Bicknell: Terroir is used as a marketing tool

The concept of terroir is often over-stated as a way to sell wines in Burgundy and house style kept quiet according to Yarra Valley winemaker David Bicknell.

David Bicknell, chief winemaker at Oakridge Wines, is cynical about how terroir is used to sell wines

Speaking during the inaugural Pinot Noir Alliance tasting in London yesterday, Bicknell, chief winemaker at Oakridge Wines, said:

“The idea of terroir is often over-stated and we don’t understand what it really is. The concept of house styles isn’t talked about a lot in Burgundy but there are producers making very different styles of wines from the same vineyard and sometimes even the same row of vines.

“Look at Domaine Armand Rousseau and Domain Fourrier in Gevrey-Chambertin – they share vineyards and make wines from the same terroir but their wines taste very different.

“Viticulture and how you handle the fruit effects the final taste so winemakers should drop the schtick about God making the wines. People don’t like to talk about it but house style overrides the concept of terroir.

“If you can’t measure terroir does it exist? It’s the ethereal ghost. I’m a bit cynical about how terroir is used as a marketing opportunity in France. What they do inside the winery is often not spoken about.

“Terroir gets used as a way to sell the wine and doesn’t completely reflect the reality of what goes on inside the winery.

Bicknell went on to explain that New World producers are more transparent in terms of the work they do in the winery to bring the best out of their grapes.

“In the New World we’re a bit obsessed about what goes on in the winery and it’s all part of the experiment of trying to understand site.

“We’re trying to establish a house style and find a winemaking technique that’s consistent with the vineyards we take fruit from. Great wines are all about completeness,” he said.

“Terroir is important and we do see that it has an influence on our wines but we don’t fully understand it yet in the Yarra Valley. We’re trying to fast track the exploration so we don’t have to wait 2,000 years to see the results.

“We’re in the wild west of grape growing here, which is fantastic because you can do what you like and keep moving forward,” he added.

Host of the tasting, Tim Atkin MW, agreed with Bicknall to a certain extent: “It’s rubbish when people say that God makes their wines.

“Pinot Noir needs a lot of decisions, from yeast, to maceration, to pressing to oak type and barrel size – it’s a grape the reflects place but the human element is relevant,” he said.

“Terroir is a very complex subject that we tend to over simplify. The New World has made Burgundy up its game. Winemakers can no longer use terroir as an excuse for bad wines or rot in the vineyard,” he added.

Oakridge Wines was founded in 1978. Its top Pinot Noir, 864, comes from a single block in the Yarra Valley.

The inaugural Pinot Noir Alliance tasting brought together five Pinot Noir producers from all over the world: Albert Bichot in Burundy, Cono Sur in Chile, Villa Maria in New Zealand, La Crema in California and Oakridge in Australia.

2 Responses to “Bicknell: Terroir is used as a marketing tool”

  1. Burgpoodle says:

    David Bicknell is saying that the importance of terroir is grossly overstated – while at the same time he is producing wines under a “Local Vineyard Series” range which state the actual name of the vineyard on the label. Furthermore, his top Pinot is harvested from a single-block of vines – presumably because the natural conditions of those specific areas lend some special, unique qualities and characteristics to the wines produced from them. So perfect examples of the influence of … terroir. So, although not subject to legislation in the same way as in Burgundy, this is applying very much the same argument which has just over time become part of the legal fabric of Burgundy. I’m sure Oakridge wines are splendid examples of Yarra Pinot, but just about everyone now accepts that quality wines are a combination of natural and human factors – it is the level and extent of that human intervention which is then up for debate. And by the way, I have never heard any winemaker claim that his or her wines are made by God : that is not at all the same as stating that nature has a significant role to play.

  2. Dan Gatlin says:

    I can agree with “Burgpoodle” on only one point: the reference to God making wine is superfluous and unnecessary. We all need to be mindful that gross exaggerations can damage an otherwise rational argument. However, that said, this is a subject near to my heart. I grew up in the beverage industry and worked as a professional wine buyer, in France and many other places by age 22. I am intimately familiar with the French tradition of terroir. But after now 37 years of grapegrowing and winemaking, I am also deeply involved in the science of wine chemistry and often give presentations about this very subject. We now understand so much more about flavor in wine than we did 40 years ago (or even 10 years ago) that it is hard to fathom how the wine media/sommeliers/educators can continue to make any claim about soil and climate accounting for any aspect of flavor in wine. Flavor in wine is developed by a very complex matrix of over 60,000 polyphenols which are, in turn, developed by solutes (nutrients) deposited into the fruit by the vine through a separate and secondary circulatory system called a phloem which itself originates in the leaves and not the soil. It is very difficult, in a clinical sense, to link any of this activity to a site although cultural techniques have been shown to exert significant influence. This activity is strictly physiological and not some sort of voodoo that only occurs in certain locales. Literally hundreds of variables can influence polyphenol production including, but not limited to, vine density, vineyard orientation, training regimen, trellis design, canopy management, irrigation and/or deficit irrigation, genome variances which can include berry size, skin thickness, phenolic accumulation rates and hundreds of other variables. I submit that the most important variable is also yields, which is properly defined as how many berries (offspring) a “mother” vine is attempting to feed, since the solutes will be divided virtually equally among these recipients. At tne end of the day, Mr. Bicknell is mostly correct, although maybe less articulate than those of us in the science corner would wish.

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