The World of Fine Wine
The Chicken Or The Egg -- Terroir in Bordeaux and Burgundy
The revelation of terroir in two of France’s greatest wine regions is different in many ways. But François Mauss argues that Bordeaux certainly has its share of special sites, even if they are less well defined and more recent than those in Burgundy, and that more are still being discovered today.
Of all wine topics, the most controversial is surely the notion of terroir – from the definition of the word itself to the role it plays in winemaking. Never mind the expert opinions of soil scientists. The views expressed here are those of a wine enthusiast trying, as best as he can, to understand a concept that is accepted as axiomatic by some and dismissed, even ridiculed, by others.
Rather too hastily, perhaps, people these days tend to classify wines into basic types – “technological wines” and “terroir wines.” So-called technological wines are mainly the product of tank fermentation and cellaring processes in which dozens of variables are manipulated by cold-hearted enologists and technicians, using chemical and mechanical means that would make a purist weep. Many of these wines play down the overly obvious effects of the vintage so as to offer a style of wine that remains as consistent as possible from year to year. It’s a gross over-simplification, of course, but many would say that technological wines are synonymous with New World wines.
Terroir wines, by contrast, are held up as the product of the vineyard rather than the wine cellar. Manipulative techniques in the course of the fermentation and maturation are kept to a minimum. These wines make no attempt to downplay the effects of the vintage for the sake of consistency, instead making the most of whatever nature has to give.
One of the crucial questions arising from this (often false) dichotomy is, does the terroir “make” the winegrower, or is the winegrower in fact the “inventor” of the terroir?
A symbiosis between man and nature
It is generally agreed that the term “terroir” refers to that subtle interaction of natural and human factors – climate, grape variety, soil, subsoil, and winegrower – that defines the characteristics of each winegrowing region. It is also generally agreed that terroirs are a feature of all the great vineyards of Europe (France, Italy, Germany, Austria, Portugal, Spain, Switzerland, Hungary, Greece).
That definition becomes easier to understand if we look at the empirical evidence for the existence of terroir. Ask yourself why it is, for instance, that a winegrower from Chambertin and another from Corton will produce two quite different wines in terms of nose, structure, complexity, and length – even though both were made with the same respect for the vine, using identical winemaking and aging techniques. If those differences exist, they must come from somewhere – and where else if not the terroir?
It looks like an obvious open-and-shut case. And yet … the magic of this terribly French notion is that it depends on a symbiotic relationship between man and nature. No-one ever heard of a terroir that was not worked by man, nor of a winegrower with the power to turn any patch of land into terroir. This is about a slow process of discovery and exploration – and it takes time.
Monks and merchants
Time is what the monks brought with them to Burgundy, that land of terroirs par excellence. It has rightly been said that it takes several centuries for a terroir to emerge. A vine takes 30 years to give of its best, and a winegrower can easily take a lifetime getting to know his vineyard, especially since no one vintage is quite like another. It is this that over the course of 400 –500 years has produced the unique patchwork of vineyards we know as Burgundy. It takes no time at all to get from Romanée-Conti to Romanée-Saint-Vivant, but discussing their wines is a journey in itself.
There is no
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