There is nothing better than sitting down to a glass of wine that shows a real sense of place, where soil, climate and winemaking skill come together in harmony.

Terroir Talk

19:51:PM 08/02/2012
Ben Thomas

Michel Chapoutier
Michel Chapoutier
For me, there’s nothing better than sitting down to a glass of wine that shows a real sense of place, where soil, climate and winemaking skill come together in harmony.

There’s a French word with no direct translation in English that’s used to describe this: terroir.

It’s a term that’s used a lot to describe wines and it’s a word that sometimes gets lost in translation.

I asked the man who wrote the official definition of terroir, French winemaker Michel Chapoutier, to explain just what terroir is and how he goes about making wines to ensure they fully express their terroir.

As part of a three-man committee for the French institution INAO (Institut National des Appellations d’Origine, a section of the French Ministry of Agriculture), Chapoutier came up with the official definition of terroir a few years ago.

“Terroir is the sum of the soils, climates and humans,” says Chapoutier, before expanding on the three key elements.

He explains that it’s the blend of the geology and the health of the soil, the microclimate where the vines grow and each year’s vintage condition (hot, dry, wet, cold or an ideal mix) along with winemaking talent and knowledge that all weave together to make up terroir.

“A terroir wine is a wine for the mouth and not for the nose,” Chapoutier says.

“You have to emphasise the mouth and the length in mouth – it has to be a crescendo between the nose and the mouth.

“The nose is at the level of appearance and the mouth is at the level of existence, its core.”

With operations in France and Portugal, the search for new terroir led Chapoutier to Australia in 1997, and he has since settled in Victoria, where, he says, the conditions closely mirror those of his homeland, France.

“It is in Victoria that we can find the most soil and climate diversities similar to France and unlikely to be found in Western Australia, New South Wales and South Australia.”

Chapoutier makes his wines using biodynamic principles – chemical-free farming and minimal-intervention winemaking – and is a firm believer that this is the best way for terroir to shine through in the wines.

“Biodynamics does provide a better expression of terroir,” he says.

“All products finishing with ‘ide’ (meaning death), like herbicide, fungicide etc … are bactericide and therefore stop the exchange between the root and the soil.”

When man-made chemicals are used in the vineyard, Chapoutier says “the terroir can only express itself with the climate and the human and not the three (soils, climates, humans) that are necessary”.

In the winery, Chapoutier is adamant that wild-yeast fermentation is another key to his wines realising their terroir.

“For a ‘Grand Vin de Terroir’ we must use indigenous yeast,” he says, which means letting the grapes ferment with the yeasts that are naturally found on the grapes and in the atmosphere around the vineyard and winery.

Cultured yeasts are used by winemakers to influence a wine’s texture or its flavour profile, and it is not uncommon for a mix of wild and cultured yeasts to be used on different parcels of wine before they are blended to create the final wine.

“For the winemaking, the use of indigenous yeast will show the terroir better than the use of selected yeast,” Chapoutier says.

It must be said that there are plenty of winemakers who will argue that the use of chemical sprays on their vines and cultured yeasts still allows terroir to shine brightly in their wines.

However a wine is made, it must ultimately be enjoyable. Here’s a few wines that, to me, display a real sense of place.

Taste This

Wickhams Road Shiraz 2011

(Yarra Valey) $16.99; 12.7%


From a single vineyard just outside Healesville, the Wickhams Road (an offshoot of the excellent Hoddles Creek Estate) wines are released early to market to keep the price in bargain territory. This opened with vibrant, stalky capsicum notes that blew off after an hour in the decanter to reveal lovely perfumed aromas and flavours of cherry, strawberry, pepper, charcuterie and spice. A gorgeous texture, fine tannins and vibrant acid add up to a highly drinkable wine. Time will be kind to it, so stock up before it sells out.

Food match Steak with café de Paris butter and frites

Crisp Wines Valere Riesling 2011

(Yarra Valley) $27; 12%


Off-dry riesling is quickly making a comeback, and this pretty, perfumed wine is another excellent example of why the style is on the rise. Floral and complex, this is loaded with lime, citrus blossom, quince, talc and green apple that is intense and subtle at the same time; it’s balanced, with a happy mix of sweetness and acid. It’s textural and grippy, with impressive length, too.

Food match Prawn cocktail

M. Chapoutier Deschants Saint-Joseph Marsanne 2010

(Saint Joseph, France) $39.95; 13.5%


I was unsure about this wine as I tasted it straight out of the fridge, but it started to sing as it came up to room temperature. It’s full of pretty, charming aromas of honeysuckle, wet slate, white peach and a touch of spice. Similar flavours are replicated on a savoury palate, which comes alive with textural, mineral acidity that’s zippy and balanced. A lovely finish sees lengthy, complex lemon (zest and pith) and stonefruit flavours.

Food match Thai-style grilled chicken

Phi Syrah Grenache 2010

(Heathcote) $35; 14%


From a single vineyard in Heathcote, this venture between the Shelmerdine and De Bortoli families is a split of shiraz and grenache built around the vineyard’s terroir. It immediately shows its Heathcote origins with the ferrous, graphite-like notes so often found in its wines, along with alluring cherry, raspberry, plum, dried herb and meaty aromas and flavours. In the mouth, it’s at once lively, smooth, supple and balanced. Delightful.

Food match Rabbit stew

Love a bargain?

Westend Estate Calabria Private Bin Aglianico 2009

(Riverina) $14.95; 14%


The wineries of the Riverina are doing a great job in planting wines suited to its hot, arid climate. Based on this wine, Aglianico, which originally hails from southern Italy, has taken to the Riverina like a duck to water. It smells of morello cherry, plum and dried herbs, while flavour-wise, it has notes of raspberry, plum, cherry and a hint of marzipan. Bright acidity and grippy tannins shape the wine in the mouth before it finishes with driving cherry, raspberry and nutty flavours.

Food match Grilled lamb rump

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