Pinot Noir terroir: sorting the hyperbole from the hyperventilation

If there is one word that strikes terror into the heart of the average every day wine drinker, it is that obscure Francophilian descriptor of place: terroir.

Seemingly some wines, let’s say Pinot Noirs, have terroir by the bucket load and others have no terroir at all. In some parts of the world it is possible for cheese, olives, tea, coffee – even marijuana – to claim the influence of terroir, yet some terrifically tasty wines are obscurely terroir free.

The difference is human intervention.

If you seize a bunch of grapes and squeeze them into a waiting bottle and whack a cork in it, then the wine will certainly display a true reflection of its terroir. Unless your hands were covered in Deep Heat the only taste you will get from that wine is the pure unadulterated flavor of the stones and soil and weather of that particular valley…as well as grapes fermented by the natural yeast that lay on their skin.

If, on the other hand, you allow humans (called winemakers) to play around with the grapes – carting them to a distant winery covered in sulphur so they don’t oxidise; introducing a synthetic yeast, made by a mad scientist, that’s efficient in reducing sugar to alcohol; jumping up and down on the resultant sludge, and pressing it with a hydraulic ram until it resembles the contents of a very large espresso knock box; then filtering every last skerrick from it, before putting it in an oak barrel which came from trees that grew thousands of kilometres away – then you can expect much of the said hillside flavor to have been lost.

This is the view of the French who believe terroir to be the pure, unadulterated expression of the vineyard. But then they claim that Cognac has terroir. How can barreled and blended rocket fuel taste like the many hills on which its unrecognisable grapes were grown before distillation?

The French even claim that their insanity inducing drink Absinthe has terroir, based on the place the botanical herbs were grown – I can only taste aniseed and hear fairies.

So have the French taken this whole terroir thing too far?

Well we need to remember that terroir is at the heart of the arcane appellation d’origine controlee (AOC) system, which prescribes where grapes will be grown, what colour fingernail polish you should have on when handpicking them, and whether you need to stand on one leg before turning at the end of the row or not… hence authorising what type of label you can slap on the wine, and what one might expect to charge for it.

There is no branding and marketing system in the world quite as good as the AOC – especially if you are on the right side of the hill in Burgundy or Bordeaux, where the 100 Euro notes grow – there is nothing quite as effective as terroir to help set the ground rules.

Frankly, the French invented the word and they are welcome to it.

It is a far too pretentious a term for blokes and belles from Tasmania (who spend their days in Blundstone boots and Rodd and Gunn puffer jackets and use words like “mate” rather than “monsieur” and finish the day with a Cascade or Boags Draught).

But we do need a word to help our faithful Australian customers understand where our wines were grown – because, after all, that is the whole point.

We’ve moved on from using terms such as Claret and Burgundy, Port and Sherry. We no longer call Aussie bubbles champagne.

So if terroir exists in Australia – which it most certainly does – what should we call it?