June 21, 2023

Thoughts on Authenticity and Terroir

The connection between soil, vine, winemaker, and craftsmanship.

The market is currently dominated by technically produced and standardized wines. This is not surprising, as there is a significant demand for affordable wine, which often necessitates industrial production methods. At the same time, there is a growing desire for authentic wines that emerge from the creative interplay between the vineyard, vine, climate, and the winemaker's craftsmanship. We observe this development in the emerging natural wine scene, which exerts a growing appeal on wine enthusiasts seeking authenticity. However, the age-old term "Naturwein (natural wine)" should be considered beyond the current context, as it now carries a certain controversy and is often associated solely with alternative and unconventional styles. Yet, today, much like centuries ago, there exists a classic, traditional style that is also the result of a nature-centered, artisanal approach and yields authentic, terroir-driven, and clear wines (which we can also trace from our own wine archive dating back to 1934, before modern technology for vineyards and cellars existed). The distinction lies solely in the defined objective and interpretation of the terroir. A matter of style. But no matter what one personally prefers to drink (beauty is famously in the eye of the beholder), this development is undoubtedly remarkable and gratifying! We would like to share our thoughts on this topic here. What does "authenticity" mean and how is it connected to the concept of "terroir"?

 

When it comes to wine, authenticity is of central importance.

Essentially, authenticity can only emerge from the close connection existing between the vineyard, the winemaker, and his craft. Authentic wine tells its own story and reflects the unique character of its terroir (more thoughts on that shortly). It captivates with its natural expressiveness and individuality, qualities that are homogenized and lost in industrially produced wine. However, its authenticity is not only grounded in a tangible origin. Such wine also reveals the beauty of imperfection rooted in nature and the artisanal process - a lively process that preserves the integrity of the vineyards, the wines, and the cultural traditions.

 

The Terroir.

The term "Terroir", originally from French, means "region" or "territory" and typically refers to the complex interplay of soil, microclimate, and terrain. Various factors such as temperature variations between day and night, precipitation, hours of sunlight, slope gradient, soil composition, -color, and -permeability all play a crucial role. Although terroir is most commonly associated exclusively with the soil and the climate, it actually encompasses much more.

If we consider terroir as the combination of soil and climate, the concept is relatively clear. However, terroir also encompasses local farming practices, history, culture, and the handed-down and continually refined craftsmanship. The winemaker influences terroir through a multitude of decisions (soil management, vine care, etc.) that must be made year after year based on weather and growth.

So, when we consider the choice of grape variety, the selection of seedlings (selection massale or clone-selection), and the methods of work (such as whether the vineyard is cultivated with or without a tractor), the term quickly becomes more complex. In a broader sense, terroir also includes the cellar and its unique microflora (yeasts, bacteria, etc.), processing techniques (pressing, fermentation, aging, sulfur use, etc.), as well as the palates of those who accompany the wine during its creation. This makes the human the most important part of terroir. Thus, terroir is not an easily defined term and is often not clearly definable.

 

What role does the soil play in this?

It plays a central role! Healthy soil is the essential foundation on which the quality of the grapes is built. It influences the nutrient supply of the grapevines and supports their growth and development. It allows the vine (roots), mycorrhizal fungi, and microorganisms to work in harmony with the natural environment, thus promoting the development of robust plants and aromatic, nutrient-rich fruit. For these very reasons, we follow the principles of regenerative agriculture. Simply put, this means that in the management of our vineyards, we place special emphasis on the topsoil and follow a finely-tuned strategy that primarily revolves around compost management, cover-crop management, and aeration (plowing, subsoil loosening). Healthy and green topsoil promotes root growth, nutrient absorption, and water retention (1% more humus can store up to 430 m³ more water per hectare) while simultaneously creating a diverse habitat for insects, worms, and microorganisms, allowing them to exert their positive influence on soil fertility. This creates an effective cycle that sustains and continuously regenerates the health of our vineyards!

However, when talking about the concept of terroir we have to talk about the soil in its entirety. The topsoil mentioned above merely covers the underlying geology (bedrock, loess, gravel, etc.) and varies in thickness. Sometimes it is only a few centimeters before one encounters bare rock, such as in our terraces in Steinhaus. The vines use the soil as an anchor and as a nutrient and water reservoir. The invisible root system of the vines, which often has more mass than the vine itself, depends on the properties of the soil at every stage of its life. The soil also influences the microclimate, which is important for the growth of the vines and the ripening of the grapes. Depending on its composition, soils can absorb, reflect, store, and release solar energy to varying degrees. Stony, heavy & dark soils like in Schenkenbichl need more solar energy to warm up, but can also store it longer. Light, bright & dry soils like in Thal, on the other hand, warm up faster but also cool down quickly.

In addition to lively and fertile topsoil containing sufficient essential nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus, the grapevine requires additional minerals that arise directly from the weathering of rocks and vary in size and chemical composition. The three most crucial among them are potassium, magnesium, and calcium. All these elements play a crucial role in various physiological processes that support plant growth, development, and overall health, indirectly influencing the taste of the grapes (through the soil). Which brings us to a very interesting point:

 

Minerality!

We often perceive a "mineral" note, especially in connection with high acidity when we imagine the stony soil on which the grapevines grow. However, the term "minerality" is not that easily explained. Essentially, we must assume, based on this idea, that all wines are mineral, because in the end, every wine reflects the soil on which the vines have grown, and the roots of the vines absorb mineral elements from all soils. Even fine-grained soil like loess consists of weathered rock and should, therefore, bring out even more pronounced minerality, right? After all, one could assume that the fine mineral particles can be more easily absorbed by the plant than large pebbles or rocks. The widespread approach of "stone = mineral = minerality" is simply incorrect. The perception of minerality described above is much more associated with the barrenness of the soil and the related availability of nutrients and water to which the vine reacts. A stressed vine in stony and dry soil produces different grapes than the same vine would under "easier" growth conditions. It is unquestionable that authentic wine reflects the character of the soil on which it grows. However, one thing is clear: minerality is an extremely subjective sensation that is difficult to define (and cannot be scientifically proven to this day). Ultimately, it is precisely this fact that makes the term so special. It describes a feeling that a wine conveys to the drinker and gives it an identity that goes beyond the taste expression of the grape variety. The term "minerality" is an attempt to put into words the terroir that can be felt in the wine. It is fascinating when a wine conjures an image in the mind that aligns with the place where it has grown, and vice versa.

 

What else?

It is also interesting and worth mentioning that the waxy layer of the berries, which develops as the berries soften, partially absorbs the scents of the environment. That, too, is terroir. Whether it is spicy forest air, the smoke of bushfires, or a salty sea breeze, during maceration, that is the contact of juice and skin, which in our case lasts up to 36 hours, this "information" is transferred to the later wines. There is no question that the yeasts also play a crucial role in the release of the berry's aromas. However, a detailed consideration of their influence is beyond the scope of this blog article (this point will be addressed separately). Ultimately, countless factors influence the taste of wine and make it the most fascinating beverage in the world for us for this very reason.

 

From all these thoughts, a clearly defined goal emerges for us:

We aim to produce authentic, timeless, and artisanal wines that taste like Hiedler, the Kamptal, and the vintage. By "authentic," we mean the unique character of the Kamptal and thus our terroir, which we express in our wines. The term terroir, however, encompasses all the specific characteristics that distinguish not only the Kamptal but also us as winemakers. This connection is never replicable and ultimately makes our wines distinctive and personal.