Coonawarra and terroir

When speaking of ‘terroir’, wine people often refer to pinot noir and riesling but not usually cabernet sauvignon. Discussion focuses on Burgundy, Alsace, even Germany, but seldom Bordeaux.

At a masterclass during the annual Coonawarra cabernet celebration weekend, the word didn’t come up until the end, when it was raised almost as an afterthought.

During this semi-blind* tasting of 12 cabernet sauvignon wines – six from Coonawarra, six from other parts of Australia – many aspects were discussed, but most people seemed to agree the wines did not clearly display terroir. In other words, they didn’t shout “Margaret River” or “Eden Valley.”

Indeed, I didn’t identify the Coonawarra wines nor the Margaret River wine, but I did nominate the winery several times, and was later proven correct on most. In other words, the maker’s thumbprint was more readily identifiable than the region.

The wines were all 2005, a not-too-recent vintage that was very successful in all regions. At seven and a half years of age, they should have been starting to drink well and show some bottle-age development (inevitably, some more than others).

I was reminded of a tasting conducted by an English magazine in which equal numbers of Coonawarra and Margaret River cabernets were blind-tasted by British tasters familiar with Australian wine. Asked to identify region, they got 50% right: in other words, no significant result.

This could lead to the observation – some would say criticism – that Australian cabernet is not ‘a wine of terroir’.

This is possibly true, but neither is Bordeaux much of a terroir wine. Few top Left Bank Bordeaux are single-vineyard wines and few have great singularity.

While I’m a great believer in terroir, I’m not convinced it always expresses itself clearly: people talk a lot about terroir when it’s actually not very evident. This is counter-productive because it alienates ordinary wine drinkers who are eager to learn more about wine and can feel left out of esoteric debates.

Some grape varieties express the terroir of the site on which the grapes were grown more clearly than others. Riesling and pinot noir are at the top of my list. Riesling is the most transparent. Cabernet is quite a way down the list.

But, does that matter? Great wine is great wine, and this is always the most important thing; expression of vineyard or region is of lesser importance, although it adds an extra layer of interest and intrigue for those who wish to dig into it.

Cabernet has a strong personality, which tends to dominate other influences. Winemakers – somewhat curiously – often say they have difficulty ‘making cabernet do what they want it to do’. Some succeed in dominating it, as evidenced by the fact that tasters could sometimes identify the maker rather than the region. These wines revealed themselves not by the particular unique character of their grapes (and vineyard site) but by winemaking factors, such as the type of oak used (eg. American versus French), the degree of oaking (one was three years in barrel and two lots of new barrels), degree of herbaceousness, or other factors. Majella, to me, has a somewhat strident fruit character which is quite minty and fairly oaky and, coupled with a bright purple-tinged colour and pointed acidity. This may suggest the wine has been assertively pH corrected. Whatever the cause, it makes it relatively easy to identify.

But the good people of Coonawarra should not wring their hands in despair. Far from it. The fact that 60% of the vines in Coonawarra are cabernet sauvignon is significant. I doubt if there is another region in Australia where one grape variety so dominates plantings. Why is there so little of other varieties? Why is there just 10% of white varieties? It’s not that riesling and chardonnay aren’t good there: they certainly can be. It’s more that the great and somewhat rare terra rossa soil is more valuable for cabernet sauvignon. The other varieties, including shiraz, grow well in many places in Australia, but cabernet is fussy about where it puts down its roots. The best soils of Coonawarra have a special affinity for cabernet.

Conclusion? The fact that cabernet is so strongly identified with Coonawarra is a classic example of terroir.

*Tasters knew the names of all the wines but not the order. All were taken from the current Langtons Classification of Australian Wine.

This article was first published in Gourmet Traveller Wine, February – March 2013.


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