A sense of place is key to a wine’s success, but does the terroir line hold true for spirits? Laura Foster investigates whether you can taste the soil when you boil
The idea that terroir can be expressed in spirits is a long-debated one. Smaller brands have been flying the flag for the argument for some time now, from Ocho with its single-estate vintage tequilas, to Vestal Vodka’s regional vintage vodkas made with particular potato varieties.
As Matthew Pauley, assistant professor at the International Centre for Brewing and Distilling at Heriot-Watt University says: ‘Terroir is a hugely valuable asset of the craft movement as they move into a competitive environment with the larger, more established brands.’
It’s no surprise, perhaps, that the bigger brands are now getting in on the act as well. Belvedere has just launched two single-estate rye vodkas from different parts of Poland, and Bruichladdich has been hammering on about terroir for years.
In fact, previous Bruichladdich CEO Mark Reynier expanded his work in this field with the launch of Waterford Distillery in Ireland, where the company is working with 61 different organic and biodynamic farms on 19 different soil types in the biggest ever whisky experiment of its kind.
So what’s the craic? Terroir, in a wine sense, is most commonly seen as the natural environment that a grape vine is grown in, and the influence that has on the wine. It refers to the soil it’s planted in, the climate it grows in, the aspect that the vineyard faces… these all have a significant impact on the resulting wine. The local influence of traditional winemaking techniques also has a part to play.
Could the same not be said for agave, having grown for seven or eight long years before harvest (in the case of Blue Weber)? What about grapes in cognac and grain in whisky?
The problem with spirits is that we’re not just talking about taking a raw ingredient and fermenting and ageing it – there’s the question of distillation too.
‘I have to remind them how destructive the distillation process is,’ says Dr Nick Morgan, head of whisky outreach at Diageo. ‘The distillation process itself is all about destroying many of the characters that you thought would define terroir. I try to remind people of the famous folk song John Barleycorn is Dead, which is an allegory of the beer-making process and is about the murder of John Barleycorn.
‘They describe verse by verse what happens to this poor thing in order to make beer. In distilling we kill him again, if not twice more, so it’s brutal murder. So all that terroir stuff can’t get through the process.’
But is that, perhaps, just the talk of a company that owns a multitude of whisky distilleries in Scotland, which has to source its barley from a wide geographical area, and is aiming to produce consistently flavoured products?
There’s no question that Ocho’s tequilas are different every year and between ranches – and with its agaves growing for seven or eight years before harvest, you can well imagine the impact that the field might have on the plants. But a quick tour around its Mexican distillery will also throw one other factor into sharp relief – the wooden washbacks where fermentation takes place are open.
Ocho’s third generation master distiller Carlos Camarena uses wild fermentation, and the differing yeasts that float in are more than likely to result in differences in flavour of the final product. Is this terroir? Yes, but not entirely.
Much as I love the unique characters that Ocho and Vestal’s products boast – and they are all completely different – you can’t base an argument for terroir being expressed in spirits purely on these products. And the fact that they’re small means the conditions for production may differ from batch to batch.
Enter Belvedere, stage left. Another Polish vodka with big bucks behind it, Belvedere stumbled into the terroir discussion thanks to its now-discontinued product Unfiltered. Made with Dankowskie Diamond rye planted at a farm near to Lake Bartężek in north Poland, it was created specifically to be a vodka with character and flavour. And then the company decided to plant it at a farm in Smogóry Forest, in the west of Poland.
‘We planted elsewhere because we were curious,’ Claire Smith-Warner, former director of spirits education at Moët Hennessy, said at the time of the single-estate launches. ‘We were so excited and impressed by the Dankowskie Diamond Rye. We were trying to get as much out
of the grain, that’s why we tried a different location. But what it actually gave was real differences in flavour.
‘I wanted to believe in the concept of terroir in spirits, and when we were tasting the raw spirits that desire was really powerful, but I needed to test what I wanted to believe,’ says Smith-Warner.
That’s when the company got the University of Lodz involved. The university took the worts from the two locations, and fermented and distilled them in a controlled environment, using the same yeast and the same fermentation length at the same heat, before conducting a sensorial evaluation and a gas chromatography chemical analysis.
‘When you overlay the data between the two sites, you can see that the two vodkas lie at opposite ends of the spectrum,’ says Smith-Warner. ‘Smogóry has higher maillard congeners, resulting in more nutty, meaty characters, while Bartężek has higher lipids and a higher level of esters, resulting in fresher characters such as melon, cucumber and grassy notes.
‘Organoleptically and chemically speaking, they are totally different. What we’ve gathered from working with the University of Lodz has given us that proof.’
So there we have it. There are, however, other hurdles for your distilled product to jump before the liquid hits the bottle.
The raw spirits from the two Belvedere sites are like chalk and cheese, but after rectification and distillation the differences are not quite as pronounced. And that’s before we even get onto the question of ageing – not so relevant for tequila or vodka, admittedly, but a massive thing for cognac or whisky.
Morgan has been up against former Bruichladdich master distiller Jim McEwan in a debate on terroir in whisky before, and had this to say about the Islay distillery that talks about terroir: ‘What Jim did say is that with their Islay-grown barley, any particular character that you can really pin down at new make, to field X and field Y, diminishes rapidly as the spirit matures.
‘That’s interesting, because we know that there are other things that you can do within the guidelines for producing whisky that will produce radically different new-make spirit, but that goes away after about three or four years.’
The debate around terroir in spirits has felt like one of philosophy up until recently. Could you argue, for instance, that the wild yeast that floats into the washbacks at Ocho is a further expression of the terroir of that vintage?
What Belvedere has done is provided some science to back up the argument in favour of the expression of a raw material’s growing site. It’ll be interesting to see where this winding debate goes next.
Laura Foster will be joined by Belvedere’s Mark Tracey and Waterford Distillery’s Neil Conway to continue the debate in Soil, Stills & Spirit at 12pm on Monday 2 July.
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