The Soul of the Soil

The Soul of the Soil

Dirty Three Wine is an experiment destined to failure: capturing the entire flavour of Gippsland in a single glass bottle. But it’s an incredibly tasty failure nonetheless.

Terroir is a difficult word. Not only in its pronunciation – “teh-wah” is a safe bet if you can’t get your glottis around the oystery “rr” – but in its definition. There’s not really a direct translation from French to English (the closest literal translation would be ‘soil’, but it also means ‘earth’ in the more cosmic sense of the word), but it pretty fuzzily refers to how a product’s environment transfers into taste.

Trying to figure out what ‘terroir’ really means - and whether you can actually taste it – is what Dirty Three Wines are all about. For winemaker Marcus Satchell and his partner (in every sense) Lisa, Dirty Three is a controlled experiment in understanding how the physical landscape of South Gippsland impacts what’s in a bottle.

So: some ground rules. Marcus has three plots of land that all grow the same grape: Pinot. As much as is humanly possible, he maintains the same growing conditions in each of the vineyards - the trellis’ are the same height, the spacing of the vines is similar, and the leaf coverage is consistent. Then, when the grapes are right, they’re picked and processed in much the same way: naturally fermented using (mostly) wild yeast, barrel aged for about the same time and poured into bottles that are only distinguished by the titles Dirt 1, Dirt 2 or Dirt 3.

The hypothesis is that if terroir didn’t exist, all three wines would taste exactly the same. But obviously they do not. They are similar in some fundamental ways, for sure. But they are each very individual expressions of this thing we call wine.

“You can say, this one’s a bit skinnier, this one’s a bit bonier, this one’s a bit more aromatic,” says Marcus. “It’s the same thing in Burgundy, where you have ten different terroirs in ten different villages, but you can see that thread running through the wine.”

And, it’s this exact phenomenon - that the same grape tastes different, but also similar, dependent on where it’s grown – that sends normal, well-adjusted people down the Wine Nerd rabbit hole.

Aforementioned Wine Nerds call this sort of experiment a ‘horizontal tasting’. Under normal circumstances, the Nerds would gather and try a bunch of different wines from the same year and the same region and the same variety (though you could swap out any of those variables depending on what you were trying to taste).

“I think that that idea of looking at wines horizontally, across a vintage, across a set of vineyards, and being able to see their contrasts, is fascinating,” says Marcus.

And it is. The problem, though, is that the results of horizontal tastings are always slightly skewed, because you’re trying the same variety made by different winemakers, and it’s impossible to tell whether the differences you’re tasting are a result of terroir, or a result of an old drunken winemaker. The winemaker is noise in the data.

"You can’t seperate maker out of it. As much as you’d like to try, it’s impossible. It’s like the artist, or the chef. You’re crafting it. You’re trying to bring out what you think is the best way of expressing that vineyard,” Marcus explains. “It’s like getting three different cuts of steak and cook them all uniquely, and one chef thinks that’ll make them sing. But you go to the next chef and he’ll use a slightly different technique, or a little bit less salt. So the story of terroir only gets told if it’s through the one lens of one winemaker.”

In this instance, that winemaker is a very good one. His story is hugely fun, but given the constraints of this article, the narrative will be attenuated: Marcus grew up in South Gippsland, where he met Lisa after high school. At around 19, he began playing sax with a band called Cranky. They were good. Better than good. They played the Night Cat, the Evelyn, the Punters Club, the Espy and the Lounge in the city. They toured nationally, and, though they weren’t solely responsible for the Fitzroy Funk scene and Melbourne’s Neo-Soul revival, they were the forerunners of better-known bands such as The Cat Empire, Hiatus Kaiyote and The Bamboos.

But, and this may be a surprise, there’s no money in music. I once met MC Hammer. He was selling X-Boxes, for some completely unfathomable reason. Anyway, Lisa had a sensible and comparatively lucrative job as a bank manager, and told Marcus in no uncertain terms it was time for him to get off his arse and make some paper. A friend of his Dad suggests he get into winemaking. Marcus knows next to nothing about wine, let alone that someone made it. But, he drives out to the Yarra and applies for a job at Domaine Chandon anyway. He didn’t get it (why would he get it?) but he was instantly hooked.

“I’d never driven out to the Yarra before, and I’d never driven that road. It was back in the days of Melways, so I had no idea where I was going. I drove into Domaine Chandon and was like, this is cool,” he recalls. “I had this sense that I’ve just gotta come here. It was this weird kind of destiny kind of thing.”

And, with a lot of persistence and a strong dose of scrappy charm, Marcus kept at it, helping out with vintages, getting a proper wine education, and drinking a lot of booze. He and Lisa ended up spending eight years in the Yarra. The advent of children was what called the family back to South Gippsland.

“It was the ocean that drew us home,” explains Lisa.

Winemaking, at the time, wasn’t a big industry in South Gippsland, so Marcus began to cobble together a career. He made wine for the few local wineries, consulted to a few growers, and was generally a Man About Town. And, eventually, it was time for him to go out on his own.

But, at first, he wasn’t really on his own. When Dirty Three was born, Marcus’ mates Cameron McKenzie and Stuart Gregor were partners. But they started getting distracted by a side-hustle, and the Satchell’s bought them out.

“They actually started a small, little gin brand named Four Pillars, and that’s their business. So…” Marcus laughs. “We’re stoked to have complete control over the wines, and now it’s a story about us.”

And, as you’ll recall, a story about the soil. Or the earth. Or, more specifically, about the terroir of South Gippsland.

So back to terroir: the concept is difficult because no-one agrees on what it actually is. Old-school wine guys will tell you it’s the influence of the soil and its mineral composition, and the way they’re drawn up through the roots and into the grapes. For instance, you grow a vine in limestone country, and there’ll be a faint concrete ‘minerality’ in the wine that results.

This sensible and somewhat homeopathic explanation of ‘terroir’ has, however, nowadays been debunked. The plants don’t transport any of the minerals from the ground up into the grape (or subsequently the wine).

“The classic word that people word to describe wine, when it’s got that quite crunchy texture and tastes like you’re licking a stone, ‘minerality’?” say Marcus. “Minerals don’t actually come into wine through the roots. It does not happen. But it’s always been heavily debated.”

But that the soil has an impact is not totally untrue. It’s just complicated. One current working theory is that ‘terroir’ is a quality imparted by the microbiome of a region, a village, a specific vineyard. The taste of any individual terroir is a result the tiny bacterial life that thrives around the plant – in the dirt, around the roots, on the leaves, the skin of the grapes, inside the vascular system of the plant itself – which is constantly excreting nitrogen, eating ammonium, splitting carbon from oxygen and so forth.

“The other side of it is that we know a lot about what’s going on above ground with the growing of plants, but we know very little about what’s going on below ground, and how biology affects uptake of all sorts of things,” Marcus says. “And it’s only just starting to be looked at and researched heavily, because there’ll probably be some really big breakthroughs if we look at the underground growth, which is the core of where it all comes from. We’ve underestimated the impact of that for a long time.”

Thinking about ‘terroir’ – or let’s just say taste – as an interaction between the macro and the micro is, I reckon, a good working model. But once you begin thinking about minuscule, almost invisible influences on the life of a plant, you begin to do your head in.

What, for example, was the impact of that that cold day on the third of November? When it’s raining in Melbourne and 30 percent more people decide to drive to work, does the extra carbon dioxide encourage extra leaf growth in the plant? When a feral rabbit lays a little dookie in the second-from-last row, what does it introduce into the soil? How does the sun’s current rotation and subsequent increase in gamma radiation impact on the density of sugars in grapes? When BA459 goes supernova somewhere in the Large Magellanic Cloud, how do gravitational waves influence palate texture in the finished wine?

I dunno. I’ll never know.

Marcus takes a similar approach: “It’s kinda like God,” he suggests. “You can’t seperate any of the one things out. It’s the soil, it’s the vines, the way the wind blows there, it’s the spacing between the vines, how high the trellis is, and it’s the climate over-riding the whole thing, and after that, it’s the winemaker. And, if you change any one of those things and it’ll change the flavour. Subtly, of course, but it will change the flavour.”

Right. So: terroir equals God. And despite many valiant attempts across the the last 300,000 years, Homo sapiens has not yet been able to control God. But that won’t stop Marcus from trying.

Generally, he’s a low-intervention type of guy. He’ll use as many organic and biodynamic processes as possible; he’s into wild yeasts and natural ferments, but he’ll throw in some sulphur if the wine’s cooking. Basically, he just tries to get out of the way and let the grapes (and God) do their thing.

Not that anyone understands what that thing really is. It’s too big and weird to keep in a single head, so mostly unfathomable that wine might as well happen through magic. But that’s exactly what keeps bringing Marcus and Lisa back, vintage after vintage, trying to identify, to just taste, even faintly, the spark of that magic.

“There is definitely something about wine that is inexplicable. The inner beauty of what happens in that fermentation process… some things are explainable, and lots aren’t,” he says. “It’s probably the main thing that keeps you going every year. If you didn’t have this slightly unknown factor in what was going on, the whimsical factor of what you do, you probably wouldn’t do it. It’d be a whole lot less interesting.”

published in broadsheet