I’m not a philosophical person at all, and consider myself really quite ordinary in thinking. But the philosophical debate of terroir expression touches me. Let me say from the start I believe in it. There are all manner of detailed and thoughtful descriptions that tell us what makes terroir what it is. Some people are very specific, from soils, geology, geography, microclimate, climate, regionality, the role of wild micro-organisms, and the hand and culture of man and society. These may be the factors to weigh up in arguing for or against its existence. I have a much more basic instinctual feel about it. Wines show their provenance, and all the above factors play their part. This is terroir, and it’s consistent. Well in the best defined sites, the best wines, and to me, anyway.
One point is whether terroir will exist in all situations, or is it hidden, lost or obliterated by outside influences, especially the hand of man, or winemaker signature? Many believe terroir is indeed delicate and fragile, and easily lost. I’m not quite so sure. I see wines from the same physical provenance shine through, regardless of vintage, different style interpretations and even a heavy winemaking hand. Sometimes, it requires patience, but eventually terroir comes through and can be identified. I must remind myself, that as a notable winemaker said “not all terroirs are worthy of capturing and expressing”. How true is that, and we tend to focus on terroir, especially with the wines of Burgundy, and the best Pinot Noir growing regions, and the like of the Langhe for Nebbiolo in Barolo and Barbaresco. Of course, claret shows terroir too...
Anyway, enough of this stuff, before I get beyond my comfort zone. There is a set of New Zealand Pinot Noirs that demonstrate terroir to me. From Martinborough, from well-established and well-defined and delineated sites, all made by the same hand. They are of course, Larry McKenna’s Escarpment Vineyard ‘Insight’ Pinot Noirs. Year-in and year-out from 1996, the wines behave remarkably consistently. The latest releases, the 2016s are more approachable than other years, but each label remains the same in expression.
The 2016 Escarpment Martinborough Pinot Noir is the ‘district blend’ combining town fruit with that from Te Muna Valley. It’s probably more winemaker signature, but the wine is always black-fruited and robust in structure. Surely its fruit origins play a role in its taste? From 2016, there is no ‘Pahi’ single vineyard wine. The vineyard so sold. It was always the lightest, the most fragrant and the prettiest. A New Worldy sort of wine. The contrast was the 2016 Escarpment ‘Kiwa’ Martinborough Pinot Noir. This is consistently more Old Worldy in expression with savoury fruit flavours, some dried herbs, maybe a bit of game and cedary lift. Funky, but in the nicest way, and no brettanomyces at all. Then came the explosively rich, succulent and aromatic 2016 Escarpment ‘Te Rehua’ Martinborough Pinot Noir. The boldest and the fruitiest wine with the size and structure to match. Always a favourite and always a winner. Any finally the flagship, the 2016 Escarpment ‘Kupe’ Martinborough Pinot Noir. Always the blackest in colour and fruit expression. The most layered and complex. The one with the most considerable extraction and structure, The greatest potential to be great and the longest-lived. The site must be special. Vines planted in 1999. Close-planted Abel clone, the wine receiving a high percentage of whole bunch, but you wouldn’t know it. It must play a part in the style, but then too, the other wines aren’t shy in it. These wines show terroir. I feel it, and consistently.