Musings from the Vines - December 2016

Originally published in the Valley Voice - December 2016 edition.

Winter is just around the corner – harvest is finished, wines are stabilizing in their tanks and barrels and the production end of the business is slowing down for a few months. I thought it would be a great opportunity to talk about one of the least well understood terms in the wine world.

Terroir.  I’m pretty sure if you’ve heard a winemaker or winery owner talk about their wines this term has come up – but seldom does anyone really explain what it means and why it is important.

It’s almost synonymous with habitat.  It’s the sum of all environmental factors which affect the grapes.  It includes climate (temperature, rain, sunshine, frost), soils (rocky, gravelly, silty, loamy, clay), geomorphology (slope of the land, mountain, valleys, bodies of water, aspect, elevation), and farming practices. 

The French appellation d'origine contrôlée (AOC) is based entirely on the concept of Terroir – that some areas have growing conditions that enable the production of grapes with unique and desirable characteristics and that areas with similar “terroir” should be grouped together to form regional areas.

The idea of terroir is that grapes (and wine made from those grapes) reflect the place in which they were grown.  All those environmental factors add up to make wine distinctive.  It’s why a Pinot Noir grown in California will taste quite different from one grown in France, or one grown in the Cowichan Valley. 

Cowichan Valley terroir is indeed quite unique.   On a macro scale climate wise we share common elements, but on a more micro scale – every vineyard has it’s own soil types, slopes, aspect, distance to water bodies.  So even within a region there will be subtle differences in wines as each vineyard is unique from the next.

Overall, however, wines from a region have a lot in common.  I participated in a blind tasting of Pinot Noir some time back, which included Pinot Noir wines from all over the world – including a handful of Cowichan Valley wines.  I had a lot of difficulty guessing where most were from, but I had no problem picking out the Cowichan Valley Pinot’s.  There was something very familiar about them – even though they were different, they all shared some common threads.  Acidity, minerality, lower alcohol, and aromas that typical for our region.  In fact our region produces some amazing wines – partially due to the terroir – and partially to the skill of the winemakers. 

Unfortunately our unique terroir is threatened.

Many wineries in the Cowichan Valley, including ours, focus on producing only wines made from grapes from this region, but half the wineries supplement their local grapes with grapes purchased from other regions.  It’s a concern because it messes with the whole concept of terroir.  As you tour through different wineries in the region the common characteristics in the wines should start to scream out at you as you move from winery to winery.  This won’t happen though when the offerings include wines grown in completely different regions.  So the public gets confused as to what the local wines should typically taste like.  This isn’t new – it was a concern before we started our winery over a decade ago.

That’s not the only factor putting our terroir at risk.  New farming practices have been developed which wrap entire vineyard rows in plastic wrap for several weeks in the early spring.  Apart from the environmental cost (while everyone is trying to reduce the use of plastic bags) it effectively puts entire blocks of vineyards into the equivalent of a hot house during the spring.  Why?  It accelerates the plants development – bud break and flowering happen many weeks earlier then naturally occurs.  Grapes have a much hotter spring season resulting in different flavours and higher alcohol.  All of which is great except that the wines no longer reflect our natural terroir, having spent the spring in the rough equivalent of a California holiday. 

From a business standpoint I certainly understand the attraction of getting an early start to the season, picking early before the fall rains and increasing the overall ripeness of grapes.  But something important is lost in the process, a sense of place – that these grapes were grown here – not in some hothouse.  A wine unique to the Cowichan Valley is lost, and something different takes its place.

Personally I love the personality that Cowichan Valley wines convey, and hopefully we’ll still be able to taste them long into the future.