Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Pride of Place Part Two: Terroirfying

*Warning! Contains traces of massive nerd*

I wasn't much good at geography at school. No, let's be accurate: I was completely rubbish at geography. I hated it, I wasn't interested in it and I wasn't overly fussed about the teachers either. So as soon as I could I dropped it like a bad habit. Just like I later dropped Maths, Physics, Chemistry, IT - everything, in fact, that is of any fiscal utility in the 21st Century. Well no one told me...

Anyway, some years and a misspent University experience later I found myself growing ever more interested in fermented grape juice. So much so that I took a job selling the stuff and started working towards the Advanced Level Certificate. Which was when Geography reared its head once more. But unlike the cloud patterns and sea walls and...and...actually I literally can't remember a single other thing that was covered in secondary school Geography, though I'm certain I could draw from memory a picture of the view out of the window...anyway, unlike all of that the geography of wine fascinated me. I was intrigued by this notion that the smallest environmental factor could completely alter the taste of the wine - even if the grape variety was identical. Possibly I was just using it as another excuse to try all those vinous delights, but I loved the idea of grapes grown on a slope ripening in a different way to those grown on the flat, or that some varieties would thrive in heat that would utterly boil others, or that an overcast September could be the margin between triumph and disaster, or that the Pacific fog that rolls across coastal California and cools the grapes in the morning was the difference between forgettable plonk and some of the greatest drinking experiences in the world. Keen, certainly. Sad, possibly. But it was this geography that turned wine from something I enjoyed drinking into something that completely enthralled me, and that I loved, and still love nearly - nearly - as deeply as I love distilled cereal juice.

My last article talked about a tendency for whisky being divided into regions to ape wine, thereby simplifying things both for governing organisations and for the consumer. Except that it doesn't simplify things, because regions don't work for whisky the way they work for wine. Wine needs regions, especially in places where the climate is marginal, like Germany, France and Northern Italy. In simple terms, you couldn't make a big, beefy Australian-style Shiraz in Champagne. It's too cold for Shiraz grapes to ripen. (Also, even if you could they'd call it 'Syrah' and probably wouldn't mention the grape on the label.) Equally you couldn't make the racy, zingy, thrilling style of Riesling mastered in some regions of Germany in California's baking Central Valley. And whilst certain New World Countries are lucky in being able to ripen a wider variety of grapes to perfection, the majority have discovered that particular varieties excel in particular regions. So you have Malbec from Mendoza, Shiraz from Barossa, Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough and Cabernet from Napa. In France, where traditions are most deeply ingrained, they take this a step further by only permitting certain varieties to be grown in certain regions, so that the overall style of Bordeaux or Burgundy or Champagne or Sancerre is not compromised.

But I've made my point on general regions, so before I start talking French Appellation Law and why Flying Saucers are legally
prohibited from landing in Chateauneuf-du-Pape (that's an honest to God fact) I'll draw a line. We did regions in the last post. My reason for this rather long opening is that it demonstrates what will be the key point of this article, and what I believe to be the key difference between wine and whisky (other than the obvious fact that one's made from grapes and is low alcohol and the other is made from grains and is distilled into high alcohol): Great wine is grown. Great whisky, in my opinion, is made.

Let me explain what I mean.

In the year 2000 a mothballed distillery on Islay called Bruichladdich was bought by a firm called Murray McDavid, headed by a man named Mark Reynier. In a statement of intent akin to that made yesterday by Manchester City they brought on an industry legend named Jim McEwan to be Master Distiller, and immediately changed the fortunes of this abandoned distillery, so that a mere 16 years later it is one of the most highly regarded producers of whisky in Scotland. Besides their Bruichladdich expression they also make the heavily peated Port Charlotte and the most heavily peated whisky in the world - the hugely acclaimed, massively sought-after cult classic: The Octomore. I love Bruichladdich Distillery. My father spent his boyhood holidays on Islay and it was the whiskies of that astonishing Island that introduced me to the drink. In fact, I owe them an apology, because they are at the very forefront of demonstrating the potential quality
of NAS whiskies, yet for some unfathomable reason I omitted them entirely from my post on the subject. I can only imagine that I was ill. At any rate, at the core of what Bruichladdich do, and my reason for mentioning them now, is a concept with which Reynier, a London Wine Merchant, was intimately familiar when he purchased and restarted the distillery. Terroir.

Terroir is a French concept. You can tell, because it's written in italics. (Italics are only for French or Latin or making sarcasm apparent to Americans.) Essentially it boils down to the idea of every single environmental and geographical aspect translating into what goes into your glass. So that could be annual rainfall, brightness of sunshine, whether you're on a slope or not, how high up that slope you are, how steep that slope is and which way that slope faces. It covers variety of grape, it covers what the soil is made of and therefore how good drainage is. And each of these individual factors is of such importance to the vine - and subsequently the grapes and wine, that individual terroir can be reflected completely differently by two vineyards separated by the width of a road. You're sceptical. Fine. So was I at first. But I've tasted the proof now, and I've seen it tasted by others. This notion of terroir is why most French wine won't even name the grape on the label - for them, the grape is simply part of the terroir. Taste a good wine, they say, and you are tasting a perfect expression of place. Down, at its most rigorously delineated, to a single plot of a single vineyard.


As the world of wine has expanded so new terroirs have been explored and exploited in countries and regions across the globe. Of course not all wines are single vineyard, just as not all whiskies are single cask. But all great wines are an expression of place. Whether that be a small corner of a Burgundian field, or - in the case of Grange, the finest Australian wine - a blend of fruit from the finest plots across South Australia. And terroir's baby - the
body, soul and mouthpiece of this expression that translates into wine - is the grape.

So, back to whisky. It's probably entirely due to Bruichladdich that the question of whether terroir applies here or not arises. Neil Ridley suggests in a piece in the 2016 Malt Whisky Yearbook that it is the most hotly debated whisky subject, or possibly second only to NAS. He also makes one of the most convincing arguments in its defence that I have come across, citing the high ABV of long-aged Karuizawa, and its potential environmental cause. But everywhere that you look on the whiskynet you will find the sound and fury of those who dismiss terroir as being of no importance or significance. So, as usual, I'll stick my head over the parapet and take a peek.

The Bruichladdich website certainly sounds the part when it comes to talking terroir. They know the areas the barley is grown and are on first name terms with the farmers who grow it. They are specific about the sort of barley they use, and they even split their range into two sections, Scottish Barley and Islay Barley, so that they can get to know their terroirs better. They use three separate water sources, they almost certainly are fussy about their yeast strain - though not nearly as fussy as Four Roses in Kentucky who have five different specific yeast strands - and they use the words 'minimal intervention' on their website. 'Minimal intervention' are good words when it comes to terroir. The French would approve highly and write them in italics. Furthermore, the proof of the pudding, as the saying goes, is in the tasting. And the tasting at Bruichladdich is a very pleasant experience indeed. A highlight of my Whisky Show trip back in October was the opportunity to taste the Bruichladdich Scottish Barley next to the Bruichladdich Islay Barley, and then the same with the Port Charlotte and with the Octomore. Not only were they all whiskies of the very highest quality, but in each case the Scottish Barley expression tasted very distinct from its Islay counterpart. If we move away from Bruichladdich we find another classic example of terroir at Highland Park, whose peat contains high quantities of heather, and whose malt subsequently takes on a distinctly floral, heathery note.
Furthermore it is certainly true that many coastal whiskies - Pulteney, Springbank, Ben Nevis etc - have a saline note to their character, whilst those from inland Speyside reveal none of this. Surely an expression of place.

However - and that's a weighty 'however,' burdened with all the cynicism that working in sales and marketing inevitably scars a person with - whisky doesn't have a terroir the way wine does. It just doesn't. It can't. Wine is an expression of terroir because its talking is done through the fruit. Its flavour comes through the fruit. Sure, it might do some time in oak, but always to compliment and flatter the fruit, never to shout over it. In fact when Australian Chardonnay took the oaking of wine too far back in the late '80s the result was large numbers of people moving away from Chardonnay and oaked wine entirely and ushering in the era of New Zealand's unoaked Sauvignon Blanc. As I said earlier, great wine is grown. Every serious critic and winemaker agrees that the battle is won or lost in the vineyard.

The same cannot be true of whisky. Bruichladdich might cite 'minimal intervention,' but let's look at what that translates to. However admirable their lack of computer screens and electronic wizardry might be, however long and gentle the process is, the fact remains that the barley is ground up into little bits, then has boiling water poured on it three times. The resultant mixture is then put in a big cauldron and boiled, and what comes out the other end is then put in another cauldron and boiled again. The barley-juice, which by this time is about 70% pure alcohol, is then diluted a tiny bit and put in oak casks for at least three years, and generally a chunk more than that before, in most cases, some more water is added and it is put in a bottle. And all that assumes that it hasn't been blasted with peat smoke at the start of the process, which if it is to end up as a Port Charlotte or Octomore it definitively has. Oh, and those oak barrels have normally been full of some other liquid previously, ranging from Bourbon to fortified wine and everything 'in between.' I have witnessed on more than one occasion a wine expert taste a wine blind and correctly name the vineyard of its origin. If anyone who wasn't involved in the actual making of the whisky tried to assert that they could taste the barley in a whisky down to its original field - and I can think of at least one whisky critic who would doubtless claim they could - I would call them a liar to their face. The most important factor in how a wine tastes is the fruit. As everyone involved with whisky knows, the most significant factor in a whisky's final flavour is the cask it has been aged in. The other major factors are the shape of the stills, the cut of the heart of the run, the length of the fermentation and the degree (or lack thereof)
to which the malt has been peated. As noble as Bruichladdich's use of Islay Barley is, the bottom line is that many distilleries are making terrific whisky out of bulk-grown barley from nowhere near their operation.

To attack the case for whisky having terroir even more I could cite two examples that have popped up in tour-guide anecdotes on my pilgrimage. The first concerns Dalwhinnie, who are one of the very few distilleries to use worm tubs to condense their distillate. In 1986 the distillery was being modernised, so the worm tubs were replaced with more conventional shell and tube condensers. This affected the resultant spirit to such a degree that in the 1990s out came the shell-and-tubes and the worm tubs were reinstalled. My second example comes from Clynelish, a magnificent distillery whose spirit is noted for its unusual waxy character. One day during a spirit run it was noticed that this much-prized waxy character had mysteriously vanished. It transpired that the distillery pipes had recently been cleaned, removing a layer of grimey grunge which it turned out had been responsible for that waxy character all along. The same mistake was not remade and today you can enjoy Clynelish in all its viscous, waxy glory. Unless you have been put off by my use of the expression 'grimey grunge.' Don't be - it's honestly brilliant whisky!

The point of those stories is to illustrate the degree to which a whisky's idiosyncracies are put in place in the distillery, not in the barleyfield. And this completely flies in the face of everything that terroir is about. To taste a terroir is to taste the effects of soil, of sun, of slope, of rain, of heat. Sometimes a distillery's whisky doesn't even spend its time maturing in the same region as the distillery. Take Scapa for example - their casks all mature in Speyside these days. That would completely prohibit a French wine from being labelled by appellation or region. On every count it seems to me that the argument against terroir in whisky is the most persuasive.

Except.

There is a very good point on the matter made in the most recent edition of the late Michael Jackson's irreproachable Whisky Companion. It is in the chapter on Macallan, the whisky he prized
above all others. He points out that whisky, like anything else, is the product of what you put into it. Sure, casks, stills and peat are going to be playing their notes loudest, but to suggest on that basis that the barley or yeast strain is unimportant is absurd. Imagine if, putting together an orchestra, you were to say 'well, this piece is mostly about the brass, so let's just give any old bunch of cack-eared morons the violins to have a go at - you'll barely hear them and they'll probably be cheaper.' The result, inevitably, will be a poorer concert, just as lack of attention to detail on barley or water or yeast could be the difference between a very good whisky and an exceptional one. And that difference will not go unnoticed - nor will the distilleries who seek to achieve it.

Secondly, whilst it may not be a product of terroir the way that wine is, what is whisky if not an expression of place? If it wasn't an expression of place people wouldn't pay so much more for Single Malts than they do for blends. They wouldn't champion their favourite distilleries and there wouldn't be the gulf in style and character that there is from country to country. If I buy a whisky I expect it to reflect that place. Tasting a Glenmorangie I want that clean, lightness of character that come from those gorgeous, tall, elegant stills. I want to taste the heather of Highland Park or the thunderous peat of Ardbeg. I want the salt of Springbank, I want the huge, chunky body of Mortlach. I want the massive fruitcake of my beloved Aberlour A'Bunadh. If I am buying a Single Malt, I'm not just investing in a whisky, I'm investing in a place. A place expressed through cask, certainly, and where those casks mature. And through great copper machines, and the hands and eyes of the men and women running it. But also through water, through yeast and through barley. Everything coming together in the perfect expression of a single place. Terroir is the wrong word. It belongs to wine, to grapes, to sun and wind and dirt and water. But that sentiment, that idea of expressing a place through every conceivable factor - there is no doubt in my mind whatsoever that that applies to whisky too.

So we need a new word. Something good and Gaelic perhaps. I don't have any Gaelic, so maybe someone else can come up with one. Only when you do, don't write it in italics. You're better than that.

Cheers!  


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