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grapes

The Terroir of Terroir

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The Terroir of Terroir

All this controversy about terroir has got me thinking about the influences of that “je ne sais quoi” that ends up in the bottle. Most wine is incredibly manipulated. It stands to reason that minimal manipulations should reflect the terrain the best, that any inputs would dull the impact of the place expressing through the final product. It’s an argument for natural wine, but just because a wine is natural doesn’t make it a good wine. This is borne out so often in the tasting, alas.

So I’ve preferred those definitions of terroir that alude to a partnership between the vigneron and land, but still find that concept pretty grandiose in practice. While I do see myself in partnership with my land, I also see that the contract isn’t on my terms, and the fine print keeps showing up. Partnership implies a certain give and take. But even the most enlightened farmers I know are giving through human prescribed lenses and taking what they are able. There’s little sense of mystery - the partner isn't actually acknowledged nor credited.

I don’t know how enlightened I am. I’m dogged though, learning from knowledgable old timers, and books, and from my comparatively limited in duration, direct experience of the land. Theoretically it’s coherent. But I suspect that the land is just incredibly generous and tolerant of or amused by my arrogant attempts to “work with it".

Yet some aspects of my relationship to the land are undeniably reflected in the wine. Does my vibration as a grower enter into it? Do my moods, preoccupations, and energies really affect the outcomes? Or are my results merely a question of the physical inputs the vines receive on this particular piece of earth?

Today I was planting Peppermint trees (Agonis flexuosa) along the Caves Road verge. The rain was hammering down, as it has been for months, no let up in sight, resulting in unprecedented surface water in the vineyard (unprecedented in my experience). All that water has to go somewhere. The result is that I crossed two deep flowing creeks, where previously at most I’ve experienced a trickle.

The freshly shoveled dirt smelled the way it looked, red and luscious and deep. I sniffed it greedily, rain splashing everywhere. I was camouflaged in my green raingear, and crouching on my knees, patting a seedling home, when I was startled by a pair of ducks gliding to a touchdown right in front of me plopping into the creek and swimming upstream.

They actually didn’t see me as they swam in tandem against the current, ducking and feeding and quacking to each other. Partners. Could terroir be the partnership between the land and what we do on it? What an arrogant thought. Terroir is the grace of this place, the generosity of all the forces and powers operating here, mostly beyond my ken. Like this creek that appears in the rainy season to house a universe of animals and plants, only to disappear in perfectly adapted dormancy in the dry, it is the only appropriate response to forces and cycles no farmer can hope to manipulate, or understand.

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Cuttings

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Cuttings

There's a breeze out of the North and the sun has prevailed today over our customary winter rains. I am gleaning cuttings from the first Chardonnay prunings, seeking straight, healthy wood amongst what were the new canes from last year's growing season. I've been cutting the bottom of the canes across the bud itself, as instructed by the old timers, marking the top ends with a diagonal cut so that I can easily tell which way is up.

Margaret River has not experienced grape phylloxera (the sap sucking insect that feeds on grapevines, responsible for the plague that destroyed the European wine industry in the late 1800's), and so it is possible to root these cuttings directly, rather than first grafting to rootstock. The cuttings are placed in a sandy nursery where they will form a white tissue called callus, and the roots will grow out of that. These will be transplanted into the new vineyard blocks. However the cuttings taken today will go directly into the ground, as replacement cuttings for some transplants that didn't make it last year. It's one of many ongoing experiments. Callusing occurs in warm conditions and is necessary for root formation. These replacement vines will remain relatively cold in the ground until Spring, and thus will most likely not callus up until quite a bit later. But I can easily shove them into the soft ground now, without digging, whereas planting the rooted cuttings will require considerably more effort. So I'm experimenting to see how well they take.

I'm alone, and taking my time with it, listening to music with my headphones as I wake up muscles that haven't been used for a while. I listen with the volume turned low enough that I can hear the magpie choir and the leaves chuckling in the breeze. There's a lot of work in front of me, and I'm getting together a plan of how to accomplish everything. Seems like just about every time I come up with a big time and effort saving idea though, I end up expending more. As for this experiment, heavy winter rains have drenched the vineyard. When I place a cutting into the ground I'm met with plenty of water. The rains will continue for several months and there’s a risk that these cuttings might rot in the ground. Am I too early?

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The Sorting Table

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The Sorting Table

There were eleven of us bent over the sorting table as the grape bunches hit the destemmer and began their vibrating dance towards the pump. Twenty-two sharp eyes and twenty-two vigilant hands, with one aim - to insure that only perfect grapes made it into the ferment. Our careful handpick assured that a minimum of leaves and foreign material made it to the winery mixed in with the grapes, but the sorting table takes that careful attention to the next level. This is the final chance to discover and remove anything that shouldn’t go into the wine that might have slipped past our scrutiny during the handpick.

We were mainly targeting anything green. Nothing escaped our watchful eyes and quick hands darting in to cull the odd stem that had evaded the destemmer, random petioles, a stray leaf, unripe berry, a snippet of cane. We removed anything but sound ripe grapes. Without foreign material, nothing interferes with the perfect expression of our incredibly healthy Cabernet Sauvignon fruit. It's painstaking work and costly, but the elegant end result makes it well worth it.

After passing across the sorting table, the juice and skins and seeds were then gently pumped into a large open steel fermenter, which had been thoroughly scoured and rinsed and inspected. Over the next several hours the precious liquid gurgled in and rose slowly towards the top. As it did, the faintest of smells greeted my curious sniffs –a clean and unpretentious odor of fresh fruit – not too sweet, not too green, just a simple pure smell. It was the smell of beginnings, the smell of promise, the smell of a miraculous transformation about to commence...

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