
The story of Pinot Noir in each of the regions - their character and success, and indeed the qualities of their wines - reflects the different people involved, their particular skills and their approaches to learning and to winemaking. It also reflects a host of historical accidents and windfalls, and has much to do with the relationship between the regional industry and its wider regional economy. Central Otago, for example, has benefited greatly from the cooperative approach taken by its Pinot pioneers and the physical beauty that has attracted others to the region - to make Pinot and to buy it. Martinborough's winemakers have used a combination of scientific research and experimentation to extract the heavenly character of the Martinborough Terrace, whilst they have received all manner of stimulation from the town's close proximity to Wellington. On the other hand, Marlborough's Pinot Noir experience is greatly conditioned by the region's success with Sauvignon Blanc and its growers have taken a more measured approach to Pinot Noir.
New Zealand's experience with Pinot Noir allows me to make four generalisations. First, Pinot Noir will grow and produce fine still wines on a variety of soil types. Second, vignerons have achieved high quality by learning to make the environments they encounter produce high quality wines through active management in the vineyard and a mix of creativity and learning in the winery. Third, if there is a dominant environmental variable in the story, then it is climate rather than soils. But it is climate in its fine-grained details (micro-climates, diurnal range, and sunshine hours and rates of precipitation at particular times in the growth cycle), how they react with different clones, and how they are interpreted and responded to by humans. And finally, that the combination of different soils, climates and human characteristics in different areas is beginning to produce a typicité in New Zealand Pinot Noirs - a distinct regional expression of terroir. It is such combinations that make the Pinot Noir story exciting. Great wines, like most things great, are never the result of a single influence.