Terroir

This article originally appeared in Growing Today magazine in 2001.

Hot days aren’t unusual in my part of New Zealand. Every summer there are times when it’s so hot that the best I can do is slump into the chair under the big old birch tree and drink iced water while reading a book. I know from experience that if it’s hot round the house, it’ll be even hotter out on the back paddock, and blistering among the olives. Work is futile, destined only to cause sunburn, dehydration and frustration. Before I learned this lesson, I would sometimes set out after lunch to minister to my little truffle trees, only to turn back half way, completely flattened by the heat. It seemed as though the paddock between the house and the truffière concentrated the sun, intensified its power, bleaching the grass and making lizards happy. It was the hottest place on the farm, beyond a shadow of a doubt. An idea formed. Would this be a good place for a small vineyard?

The answer, confirmed by winemaker and wine critic friends, was a resounding yes. There seemed little doubt that I could grow grapes and make wine — perhaps even very good wine. Besides the heat, the paddock is sheltered because it’s in a slight bowl and has the truffière growing to the west. The soil is rich in lime, with good drainage. It is practically frost free, with cold air rolling off the paddock and down a steep gully to the river 30 metres below. It’s not a big paddock. I will not be making a lot of wine, but I’m hoping it will be very good wine, wine that will really reflect the “terroir”.

Terroir is a French word (pronounced “terr- wahr”) that has no direct equivalent in English. It could mean “soil”, or “terrain” or “land”, but French winemakers use it as a shorthand for all the factors that go into making wine from a given vineyard taste the way it does. It’s the total physical and cultural ecology of the vineyard, the interrelationship between the physical factors of soil, sub-soil, drainage, site, climate and microclimate, the vines and their management, and the human cultural factors that go into the making of the wine. To the French, terroir is expressed in the flavour of the wine — the “natural” flavour of the wine. The winemaker aims to allow the wine to express its sense of place; what one American writer has called its “somewhereness”, and the French call “le goût du terroir” (the taste of the terroir).

Recognising a good idea when it sees one, France has now adopted terroir as a concept that can be applied to many things. “Cuisine du terroir” is the trendy new way of describing regional cooking, and “produit du terroir” can apply to just about every kind of food or product imaginable. Taking things a step further, the European Community has begun to recognise this wider use of the term in their Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) scheme. PDO status allows producers to register and protect their regional products — from Jersey Royal potatoes to Parma ham or balsamic vinegar from Modena. All of this is based on the assumption that there is a close link between terroir and taste, and not just in wine terms. It implies that in each area, the terroir is uniquely suited to producing the highest quality apples, pears, cheese, wines or whatever the local speciality is. Terroir, in that sense, suggests that farmers have found the best possible use for the land.

There are lessons in this for growers all over the world. Understanding the terroirs on your property will help you to work with the land as you grow your crops or manage your stock. One field may be right for an orchard, another for grazing. Applying the concept in your marketing will help you to stand out from the crowd, and add real value to your products. On a larger scale, building a regional identity based on the strength of local products will help to strengthen the economy and attract gourmet tourists. Equally, investigating the terroirs in a region can suggest alternative land uses and high value crops that can transform the face of the rural economy. The Southland province of New Zealand is leading the way with its Topoclimate project, a unique attempt to map soil against microclimate, and then to apply that to a huge database of crops. It is already having a major impact on farming in the region. Above all else, using terroir as a concept to inform the way we manage our land is a great way to focus on quality, and that’s something all small growers should be concerned about.

Let’s take a more detailed look at the elements that make up terroir. Underlying everything of course, is geology. The rocks under the land determine the soil that forms on top. The source rock, be it quartz, sandstone or limestone, affects the structure of the soil both in terms of its physical characteristics and its chemical make-up. As the rock weathers under the influence of rain, sun and frost, the particles provide a basis for biology to get going, and a complex community of plants, animals, fungi and bacteria evolves, each characteristic of the site. Being complex stuff, soil can vary a great deal over a short distance, and that can be reflected in the vigour of plant growth — and in the taste of the product.

The physical structure of the soil and sub-soil is equally important. Good drainage relies on water being able to move out of the soil at a reasonable pace, fast enough to avoid waterlogging problems (which can be a killer for many crops), but not so fast as to take water away from the roots before they can use it. Obstructions such as hard-packed layers in the soil or an impervious underlying rock can create problems for plants by restricting root growth, or by causing water to build up in sub-surface ponds.

Other factors, such as the colour of the soil and the amount of stones in it can have a marked impact on plant growth. Dark soils warm up more quickly than light coloured soils, and so can reach critical growing temperatures earlier in the spring, and retain them longer in the autumn. This was brought home to me fairly dramatically when an analysis of soil temperatures in my truffière, where the soil is black, showed that my North Canterbury block was just as warm as one in Hawkes Bay — 500km and 3 degrees of latitude compensated for by the colour of the soil. Stones have an influence on the temperature by warming up during the day, and then releasing their heat during the night. This advantage of stony vineyards has even been used in large colour adverts by a major New Zealand wine company.

Having dealt with the surface and what’s below, the next major influence on plant growth is the shape of the land, and its relationship to the sun. A north-facing slope will be warmer than the flat paddock below it, because the sun’s rays will be nearer to the vertical. The simple truth of this fact can be demonstrated by watching snow melt on hills in winter, or by watching how the grass dries off on the same hills in the summer. It’s also obvious that a north-facing slope will be considerably warmer than one with a southerly aspect. Anyone who has visited Germany and seen the steep vineyards on the banks of the Rhine or Mosel will have seen just how important the lie of the land can be. Those German winemakers are demonstrating the same trick as my truffière, utilising a terroir that’s warmer than you might expect from the raw climate figures for the area.

The shape of the land also affects the movement of air. Hills may shelter crops from damaging winds, or funnel ordinary winds into stiff gales. Cold air will roll down slopes as it cools, and collect in any hollows or behind obstructions, creating frost-prone ponds. That essential shelter belt may also be a perfect frost trap! Windy sites will have different growing conditions to sheltered ones, as people living by the sea can testify, and the effect can vary over a very short distance.

When looking at the effects of weather on the terroir, you have to consider it at a number of levels. Standard measurements of temperature, for example, are made in special white boxes a standard distance above the ground — roughly human height. But the temperature down at ground level can be very different. At soil level, down among the plants, there may be very little air movement, and the effective temperature can be a lot higher than you feel with your head being caressed by a gentle breeze. Similarly, in winter ground frosts are common long before air frost is a problem. And as we’ve seen, the type of soil and lie of the land can have a big influence, as can the kind of vegetation covering it.

Climate is the average of all the weather experienced in a region. This is useful for telling you about average things, but doesn’t tell you much about critical weather events that can determine whether crops are viable or not. A late spring frost can be disastrous for grape growers, damaging flowers and wiping out a crop. An early winter frost can ruin an olive harvest, freezing olives on the tree. Hail is a problem for all orchardists, while heavy rain can erode land, make rivers move their beds, and weaken trees’ hold on the ground. If a gale comes along soon after heavy rain, the toll on trees can be large.

All of the above contributions to terroir are relatively straightforward, amounting to a detailed understanding of each piece of land and its relationship to the weather. There may be a lot of factors to consider, but there’s nothing that can’t be measured, no mysticism involved. But the French concept goes further, and adds humans to the picture. Culture, they say, is as crucial a contributor to the final result as any physical factor. A wine made in Burgundy is not just made from the fruit of a vineyard, it also represents the human input of the winemaker, and perhaps hundreds of years of tradition and experimentation in making wine. A cynic might say that this is their way of defending their wines against upstart New World offerings. An Otago pinot noir may be very good indeed, but it can never be a Burgundy, because it can’t embody all that tradition. It’s a good point, but the Otago vineyard has its own unique terroir, something it can build on and refine (and emphasise in its marketing). That sort of thing is already happening in Hawkes Bay, where a group of winemakers whose vineyards are on the Gimblett Road gravels have formed a marketing association (called Gimblett Gravels, surprisingly enough) to promote their wine through emphasising the benefits of their unique terroir.

The New World advantage, of course, is that we can pick the best of the old and apply it to the best of the new. When a cheese maker with a Dutch heritage begins to make cheese, it’s natural that they should begin with a Maasdam or a Gouda, even if the cows and grass are Kiwi through and through. They are not hamstrung by rules that allow only certain “traditional” methods of production, as are wine and cheese makers in Europe. But there can also be problems. A lack of local knowledge and understanding of crops and products can limit both quality and sales. Traditional methods may help to improve the product, not stifle innovation. In terms of truffles, for example, the average New Zealander wouldn’t know a black truffle if jumped up and bit him on the bum, but in Provence or Perigord, the black truffle is a key part of local cuisine and culture. Towns hold truffle festivals, churches fill for truffle harvest blessings, and restaurants fill with customers eager to experience this seasonal delicacy. The “culture” built around truffles is an integral part of the whole truffle experience, and it’s almost totally lacking here. If there is to be a local market, then growers will need to spend a lot of time educating consumers, and perhaps the clergy. Selling to the French will mean not only delivering a first class product, but appreciating how the truffle fits into their society.

New Zealand is beginning to move more in that direction, as increasing numbers of wine and food festivals around the country demonstrate, but we still have a lot to learn. Last year, I visited the truffle market at Alba, in northern Italy. It was busy (and very smelly), and packed with tourists — mainly wealthy Germans and Swiss willing to spend a small fortune to try the fabled tartufo bianco. Very large sums of money were changing hands for very small bits of fungus. I look forward to the day when wealthy tourists are pouring out of Christchurch airport to pay homage at the Canterbury truffle festival. Not many turn up for the start of the whitebait season!

Terroir is about an intimate understanding of the land and what its best uses are, and I think it could be a key concept in the development of New Zealand agriculture. The patterns of land use you can see as you drive through Europe represent the culmination of thousands of years of farming experience (and quite a lot of EC agricultural policy distortions too, it has to be said). Here, with only a few hundred years of experience, we often lack that detailed paddock-level understanding of the land. It takes brave pioneers to back hunches and try new crops, to take dusty old sheep country and turn it into vineyards or olive groves, generating income, jobs and revitalising whole regions. If we can systematically search for the terroirs throughout the country, as they are doing in Southland, and apply just a small fraction of that knowledge to planting new crops, then the impact on New Zealand’s economy would be dramatic. We might also discover terroirs that are the best in the world for certain crops, much as we already know we can grow Pinus radiata faster than anywhere else, or make Sauvignon blanc taste superb a world away from its French roots.

Beyond land use considerations, applying the concept of terroir to management practises forces growers to think about maximising quality. It can also encourage organic or biodynamic management. One top French winemaker is on record as saying that biodynamic methods are the best way to get the “gout du terroir” in his wines. Randall Grahm, a Californian winemaker and self-confessed “terroirist” reckons that many modern vine management techniques limit the potential quality of the wine. Utilising terroirs is also an approach uniquely suited to small growers. By definition, terroirs tend to be small, and there can be little doubt that it will be a lot easier for the farmer who has 10ha to acquire a detailed understanding of the land’s moods than the farmer with 1,000ha. Small growers are already leading the way in crop innovation. Perhaps it’s time for big farmers to follow.

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