In discussions about inherent wine quality, the word “terroir” is used with the same enthusiasm and lack of precision as the feel-good concepts which pepper the preambles of most modern national constitutions. The belief in the importance of origin enjoys a status similar to religious dogma in the Middle Ages. Despite this, precious little is known about exactly how the connection between place and product manifests itself in the final object. As Andrew Jefford has written, “the relationship between rock, soil and wine flavour is as little understood as it is widely celebrated. There is a long-held European belief is that nothing matters more than the physical medium in which vines are rooted, and growers will often dazzle visitors with their command of exotic geological detail.”
Alex Maltman, a career geologist with a deep personal interest in the connection between soil and wine, has produced a series of peer-reviewed articles showing the lack of any direct, scientifically quantifiable, causal relationship between wine flavours and the growing medium of the vines. The arcane techno-babble around soil types and the role they play in the resultant wine quality looks increasingly like vinous one-upmanship. We know that certain varieties do particularly well on certain sites; we can’t say in what way the clay/schist/marl soils or sub-soils have contributed to the organoleptic outcome.
Maltman is not asserting that vineyard geology is irrelevant. Clearly, this environment determines the water and nutrient supply crucial to vine growth, especially in the absence of irrigation or fertilisation strategies. While this makes the case for “terroir” seem even more tenuous, its abiding claim rests on the empirical evidence of the consistent performance of some varieties in certain designated locations.
Enter the CVC – the Cape Vineyard Classification – an ongoing attempt by a number of brave (some might say foolhardy) South African producers to identify site-specific features that consistently deliver above-average wine quality. For them the problems have been far greater than Alex Maltman’s cold shower of reality. For a start, in the past even certain high performing properties did not necessarily always source the fruit for their top wines from the same vineyards or even from the same appellation. The ongoing success of many of these wines lay in the skill of the winemaker and his ability to ensure that the final cuvée was stylistically representative of a particular house style. What has assisted the CVC has been a change in the regulatory environment identifying a single vineyard as the smallest designated unit of origin. (In the past this was an entire “estate” as defined by legislation written almost half a century ago). The CVC is thus in a position to track the performance of a wine over several vintages from a single block of vines.
This scrutiny has now been taken to the next stage – a blind tasting of at least five vintages from a particular appellation. Panels of three judges (I worked on one of these) were presented with five-wine flights and asked to arrive at a consensus-driven conclusion which had to cover several aspects. Firstly, did the wines have the intensity, gravitas and complexity to make recognition of the site a meaningful quality criterion? Secondly, was there a coherence to all five wines which at least alluded to a common origin? Finally, was the perceptible quality more attributable to site than to winemaking (in other words, to fruit quality rather than, for example, to oak ageing)? While vintage variations were inevitable (and in a way are equally an expression of terroir), was the overall standard driven by site intrinsics?
Here’s the interesting thing: despite the doubts raised by Maltman’s research, the role of place was evident in the outcome – and while I had also been asked to serve as the review panel chairman, my services here were not required. At the end of the tasting the panels had produced an entirely consensus-driven result revealing that two thirds of the designated sites met all the criteria.