Terroir & Lunch with a Famous Winemaker

(Warning: Could be considered a “mansplaining” rant…)

I’m all for the movement towards us understanding how and where our food comes from. Who is with me?

When French winemakers are asked about their wines, they will quickly begin to talk of terroir, as will French cheesemakers and beef farmers. This idea is starting to take hold in Australia, and that is why we are starting to see places of origin on menus in Sydney.

The idea of terroir is fairly simple, and yet has infinite detail, and the devil is definitely in the detail if you want to produce a great wine, or any other product emanating from nature.

Terroir refers to the elements of the environment that contribute to the characteristics of that place. It is the farmer’s/grower’s understanding of how to work within the unique natural environment they inhabit, including soil health and composition, aspect and weather patterns associated with that place.

Terroir explains why your Uncle Jack loves a Cabernet from Coonawarra in South Australia, because this region produces particularly good Cabernet Sauvignon. This also explains why Bordeaux and Burgundy are broken into tiny sub regions: e.g. Chablis, Graves & Saint-Émilion. These are all place names and are famous in part because of the terroir allowing a certain expression of a grape (Burgundy), or a blend of grapes, if you are talking Bordeaux.

Australia has long established itself as a world-beating wine producing nation, and increasingly we see regions being recognised for producing consistently great Pinot (Coal River, Tasmania, Mornington Peninsula, Victoria) or Chardonnay (Margaret River, WA, Bannockburn, Victoria), and I believe this is due to producers deepening an understanding of the nuance of terroir. This takes time and commitment.

We are thankful to Feather and Bone Providore in Marrickville for the amazing work they do in sourcing meat from sustainable farmers like Gundooee Organics, who farm organically and with amazing commitment to the health of the land, with a particular focus on regenerative soil practices. As a consumer we can appreciate this meat through superior taste and vibrancy. And this approach to soil health is a perfect segue to concepts of organic and biodynamic growing.

Burgundy wine producers started to engage organic and biodynamic growing in the 80’s and 90’s with producers like Pascal Merchand as a pioneering spirit. Yes, I get it: it is easy to be cynical in an over-marketed world, where anything and everything can be commodified, including concepts like organics and sustainable production practices.

But I take comfort in the idea that organic and biodynamic practices predate a lot of the ‘modern’ farming and growing practices which can rely heavily on speedy chemical enhancers, which eventually drain soil of any vitality and give us plastic tasting chickens and tomatoes and boring wine. It may be a long draw of the bow, but perhaps we can see the shrinking of GDP growth in first world countries as a symbol of the limited lifespan of a constant-growth mantra. Have the days of the fast-growing tomato and the galloping economic growth models seen their best days?

Maybe in all things we could benefit from having a slower, less-quantity, higher-quality everything.

I think a great, if not slightly comical example, is coffee. Who drinks instant coffee these days? Nescafé was a daily occurrence when I worked for the newspaper in Tauranga in the late 80’s. Compare this with the provenance in the espresso culture of today…

Inversely, to highlight the potential financial benefits of understanding terroir and understanding how best to work with nature, combined of course with some great marketing and French panache, check out the price of those Burgundy wines. They are great (in price and in beauty) in no small part to the fact that some monks, 700 hundred years ago (Clos de Vougeot, 1336, as a rough reference point), realised through highly detailed and noted trial and error, that this part of France was perfect for Pinot Noir, forerunners to the Crus.

Proof of the value of terroir...

We had a great lunch with winemaker Pascal Merchand recently, and what a pleasure. Pascal now works internationally in winemaking, but learnt the trade in Burgundy. He makes wine with Jeff Burch of Howard Park in the Great Southern region of Western Australia. Anyone who thinks of French fine wine and food as a stuffy and bourgeois affair would reconsider after such a lunch. I found Pascal, an internationally renowned winemaker, a pleasant, humble and lovely man. A big thank you to wine distributors Rashleigh & Young and Métisse Restaurant for a great lunch.

How did I end up here with these well dressed wine peeps?