Nature or Nurture – Terroir or Technology?

I had a very interesting experience the other day. I attended a tasting hosted by the Australian Wine Research Institute. This is a highly respected body that supplies the infrastructure and skills to give the Australian wine industry the research that keeps it at the forefront of technological and market developments in wine.

The AWRI does good and interesting work in the science of wine, giving greater understanding, more choices and potential to wine makers. I am all for that and of course no one is forced to use what they do, but I was slightly uncomfortable about the potential of some of the things that I heard.

One of our hosts stated that, “innovation is at the heart of the Australian wine industry.” Obviously there has to be innovation to some degree in any commercial sphere, but some of the things that the AWRI gets up to seem to me incompatible with the traditions of European wine. Indeed, to me they seem potentially at odds with the whole concept of terroir that underpins those European wine traditions.

Obviously there is plenty of research and innovation in the European wine industry, but everything over here appears to have much more emphasis on tradition.

Some of the work I heard about includes developing yeast strains that emphasise specific fruit characters or effect alcohol levels in a wine – either up or down. This seems to me to be a bit more fundamental than the long established use of aromatic yeasts or neutral yeasts and more akin to adding flavouring.

Other work included isolating compounds that lend specific characteristics to wines – such as spiciness or fruitiness. Making it possible to have more or less of such characters gives a far greater and fundamental control over how a wine tastes than ever before. How then can we as an industry claim, as we often do, that wine is made in the vineyard?

All this technology gives the capability to produce what my hosts called “targeted wine styles” – wines that they know certain consumers want. Indeed they told us that part of their work included finding out precisely what sort of wine consumers do want.

We take such technological methods for granted in many things other than wine, but wine is not just any old product. Wine is very traditional and steeped in a culture that has been passed down over hundreds of years.

I am not against technology, I applaud developments in wine and delight in the fact that wine has never been better made than it is now. However, to me wine is rooted in tradition, itself a culmination of the history, geography and conditions in which it is produced and without that it is merely another drink or commodity.

Pretty much all the developments that I have come across before have been about improving the quality of wine, making the process more reliable and the results more predictable. Whereas this technology strikes me as coming close to changing the basics of the recipe.

Almost all developments have changed wine in some way; bottling, oak ageing, filtering, cold fermentation, use of corks or screw caps and so on. I am pretty sure though, that they were all about improving how the wine actually was, making its inherent taste better and brighter – not altering it to suit the palates of the time.

What price terroir if we can make any wine taste of whatever the consumer wants?

6 thoughts on “Nature or Nurture – Terroir or Technology?

  1. a very good question – trust you to not get caught up in the spin!

    It is a difficult line to draw. The use of oak barrels was originally seen very much in this light, although we now accept them. They are ‘technology’ too.

    Taking this to the extreme, this could transform the wine ‘industry’ from an agricultural product to an industrial one in the same way beer and spirits have been transformed.

    From a wine lover’s point of view, this is terrible. Surely we can source whatever styles of wine we seek already, by simply sourcing it from another region, another varietal or using existing winemaking skills? Unfortunately, we do not live in a society that values that choice and culture, and commercial realities are likely to win out. Australian wine makers do not necessarily want us to find the new wine we want from Chile, India or worse, New Zealand. They want to sell Australian wine, so will feel justified in changing their wine to meet the demand.

    Sad.

    Not as sad as discovering that I’m not on you “some great links” list though

    • Thanks for the comments, it was an oversight that you were not in the links – you are now.

      I agree with what you say – I am not against technology – I love progress. However there is a difference between making wine better and making wine different!

  2. maybe its the different way to approach to the topic wine between the new and old world. on one side the: hey lets do it we can sell it and change it as we like mentality – on the other side the “does it fit to our culture? is it really necessary? – mentality”
    the wine industry is not interested in wine ethics – but terroir wine should be – and should be slow wine. true wine which does not need that “changing” technology.

    thats why “wine industry” and “terroir” does not fit together.

    • Hi Gottfried, my heart agrees with you and I think the wine world should be like that and I like to think it is, but I don’t really think it is. All wines are described as brands nowadays, Château Latour has terroir, but that is part of an industry and there are many more examples. Wine is an industrial process in the true sense of the word, just applied in an artisan way – at its best.

      I thin k there are real differences between Europe and the ‘new world’ but they are getting less different, the values that sell Australian wines are finding their way into everything.

      Perhaps terroir, except in a few specific areas, is dead already, perhaps ripeness changes it and residual sugar and oak and tannin management?

      Thanks for the comment.

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