Terroir

An endorsement for a viticultural region

Terroir is a much discussed term with a wealth of interpretations. On the positive side, the wines offer regional and often vineyard specific typicity and here winemakers strive to move away from the one-dimensional, fabricated wines. It can, on the other hand however, have negative connotations, when terroir is used as an excuse to justify the taste and style of a particular wine.

A picture shows a landscape in Weinviertel
© AWMB / Armin Faber

Terroir may certainly be detectable with all senses, but it is only scientifically measurable in part. It reflects a synthesis of climate, soil and wine, and it is often a great pleasure to talk about this special uniqueness in the wine's origin. It should however not be forgotten, that long before the analysis of the grape sugar levels (Germanic understanding) in Austria, it was far more relevant to know the origin of the wines (Roman understanding). The Emperor of the time thus drank a variety of wines from a choice of different wine-growing regions, and not a typically Austrian wine. After all, the Monarchy was the third largest wine producing nation in the world. Nowadays, the comparatively smaller Austrian wine market once again reflects and recognizes this diversity through the DAC concept, the idea of regional typicity is enjoying a welcome renaissance.

The change in the taste and the development of modern winemaking technology has led to wines in international comparison as being perceived as interchangeable and difficult to identify as coming from a specifitc wine-producing region. Winemakers have to be versatile, and be prepared to take on many roles of vegetation scientists, Geologists, biochemists, have communication skills that rival an Ambassador of applied geo-ecology.

What exactly is terroir?

Briefly, it includes the synthesis of location (altitude, aspect and elevation to the sun, morphological position), climate (macro and mesoclimate of the region to the microclimate of individual vines and grapes), soil (physical, chemical and biological components). Added to this comes the choice of variety (single varietal, mixture of differing varieties, indigenous varieties, international varieties ...), the vineyard management (vine training, plant density, number of vines, age of vines, and yield..) coupled with cellar management techniques, or the chosen vinification and maturation of the wine.

What can diminish the value of terroir?

The identity thieves and those guilty of one dimensional wines, that are unnecessarily capitalizing their wines. In recent years, the method of must concentration by reverse osmosis, coupled with the influence of yeast aromas, flavours and enzymes has been employed to conceal the wine's origin. However, excessive use of fertilizers and intensive irrigation of the vineyards can also have a negative impact. Technology and tradition should be allowed to complement each other, and not oppose each other, as in many other areas, the considered, measured and rational use of techniques available can be highly beneficial.

This principle should also apply to the "flying winemakers" who spread their knowledge received from the wine colleges and universities of the world and gain international experience in many wine countries. The main goal, however, should remain making terroir the main aspect of production. Likewise, it is vital to increase the knowledge of the basics, and look at the stone   make up and soil structures of the vineyards along with the local features, and so on. The vines should be cultivated where the grapes perform best, even if the vineyard is comparatively difficult to manage. Increased hard hand labour can often be regarded as a form of landscape conservation. If all this applies, then the foundation is laid for a regional-style of wine that reflects the locality, the vintage and the winemaker. Terroir demands high quality that contributes to the identity and distinctive taste of the product, but also contributes to its individuality and recognition.

Much theory, yet what the actual conditions for Austrian terroir wines?

First of all, let us consider the geographical and geological conditions. In the Wachau region, for example, the steep slopes with dry stone wall terraces allow a unique fauna and flora to flourish, and it is no surprise that the Steinfeder and Smaragd, the feather-light grass and lizard icons respectively, have become synonymous with the great wines of the Wachau. Similarly in Kamptal, where the Heiligenstein with its sunny, south-facing vineyards on crystalline base rock Bohemian Massif, partly on Perm sandstone, shale and limestone. The landscape in the Kremstal with its deep loess soils, as well as at Wagram, the jutting against the inclines of the Weinviertel is different. Burgenland again offers a fine contrast between the predominantly chalk based, steep slopes of the Leithaberg and the salty lakes and sandy soils on the more easterly Seewinkel, and also a different soil base in Eisenberg in southern Burgenland. There are unique layers of basalt in the Styrian town of Klöch, as well as limestone in the Südsteiermark.

As far as the climatic conditions in Austria's wine regions are concerned, there are strong differences between the Northeast and Southeast. In the former, there is a rather dry, and warm to arid partially humid northeast-Pannonian climate, and in the Southeast, by a warm climate with a little more humidity. It is the large temperature differences between warm days and cool nights that contribute towards the aromatic intensity of the grapes. A sunny and warm autumn, thus extending the growing season of the vines so the grapes may achieve sufficient sugar ripeness, coupled with balanced acidity and natural tannins obtaining the ideal physiological maturity.

The third terroir factor is marked by the wealth of diversity in the grape varieties. It is the indigenous grape varieties which are ideal in successfully expressing the typical regional characteristics. Above all, Grüner Veltliner, but also the Neuburger or Roter Veltliner and Zierfandler and the Rotgipfler in the Thermenregion, where the red varieties of Blaufränkisch and Zweigelt, and also St. Laurent and Blauer Portugieser - all of them matchless examples of the idea of terroir.

Austria has the ability to produce some exceptional terroir wines, as all of the geographical, climatic, geological, soil and amelographic knowledge is available, and this is demonstrated by many superb examples.