Wine: Tracking down our terroir

By Jo Burzynska

Jo Burzynska talks to expert Roland Harrison about how soil and landscapes can influence the original character of wine styles.

Black Estate Netherwood Waipara Valley Chardonnay 2013; Bishop's Head Waipara Valley Chenin Blanc 2011; Dancing Water Tier Garden Waipara Valley Scheurebe 2010.
Black Estate Netherwood Waipara Valley Chardonnay 2013; Bishop's Head Waipara Valley Chenin Blanc 2011; Dancing Water Tier Garden Waipara Valley Scheurebe 2010.

"I think we should be identifying the special vineyard places that will pull the whole wine industry up," says Dr Roland Harrison, when I catch up with him in the heart of wine academia at Lincoln University in Canterbury. "But we're so focused on sauvignon blanc, I wonder whether we're missing a trick by not exploring more widely."

As associate professor in oenology and director of the Centre of Viticulture and Oenology at Lincoln University, Harrison's opinion is worth heeding. Especially as he and his team have been unearthing the secrets of what's fuelling the original character of our wine styles by delving deep into the terra incognita under our vines.

In a traditional wine nation like France, grape growers have long recognised the strong impact soil and landscapes have on the quality and style of a wine. In the Burgundy region at least 400 different soil types have been identified, with their influence considered so strong that they're woven into the region's geographical classifications, which extend right down to single plots for the finest wines. However, this is something we're only starting to explore in New Zealand, with Lincoln's investigation of the Canterbury region just one of a handful of studies into our wine-growing land.

"Canterbury represents a unique laboratory in which to explore ideas which underpin the concept of terroir - the notion that the personality of a wine can be uniquely influenced by site, and especially soil characteristics," says Harrison.

So far the study has uncovered that Canterbury most likely possesses the country's most diverse soils of any New Zealand wine region. Its findings have been disseminated among the local wine community and it is hoped this will help winemakers tailor their winemaking to the site and take full advantage of their specific terroir, which would appear to play an important part in shaping the character of the final wine.

"When you taste the wine from the different soils, there are definitely differences between the gravels, clays and limestones," Harrison explains, following a tasting of wines from the different soils at a recent field day in the region. "For me the Waikari limestone wines' tannins were silkier. The best aromatics were in wines off the gravels and those from clay had more depth.

"In Canterbury, we can produce three distinctive pinot noirs from these different soil divisions," he notes. "We've already made our name with distinctive sauvignon blanc, but what we need to do now is find the individual pockets of distinction in individual places.

"Think of Burgundy, a small area with a huge range of wines, where people will buy from a small vineyard plot a wine of distinction," he adds. "Distinction is what people are after."

We have nothing like the detailed system of vineyard classification found in France, which not only delineates areas through their soils and topography, but prescribes what can be planted in these, and how the vines are managed, and wines are made. This could be something New Zealand should start to consider, says Harrison.

"As a research community we should be considering studies into whether the country is ready for vineyard designation," he says. "The counter-argument would be that New Zealand's success has been because it's not been restricted by regulations setting down how things can be done. However, I still feel that in the long term future, we'll have designations to provide information to consumers and to indicate the wines of greatest distinction."


DIVERSITY FROM CANTERBURY

Black Estate Netherwood Waipara Valley Chardonnay 2013 $42
Vines often express their terroir more with age and the ones on the Netherwood vineyard's south-facing sandstone and clay slope are some of the oldest in the region. This is the first chardonnay from the site in a decade, with ripe peach fruit and a rich mealy character, counterpoised by a bright line of citrus and mineral. From blackestate.co.nz.

Bishop's Head Waipara Valley Chenin Blanc 2011 $30
Grown on clay over clay gravels, this is Canterbury's only chenin blanc. It's an impressive example that's concentrated and fresh with grapefruit, lemon and white peach, and undertones of almond and beeswax. From bishopshead.co.nz.

Dancing Water Tier Garden Waipara Valley Scheurebe 2010 $39
Even rarer is the scheurebe variety, with this block in Dancing Water's clay and limestone Tier Garden vineyard possibly the only in the country. It's an intriguing, intense dry wine with notes of fresh grapefruit, white pepper and anise spice. Contact wine@dancingwater.co.nz.


- VIVA

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