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DIGGING DEEPER
Terroir beyond soil series
January 30, 2023 | ELEMENT: barley | editorial | 10 minute read

When the modern era English Sparkling Wine was an even-more-fledgling phenomenon than it is today, a key point that makers and marketers latched onto to establish credibility was that many of the early vineyards shared their soil with Champagne.

Specifically the thick band of chalk formed partially from the calcareous remains of microscopic sea creatures accumulated as limestone at the bottom of the Boréal Sea, and perhaps most iconically manifested today as the so-called White Cliffs of Dover and The North Downs. This shared geology, it was put forward, was responsible for the finesse and elegance of the wine made from grapes grown upon it, whether they be on the chalk of Kent or of the Côte des Blancs.

There’s no question that soil type — its chemical, biological and, critically, physical makeup, is a fundamental contributor to a plant’s terroir. After all, it is soil that dictates the nutrients to which a plant has access, the ease with which it can access them and the level of water retention or stress that plant is able to undergo. And the soil is influenced by both the bedrock and personalised by weathering.

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The Irish inflection

In our own terroir studies of the barley-growing farms and regions of Ireland we have identified the specific ways that three distinct soil types (or series) assert themselves as flavours in distilled spirit. Seafield, a fairly rare coastal type characterised by particular sandiness, gives us a lighter spirit with fruitier, higher-toned notes. Clonroche, a brown, earthy series particular to County Wexford, gives us toastier, maltier flavours, whilst the rich limestone clay of the Elton dominating the centre of the country, offers oily, barnyard and dried fruit character.

But the impact of terroir is far more complex than simply the soil from which a plant is nourished. Champagne is not Kent – yet – it is far further inland, a continental climate, being the same distance south of The White Cliffs as Sheffield is to the north. The distance between Islay and Waterford is 240 miles. For one, greater swings in temperature over the seasons. Another, its topography is as varied as are its subsoils beneath the chalk. Nor is every vineyard alike in its concentration of chalk.

If soil type alone were the great, sole homogeniser of flavour there would be little point in individually harvesting the barley from over 110 different farms, keeping it separate throughout every part of the process from grain to bottle.

But as we have covered last year in our ‘Tale of Two Terroirs’ series, barley grown on two separate farms, even on the same soil series, can vary wildly in the character they draw from their respective terroirs. Hook Head with its intense coastal aspect and near-eerily flat topography, versus lush, hilly, inland Ballymorgan. The former lashed by wind and rain and salt-scarred by the sea, the other sometimes struggling for water in a dry year, protected by the rain shadow of the nearby Blackstairs Mountains. Whilst both undeniably carry the thumbprint of the Elton series in their flavour, their sum-total character is the result of a far more three-dimensional impact of place.

Beneath the soil

Ireland’s bedrock, incidentally, is particularly complex for a relatively small country. Informed initially by plate tectonics bringing two distinct landmasses together — the northern part from an ancient continent called ‘Laurentia’, now preserved as North America, the southern from ‘Gondwana’, now separately Europe, Africa and Australia. As the landmass of Ireland moved north a sea extended across it, during which sedimentary rocks of mudstone and sandstone were formed, and especially limestone — aided by the then-warm waters. (Ireland, at this point, was close to the equator). Looking at a modern geological map of Ireland today, that huge mass of limestone bedrock dominates the centre, extending as far down as Kilkenny and certainly covering many of our farms.

Whereas Wexford has a far more complicated base geology featuring bands of Precambrian metamorphic rocks, Cambrian mudstone sandstone, Ordovician volcanic rock, quartzes, granite, Devonian sandstone, Carboniferous limestone and Permian and Triassic sediment. Almost all (bar Hook Head, on the Hook Peninsular, covered by the same soil type, yet with this endless complexity of bedrock lurking underneath. What does it mean? Another difference in each farm’s unique terroir. What does that mean for flavour? That’s the question.

The ultimate precision of terroir

One of the great joys to be found in the world of wine is through discovering just how different two ostensibly similar bottles can be, purely because of seemingly-miniscule fluctuations of their geography and geology. Remaining in Champagne, it is this fascination that has fuelled the explosion of interest in a new sector of ‘Growers Champagne’ — bottles that put more emphasis on a vineyard than upon a broader generic house style. Some growers drill down to a single time-honoured clos, others to a mere parcel of vines, a lieu-dit, of historic reputation.

It is what makes the tiny appellation of Pomerol, with its slight elevation and intensely thick, claggy, boot-tugging clay more sought-after than nearby appellations whose soil type is ostensibly not dissimilar.

The impact of terroir beyond soil can be seen not only in wine but in numerous drinks besides. Just as the phenomenon of increased altitude on Mendoza Malbec’s quality has become well-established, so there are coffee and tea connoisseurs who can assess in a blind tasting how high up in the hills of South America or Africa or South East Asia a plant has grown. The Norman cider appellation of Cotentin, jutting like a thumb into the English channel, is markedly affected by its coastal conditions by comparison with the more inland, protected appellation of Pays d’Auge.

Although our terroir explorations of the last seven years have revealed an enormous amount, and although our Terroir Specialist, Angelita, uncovers more every week through sensory analysis in the lab, when it comes to barley, we are very much still in the ‘learning phase’.

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Indeed this is what has made our investigation of Irish farms such a thrill. Whilst the quality of barley in South East Ireland has long been remarked upon — the reason we came here in the first place — the ‘cherry on top’ terroirs, the ‘Grand Crus’ if you like, are yet to be established. Interestingly, there’s some historical evidence (besides our own tasting) that Hook Head might prove to be one of them — as long ago as 1837 the Topographical Dictionary of Ireland wrote: ‘in the Hook, a peninsular open entirely to the ocean, and little elevated above its level, the subsoil is of a compact limestone, overspread with a thin layer of vegetable mould: it produces grasses of wonderful luxuriance, and both wheat and barley of superior excellence’. Growing barley on the same latitude as Cambridge has its benefits over the wilds of the Hebrides, not least the longer growing season, warmer climate and richer soils.

Aspect, micro climate, temperature, soil & subsoils, sunlight hours. The factors that distinguish a Puligny-Montrachet from a standard Bourgogne, a Pomerol from a Côtes de Bordeaux, a grower’s Champagne from an English sparkling wine are myriad, and the distinctions between our Irish barley farms will be no different. Soil has been the start, and rightly so. But as we hunt for the Grand Crus of Irish barley, our quest for the flavours of terroir will inevitably take us far deeper still.

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