“Beauty and Balance - The Razor’s Edge” was a presentation given to the Aromatics Symposium in Nelson, New Zealand by Andrew Caillard MW in February 2010. It explores the origin of terroir, the history of trading Riesling wines and the contemporary Riesling Aesthetic.
Some years ago Robert Joseph, a UK wine opinion maker, cleverly suggested; “If Viognier was a colour, it would be orange.” In the world of oil painting, colours have a degree of permanency and opaqueness. If Riesling was a colour it would be the most clear and transparent. Indeed if painted on a canvas it would reveal the underpainting or the canvas itself. For Riesling is the most transparent of grape varieties; it translates the soils and character of place better than any other variety. The winemaker’s hand is barely noticeable in most fine Rieslings.
The beauty is in the balance
There are many similarities between fine art and fine wine. The creation of something with beauty and balance requires sensibility, intuition and flair. Culture and tradition give context and feeling of place. Science and philosophy are key elements of making something that is lasting and meaningful. Selection of materials, application of medium and interpretation of genre give an indelible signature. These elements combined create a unique voice. For centuries there has been and ongoing argument about the role of the winemaker. The commercial imperatives of selling wine at high prices during the contemporary era have perhaps resulted in the exaggeration of the winemaker’s talent. There is no question that an individual may transcend the mundane, but for many winemakers their skills are over-emphasised and over intellectualised.
Is the winemaker an artist?
The painter and the winemaker, although kindred souls, are normally divorced by the action of process. Painting is made on a canvas, but a wine is made in the vineyard. The possibilities of style, composition and intricacy of painting is infinitesimal. However it is the gesture of the artist that ultimately transcends. It is easy to recognise a Dali or a Gauguin etc. In the world of wine it is perhaps the vineyard that ultimately predestines the quality and character of wine.
In history, few winemakers are ever remembered, but the most famous vineyards endure across several lifetimes. In the case of Riesling Schloss Joahannesberg, Schloss Vollrads and Berkasteler Doktor are etched in memory across centuries.
Or a craftsman?
A piece of furniture or pottery cannot make itself. Yet if left alone grape juice will ferment into wine. Is an artisinal winemaker therefore an oxymoron? The term artisan is used extensively in wine marketing and communications. Perhaps it is vaguely correct, because without intervention, thought and timing, the grapes would not be picked etc.
Or a philosopher?
In Australian the phrase “winemaking philosophy” is frequently used. In many respects fine wine is all about the aesthetic. Certainly consumers have expectations of quality, style, character and context. It is all these points that start a conversation.
Over recent times, I have been assiduously researching the origins of the word terroir. Terroir is commonly interpreted as “the total natural environment of any viticultural site.” It is a theory that is compellingly realised by the Grand Cru, Premier Cru and Village wines of Burgundy.
A few months ago, I was watching OZ Clarke explaining to James May why a vineyard across a road in Burgundy made more expensive wine than its neighbour. The explanation was the controversial but compelling idea of terroir. With a superior “climat” or vineyard site, a grower could in theory command much higher prices for his wines. The commercialisation of terroir has profoundly altered the landscape of the fine wine world. Although steeped in 19th century wine theory , this appropriated wine term has only been used as common wine industry “jargon” for a few decades. The evolution and meaning of terroir is inextricably linked with an increasingly sophisticated and emotion-geared wine industry. Once upon a time fine wine was a drink. Not anymore. The value of wine can be factored back to the value of the vineyard real estate. For buyers terroir-driven fine wine is a bauble of wealth. For sellers it is a way creating of wealth.
I have just read the book “A History and Description of Modern Wine” (1833) by Cyrus Redding, a prominent writer of his day and who not once mentioned the word Terroir in his book. It appears that the term gout de pierre (taste of stone) was more commonplace during these times. By pure coincidence I also came across Culture of the Vine and Wine Making (1860) by Dr Jules Guyot, while investigating the wines of Best’s Great Western. By utter luck, a friend sent me a copy of a lecture on terroir given by Professor Warren Moran, an eminent geographer from New Zealand.
Trawling through the internet and sifting through a multitude of books and papers, it occurred to me that terroir has evolved into something sinister and absurd. Today it is used as an exquisite “weapon of doubt” by marketers of fine wine. Creating uncertainty and differentiation is part of contemporary fine wine competition. It’s vineyard against neighbouring vineyard, France versus the New World and Adelaide Hills versus the Barossa etc. Warm wine growing areas or high alcohol wines are accused of having no terroir. Indeed some ill-informed critics suggest the New World is terroir-less.
Wealth-creation, protection of identity and the development of a wine aristocracy all lie at the heart of terroir. Although I always thought the word derived from the Latin terra (the earth), it appears that its etymology is terreor (To frighten). Territorium (the land surrounding a town) is the source of an agricultural community’s wealth. When one thinks of someone being territorial, it is easy to see that there is a link between the etymology of terrorism and terroir (all those sub-editors are not so stupid after all).
The idea of terroir, therefore, seems to be linked to agrarian reform in France after 1788. Feeding an increasing population and achieving economic growth were major concerns. In 1860 Dr Jules Guyot, one of France’s famous wine boffins wrote a small book called the “Culture of the Vine and Wine Making”. I found an original English translation at Best’s Great Western earlier this year. This book gave instruction to would-be wine growers how to plant a vineyard and make wine. In a pre-amble he asks the question; “What is the wealth of locality and its soil? His theory argued that making high-end agricultural products like wine would create better returns and wealth than growing wheat or farming animals.
A successful wine enterprise would employ more labour resulting in the creation of small businesses; Guyot describes this scenario as “the bread and meat would follow.” He explains “One acre of the Chateau-Lafitte(sic), or the Clos-Vougeot, gives more wealth to the public than one hundred acres of poor wastes, planted with a forest or turned into an ordinary farm. To speak more precisely, in poor soils, the production of bread and meat will not create wealth, whereas wealth will always produce bread and meat.” This pre-mechanisation 19th century idea (a pre cursor to the concept of “adding value”), was called the “colonisation power of land.”
Guyot’s book was standard reference in Australia. Chateau Tahbilk, established in 1860, also has a copy of this edition in its museum.
“A defence of centuries of effort”
By the end of the 19th Century wine adulteration and fraud were common place in France. The introduction of Appellation Controlée laws attempted to establish protection of identity through designating and controlling geographic-based names. The first delimited region was Chateauneuf- du-Pape in 1923. More formal laws were introduced around 1936. However these laws were a protection of a “place of origin” rather than necessarily a protection of quality. Local knowledge and politics have played a hefty part in their construction. During the course of the 20th Century terroir has been historicised, ecologised (Agriculture Raissonée) and romantised.
It has also been politicised; the elevation of Burgundy’s La Grande Rue to a Grand Cru and Bordeaux’s Ch Mouton Rothschild to a First Growth illustrate commercial imperatives rather than necessarily the truth. The St Emilion Classification debacle of recent years shows the strong emotions and fear of losing out linked with the quality of perceived terroirs. (The process of establishing regional boundaries or Geographical Indications in Australia has also resulted in legal challenges).
Remarkably terroir is hardly used in English Language books until the 1980s/1990s. It is mentioned in Warner Allen’s “Natural Red Wines”(1951) and its white sister volume. He specifically defines the term as meaning “the discernable taste of the soil in which the wine was grown” – no implication of terroir as we understand it today. Curiously terroir is not talked about in Wine by Hugh Johnson (1977) or Wine, Grapes, Vines by Jancis Robinson (1986)!
Terroir has evolved into a powerful marketing weapon. Although steeped in the theories of 19th Century France, it has evolved into an ‘invention of difference.” Indeed perhaps it highlights a distinction without a difference? With globalisation and the threat of increased competition in the fine wine space, terroir has become a way to articulate a fiction. There are many wine producers who “use a glorious past or grand history to create a unique and different product of symbolically high standard.”
In Australia, Jeffrey Grosset, suggests that the concept of terroir is not unique to France. He moots the Aboriginal word “Pangkarra” to describe the way locals would interact with the landscape. In Papua New Guinea the pidgin word “Arse Place’ (“the place in which we sit”) shows that most communities have a “sense of place”. These ideas, however, are not only related to identity but also to survival. Terroir, during the 20th Century, has evolved into a much more complex idea, where survival once a starting point is lost to the imperative; “We have to be different in order to sell.”
Identity, when matched with quality, is extraordinarily powerful and transcendent. When a product is characterised by a place, it does not have the same attraction as a product that defines a place or genre. Invariably most of the very great wines of the world are the latter. Chateau Lafite-Rothschild, Chateau Petrus and Domaine de la Romanée Conti are examples. In Australia Grosset Polish Hill does much to define Clare Riesling. In the Rheingau Schloss Johannissberg does much the same.
Riesling - a history of trading
In many respects Riesling translates the soil better than any other grape variety. It is one of the most compelling “wines of place”. Contemporary sources would say that these wines profoundly articulate terroir, yet buyer behaviour suggests that consumers buy on the reputation and skill of the producer rather than vineyard. Although many scientists would argue that flavour cannot be picked up by root systems, there is plenty of anecdotal experience that suggests that one can smell the aromas and taste the flavours of the soil in Riesling. Recently Dr Rowald Hepp from Schloss Vollrads ground two wet stones together in the vineyard. I swear that I could smell the flinty notes in his wine!
The first documented sales of Riesling (in 1435) can be found in the archives of Klosters Eberbach in the Rheingau. While Schloss Johannesberg is associated with the first Botrytis wines of the region (Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese), Schloss Vollrads is the originator of Kabinett.
During Elizabethan times some “Rhenish” wines were imported but they were generally consumed within 18 months because of the problems of storage. Once the wine was off it would be adulterated with spices or turned into vinegar. It was a risk to drink water during these times. Beer and wine was consumed extensively to avoid getting ill.
Not until the advent of bottle and cork, was wine stored in any meaningful long term way. The idea of wine investment and wine collecting only began less than 300 years ago!
During the 1830s Schloss Johannisberger was regarded as “a wine of first class” alongside the wines of Romanee Conti, Lafitte (sic) and South African Constantia! However most Hock and Moselle was considered as young drinking “2nd and 3rd class” wines. Even in those days, observers recognised and acknowledged difference. Cyrus Redding wrote “The German are a distinct class in character from all other wines. They are generous, dry, finely favoured and endure age beyond example. They average about 12.08 per cent of alcohol. They have been supposed to turn acid sooner than other wines, though the reverse is a remarkable fact” He also described Steinberger (Rheingau) as “a very fine growth” ; Oestericher as “lighter than Johannesberger but delicate”; Liebfrauenmilch as “a good wine with fine flavour and body”; Bacharach as “a wine once in high repute” and Whelen and Graach as “both of first quality”.
During the most of Queen Victoria’s reign, German wine was favoured at court and enjoyed great popularity in England during the 19th century.
Starts to go all wrong after 1918
André Simon, the distinguished 20th Century wine critic said “There was a time, before 1914, when one could easily tell with eyes shut and nose wide awake, a Ruwer wine from a Bernkastel or Mittel Mosel wine, or a fortiori from a Rhinegau (sic)or Palatinate wine. However commercial success resulted in significant adulteration; up to 1930 German Wines could contain up to 49% of foreign wines, yet be named according to their 51% share; “This was a new taste for me – sweet Hock a la Sauternes. Leading above all names was Leibfraumilch.” A lot of wine was sourced from Spain. During German Occupation, wine was imported from Alsace and Austria to bolster production. André Simon said “A sickening sweetness fouled most post-war wines (after 1918) and robbed them of their erstwhile individuality” The greatest pre-1945 vintages are regarded as 1893 and 1921. Many of these bottles were identified by their cask number (funder no. or beste fass)
The character of German Riesling changed significantly during the post-war years and the occupation of West Germany by US Forces. This also coincided with the democratisation of wine consumption in the UK. The result was that traditional styles and names were modified or exploited to suit the tastes of a relatively unsophisticated market. This was further exacerbated by the production of new high yielding grape varieties such as Muller Thurgau etc. In Australia Riesling was the generic term used for cheap bag in the box white wines. It was Rhine Riesling that differentiated the true Riesling from other synonym varieties.
Adulteration was rife. In 1964 Public Prosecutor Oberstaatsanwalt Bohr (who was subsequently reprimanded for authorising the wrong labelling of State Domain wines) said “Rhine Wine is not always pure; many German wines contain more water than permitted and wine growers adulterate and mix wines to such an extent, that the criminality is quite significant.”
German Wine Law of 1970, which was based on must weight and open to cheating, further diminished the integrity of German Riesling. The wholesale reduction in vineyards and commercialisation at all quality levels resulted in a loss of identity and consumer confidence. German Rieslings are enjoying something of a renaissance in recent times.
Alsace – history of trading
The wines of the Bas-Rhin were highly regarded during the 18th and 19th centuries. James Busby sourced material from here. During the 1830s Cyrus Redding said “Rischling wine from Strasburgh (sic) is distinguished by a particular bouquet, by strength and durability. It will keep a century. It is diuretic and cold.” The rischling wines were generally considered as second class; “the vine de Paille” based on Tokai, Chasselas etc were more valued. The German occupation of Alsace between 1870 and 1918, however, was disastrous. “Germans took good care, while they were masters of Alsace, that Alsatian wines had no chance to compete with the wines of Germany. When Alsace was freed from occupation in 1918, nobody outside Alsace had ever heard of Riquewihr, Ribeauvillé, Guebwiller etc” The market for Alsatian wine seized up during World War 2. Its traditional markets in Eastern Europe dried up with the descent of the “iron curtain.” Over the last 60 years it has completely re-invented itself as a wine region.
In Australia James Busby listed Rischling in his 1832 collection and it is known that William Macarthur imported some Riesling vines from the Bas-Rhin in 1838. In 1847 Johann Gramp imported some Riesling grapes into the Barossa Valley of South Australia, producing his first vintage in 1850. This variety did well during early 1900s establishing a foothold as Rhine Riesling in the Eden Valley and Clare Valleys. The sale of Clare Riesling (Crouchen)and Hunter River Riesling (Semillon) confused the consumer. This was further exacerbated by the use of Riesling as a generic term for cheap bag in the box white wines.
During the 1970s Riesling was used as a way of describing style, whereas Rhine Riesling was given to the varietal. Although Leo Buring visited Schloss Johannesburg in 1896, the variety did not prosper until contemporary times. The development of Leo Buring Rieslings under the extraordinary detailed eye of John Vickery brought fine Riesling back into vogue during the 1960s and 1970s. Today Grosset and Pewsey Vale lead a strong Riesling renaissance. The variety has prospered at Henty in Victoria and the Great Southern in Western Australia. New Germanic low-alcohol, fruity, mineral styles are emerging.
A history of abuse
History shows that Riesling is an abused, tortured and subjugated soul throughout the 20th Century. Although it articulates place better than any another grape variety politics, scandal, greed and impossible German language have profoundly sidelined the Riesling genre. Over the last thirty years the market has slowly returned. It so often represents great value. Consumers can buy Grand Cru Alsace Riesling, superb Mosel Riesling Kabinett, or Clare and Eden Valley Riesling for under $30. This category has very clear potential. The reputation of the producer is inextricably entangled with its future. The vineyard remains a key factor. The terroir argument seems not to have helped the variety. There is little romance that goes with scent of place.
The aesthetic of Riesling
Aesthetics deals with beauty, art, enjoyment, sensory-emotional values, perception, and matters of taste and sentiment. This form of philosophy is inextricably intertwined with fine wine. Riesling has a very clear contemporary aesthetic. It is extraordinary to thin that the expectations of the 1830s are very similar to those of today. What was ugly yesterday can be beautiful today and vice versa. There seems to be an enduring appreciation of minerality and freshness but also aroma, volume and flavour length. Riesling ultimately is very versatile with food and company. The expectations of today – classic dry or off dry Riesling styles - Examples:
MOSEL – Pale colour. flowery, slatey and delicate with low to moderate alcohol, clear bright acidity. Classic style has a hint of residual sugar.”
RHEINGAU – “Slatey/ flinty/ pearskin, low to moderate alcohol, more powerful and intense(styles ie Trocken through to Spätlese muffle or exaggerate” typicity”)
ALSACE – Stoney/ honey/ flinty notes, moderate alcohol, chalky, more richness, concentration. Grand Cru often riper expressions with muscaty note.
CLARE RIESLING – Lemon curd/ camomile aromas. Moderate to moderate-high alcohol, concentration, indelible acidity and flavour length. Develop toasty/ oilskin aromas and limey richness on the palate.
EDEN VALLEY – Lemon/Lime/ herb/ slatey notes, moderate to moderate-high alcohol, strong acidity. Botrytis character seems to add fruit complexity and richness, although the very best Rieslings do not have this character.
As a buyer or critic one tends to evaluate against the contemporary aesthetic. Individual producers such as Grosset, Trimbach, Zind Humbrecht, JJPrum, Dr Loosen, Schloss Johannsiberg etc transcend the current market because they exemplify the genre.
The future of Riesling
Riesling is ultimately a blurred-transparency on a blank canvas. The variety is once again enjoying recognition among collectors and buyers. In-store ranging and limited restaurant listings however will continue to skew the market. The general consumer remains confused and unclear what Riesling should be – largely because it’s so varied in style and has been commercially trashed in the recent past. A new sweetness scale has been introduced by the International Riesling Foundation to improve informed purchasing decisions. Some producers are already using it on their back labels. Neudorf (Nelson, NZ) and Dopff (Alsace, France) are examples.
In the end however it is not the terroir but the style and values behind the wine (winemaking philosophy, sweetness, environmental, family heritage, reputation and reliability) that will ultimately drive sales. The movement towards organic/ biodynamic/ low input viticulture must be good from an environmental perspective. The emerging interest in lower alcohol (8-11%) Australian Riesling is interesting. Early examples from Pewsey Vale and Lethbridge are impressive.
The poor allocation of points and the lack of empathy for other cultural values that pervades among wine critics is alarming. Critics applaud individuality but assume that taste and received wisdom is homogenous across cultures. Riesling has universal appeal, but styles will enjoy different levels of success across wine markets of the world.
“For men and women are not only themselves; they are also the region in which they were born, the city apartment or the farm in which they learnt to walk, the games they played as children, the old wives’ tales they overheard, the food they ate, the schools they attended, the sports they followed, the poets they read, and God they believed in. It is all these things that have made them what they are, and these are the things that you can’t come to know by hearsay, you can only know them if you have lived them.”
Somerset Maugham “The Razor’s Edge” 1944
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