Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Australian Terroir - Belonging to Country

Samuel de Pury's vineyard, Yarra Valley, drawn c. 1898 by William Barak
© MEN (Musée d'ethnographie, Neuchâtel) Reproduced with permission

(In 2013 I hosted an event at the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival called Terroir = Belonging to Country, where guest speakers discussed Aboriginal notions of belonging and European concepts of terroir in an attempt to gain a deeper understanding of who and where we are. What follows was some background reading.)


In 2003, Clare Valley winemaker Jeffrey Grosset delivered the inaugural New South Wales Wine Press Club lecture in Sydney. His topic was terroir - that evocative French word describing how the country, climate and culture of a vineyard site produces wine that tastes unique. And what Grosset said that day was revolutionary.

‘Terroir is the French word for what some have known in Australia for thousands of years as pangkarra,’ he said. ‘Pangkarra is an Aboriginal word used by the Kaurna people of the Adelaide Plains. It is a word that, like terroir, represents a concept that has no English translation but encompasses the characteristics of a specific place – the climate, sunshine, rain, geology and the soil–water relations. About the closest we can get in English is to refer to the site, but even that doesn’t really cover the major components of terroir - or pangkarra - being the soil and the local topography. In essence, a wine has a certain taste not just because of the variety and vineyard management but because of its place. People who say, “this is my place, I belong here” are more likely to grasp the concept than people who say, “this is my place, this belongs to me”.’

Sitting in the audience, I was blown away by this imaginative leap of thought. Australian grape growers and winemakers have often used Aboriginal words to name their vineyards, wineries, regions and brands, and the use of Aboriginal imagery - from ‘dot paintings’ to Yellow Tail marsupials - is also widespread on wine labels. But here Grosset was travelling beyond the words and the images to engage with an ancient Aboriginal worldview, and by doing so was suggesting a new, profound and unique way of thinking about terroir in Australia.


Aunty Carolyn Briggs understands precisely what Jeffrey Grosset is talking about.

Aunty Carolyn is an elder of the Boon Wurrung people. For thousands of years, since long before white settlers arrived in Victoria in the early 1800s, the Boon Wurrung have been the traditional owners of the country that stretches from Werribee River, just to the west of present-day Melbourne, round the eastern side of Port Phillip Bay, down into the Mornington Peninsula and south to Wilson’s Promontory.

I have come to talk with Aunty Carolyn because the Melbourne suburb I live in is Boon Wurrung country, and I want to find out if there is a word in Boon Wurrung language that might be similar to the Kaurna word, pangkarra.

This to me was the most exciting implication of Grosset’s original lecture: that there must be or must have been dozens of different Aboriginal words that might capture or hint at the meaning or spirit of terroir, because Australia’s vineyards are planted in regions identified with dozens of discrete Aboriginal language groups. In some cases, the old language group areas are remarkably similar to the boundaries of modern-day Geographical Indications: the Yarra Valley wine region GI, for example, is almost the same shape on a map as the country of the Wurundjeri people.

It seems to me that if vineyard owners and winemakers in each region made an effort to find out whether there is or was a local word that comes close to terroir - and then asked the original speakers of that language for permission to use it - it could not only help to foster reconciliation and create a greater joint pride in country, but also help people tell their unique wine stories.

‘Yes!’ says Aunty Carolyn. ‘You’re talking about the diversity of each of Australia’s lands. They are not all the same. And the wines they produce aren’t all the same. They don’t all produce bloody Yellow Tail.’

In Boon Wurrung language, she tells me, the word ‘beek’ means country, as in land. In the same way that the Latin word ‘terra’ means country, as in land. But she doesn’t know of a Boon Wurrung word that comes closer to the spirit of terroir. And she reminds me that, because it was an oral tradition, never written down, much of the Boon Wurrung language is lost.

‘But Boon Wurrung language is similar to the language they speak in the Yarra Valley’ she says. ‘We share a lot of words with the Wurundjeri people.’


Wurundjeri country covers what is now the city of Melbourne and runs upriver into the land where the Yarra Valley vineyards are now planted. One of the most famous Wurundjeri men was William Barak, head man of his tribe, who was born before the white settlement of Melbourne in 1835, and who died a couple of years after Federation.

During his later life, William Barak became great friends with the de Pury family, then - as now - winegrowers in the heart of the Yarra Valley. Around 1898, Barak made a painting of Samuel de Pury’s vineyard - an astounding image of orderly vine rows nestled among plunging, tree-covered hillsides.

Barak’s great, great niece is Professor Joy Murphy Wandin, a respected Wurundjeri elder. When I visit her at her home in Healesville to discuss Jeffrey Grosset’s ideas, she, too, immediately understands. She, too, initially suggests a very similar word, bik: ‘It means country, as in soil’. Then she shakes her head and pauses.

‘That word terroir,’ she says. ‘I reckon it also means belonging to country: where the growth comes from. And that word in our language would be ngooleek. Belonging. Sometimes there’s not a lot of commonality between English and Aboriginal words. But I think this is close.’

Like her great, great uncle, Aunty Joy has had some associations with local wine people: in the early 1990s, Yering Station winery released a wine featuring Barak’s name and story, and came to her to ask for permission and help.

‘I remember when they were developing the Barak’s Bridge label,’ she says. ‘It was a nice connection - apart from the simple courtesy of asking. Being able to acknowledge the original landowners and the history on a wine label was quite special to me. It was as important as if it was my own project. When I saw that Barak label, it gave me a great enormous pride of belonging.’

Imagine if Yarra Valley grape growers and winemakers were to adopt the word ngooleek as their own, unique local expression of the concept of terroir.

‘Oh, it would be so good for my children to be able to buy wine with language on it,’ says Aunty Joy. ‘Wurundjeri language is so beautiful, and it’s not known. Language is the belonging of your culture. It’s about who you are. It’s the voice of who you are. When I speak language, it’s who I am.’


(This is an extract from my book The Future Makers, Australian wines for the 21st century, published 2010)


UPDATE, 20 May 2013: All the way over on the other side of Australia, Margaret River winemaker, Rob Mann of Cape Mentelle, is also engaging with this idea. Read his thoughts about making wine in Wadandi Boodjar - 'ocean country' in Nyungar language - in the latest edition of Mentelle Notes.


  1. Wonderful thoughts Max and yes very true, we can all learn so much from what the Aboriginal population have studied from a few hundred years or more and I only the modern designers or developers would some time take 5 min and listen to what 200 years plus has given that very special part of Australia and what it can teach us all....go forth and keep learning! Cheers

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