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Does the Answer Lie in the Soil?

By |  April 20 2016

The word "terroir" comes from soil, and I have always assumed that the dominant influence on terroir (insofar as influences on a semi-mystical concept can be disentangled) is the soil. It’s perfectly clear that terroir does not depend in any simple way on uptake of factors such as trace elements from the soil, and I’m not inclined to subscribe to something quite so simplistic as supposing that drainage is the only significant factor, but it seems reasonable to suppose that ground and aspect are the main determinants of plant growth. Fertile soil in a sunny spot will evidently give different results from infertile soil in a shady spot. But thinking about the contrasts I saw when I investigated the effects of terroir on both Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon has led me to wonder how much the general climate is involved, at least to the extent of providing a prerequisite for the expression of terroir.

Consider what grape varieties are best supposed to express terroir characteristics. The first that is always mentioned is Riesling. No one who has tasted Rieslings from adjacent vineyards in, say, Wehlen, can mistake the fact that vineyards with superficially similar soils, slopes, and exposure produce different wines. This is the demonstration of terroir par excellence. The counterpart for black varieties is clearly Pinot Noir in the Côte de Nuits. Le Chambertin and Chambertin Clos de Bèze form one continuous sweep of vineyards, but when there is an opportunity to compare wines made by one producer, there’s a difference. Actually, I am inclined to the view that here the difference is more or less continuous along the slope, and it’s arbitrary to try to cut it off at the artificial dividing line between the appellations. But a difference there is.

What is common to Riesling and Pinot Noir? Both varieties are grown at the cool limits for expression respectively of white or black grapes. Riesling grows as far north as you can grow grapes at all, and Burgundy more or less marks the cool limit for full expression of Pinot Noir. It’s not just that if you take either grape to warmer climates it will fail to express typicity: My question is whether any grape variety expresses terroir in warm climates?

Go to the south of France. When did you last hear anyone talk about terroir-specific expression of Grenache? Yes, there is certainly a specificity of terroir in, for example, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, where the famous galets have a significant effect on heat retention and therefore ripening (and, probably more importantly, on retention of moisture in the soil in this dry climate), but this is general to all the varieties grown there. Indeed, nowhere in Châteauneufdu-Pape (or in the other appellations in the region) does anyone talk about matching grape variety to soil type; the farthest they will go is to distinguish plots that are suitable for black varieties from plots that are suitable for white varieties. (And if you go back to the second part of the 20th century in Gigondas, for example, the issue was even simpler: where to plant grapevines, and where to plant olive trees?) Move farther south to the Languedoc. Here terroir is more a matter of where wine grapes can be grown than which grape varieties suit each subplot.

The association of terroir with climate is implicit in the very organization of French wine growing. All over the north, there is detailed mapping of vineyards in the AOC (now AOP) system. Burgundy, of course, is the famous case for examining effects of terroir on a single variety, but the same system prevails, if in lesser detail, in Alsace and the Loire. But in the Languedoc, it is the IGP system that is dominant, notwithstanding efforts to increase AOP vineyards. Isn’t this an implicit acceptance of the greater relative importance of terroir in the north compared with the south? The emphasis switches from origin of source to grape variety. I wonder whether one could take the line for chaptalization — which is permitted north of a diagonal across France that goes from south of Bordeaux to between the northern and southern Rhône — as usefully defining the existence of terroir: Terroir exists north of the line wherever chaptalization is permitted but has been blurred or eliminated by ripeness south of the line.

I’ve often considered how it came about that grape varieties tend to be planted in Europe at their northern limits for ripening. The consequence was that really good vintages typically were rare — say, three times a decade in Bordeaux or Burgundy. However, because the growing season is extended by planting at the limits, ripening is slowed, and conventional wisdom holds that this is precisely what gives the most complex wines. It seems doubtful that this was a conscious decision, but the trade-off may be that the best vintages are better — even if they occur less frequently.

All this makes me wonder whether terroir is really an expression of differences magnified by the struggle to reach ripeness. When grapes are grown under marginal conditions, small differences between two sites may mean that one reaches ripeness while the other does not. The differences will be magnified in the wines. But when everything reaches an easy degree of ripeness, as in warm climates, those differences (if they exist) will be much less. "Terroir shows itself in the wine only when development is very slow; there was no typicity in the warm vintage of 2003," says Yves Gras of Domaine Santa Duc in Gigondas.

Is this why terroir is a much more important concept with wine than with vegetables or fruit? Why don’t we see similar concern for place of origin? Could it be that it is taken to be axiomatic that fruit and vegetables are grown where they will reach maximum ripeness: The concept that it is good for them to struggle to reach ripeness would be regarded as risible by farmers. I do wonder why we don’t see terroir effects with root vegetables, which after all actually come straight out of the soil. But carrots are never distinguished on the basis that they come from granite terroir as distinct from limestone, or from gravel rather than clay. Perhaps the difference is that grapevines are often grown on soils where no other crop can grow, which brings us back to the question of the struggle for ripeness. Or could it be that the differences we perceive in wines as coming from terroir are magnified by the process of turning grapes into wine?

Bordeaux: the exception that proves the rule?

As so often, Bordeaux is the exception in the world of wine: The question is whether it proves the rule. For all the vaunted emphasis on terroir in the classic regions of France, there is, in fact, no classification of terroir in Bordeaux. Formal classification of wines is basically a reflection of the marketplace (whether a century out of date, as in the case of the Médoc, or merely a decade out of date, as in the case of St-Emilion). The fact that wines are blended from different varieties and that the blend changes to reflect annual conditions further blurs the focus.

Yet there is a constant barrage of information to the effect that the gravel mounds of the Médoc provide the ideal terroir for Cabernet Sauvignon. Indeed, this has been the spur for producers to plant Cabernet Sauvignon on gravel-based terroirs all over the world. (Just as Burgundy has been the spur for Pinot Noir producers to look for limestone.) So, what role does terroir play on the Left Bank?

Any view has to be based for the most part on barrel samples, since once the wines have been blended, no wine will come from any single terroir. This is tricky, because the rougher character of barrel samples may well hide fine differences coming from terroir. Some producers, however, do bottle samples of individual varieties for reference purposes, and I was able to taste some of these on recent research visits while I was working on my book Claret & Cabs.

My general impression is that there are more differences in Cabernet Sauvignon from different locations than in Merlot from different locations. (There weren’t really enough examples of Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot to form an opinion about these varieties.) The traditional qualities associated with the communes can be seen at times in the Cabernet Sauvignon: delicacy in Margaux, precision in St-Julien, firm power in Pauillac, a touch of hardness in St-Estèphe. I found such distinctions much harder to see in Merlot.

The question, then, is whether this reflects locations or varieties? I am inclined to the view that the important parameter is that ripeness is harder to come by on the gravel soils. Because Cabernet Sauvignon is grown on gravel (as the "best" terroir), it is Cabernet that reflects the difference. You hear a good deal about the character of the gravel soils in the Médoc, reflecting the fact that they vary significantly with regards to type and depth of gravel. You do not hear much about the character of the clay soils — reflecting, I suspect, the fact that they are considered inferior and show less variation. Because Merlot is grown on the clay-based soils that are not considered suitable for Cabernet and reaches a higher degree of ripeness, differences are less evident. It would be difficult to perform a proper comparison because there are so few cases where wines have been vinified under the same conditions from different locations, but châteaux Grand- Puy-Lacoste and Haut-Batailley in Pauillac are both owned by François-Xavier Borie, who affirms, "The Merlots of Haut-Batailley and Grand-Puy-Lacoste show less difference; there are more differences between terroirs with Cabernet Sauvignon."

If there is an exception that proves this rule, it is at Château Palmer, famous for retaining an unusually high proportion of Merlot. In the period when Merlot was at its peak in the Palmer vineyards, from the 1950s through the 1960s, some vintages had quite small proportions of Cabernet Sauvignon (only 30 percent in the famous 1961). Today the balance is more typically close to equality. But the unique feature is not so much the proportions as the fact that much of the Merlot is planted on gravel. As directeur général Thomas Duroux explains, "Palmer is a unique case in Margaux, and in the Médoc generally, with a large proportion of Merlot, basically 50 percent in the vineyards, due to the enthusiasm of a past proprietor who planted Merlot not only on the clay terroirs but also on the best gravel terroirs that usually would be planted with Cabernet. Palmer has Merlot on the tops of the slopes, which are warmer and where there is deep gravel. The point is that it’s not just a matter of the temperature or ripening potential of these locations; it’s a matter of complexity. The tops of the hills have more complex soils and give more complex wine. Château Palmer is a Margaux wine because its Cabernet Sauvignon has the purity and finesse, but Palmer has its unique character because its Merlot also has precision." When you taste samples, there is indeed a precision to the Merlot that is rarely found elsewhere: They are typically Margaux and typically Palmer. Indeed, their refinement makes me wonder whether communal typicity would show for Merlot if it were generally planted on gravel soils in the Médoc and, therefore, reached a lower degree of ripeness.

If it is generally true that typicity is blunted at higher levels of ripeness and disappears entirely at super-ripeness, does the combination of the warming trend in climate and the propensity to harvest later mean that terroir will be abolished? Forcing the argument even further, to what extent do you see even varietal typicity at extreme levels of ripeness? Isn’t there a sort of convergence between a 100 percent Grenache super-cuvée in Châteauneuf-du-Pape and an extremely extracted Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa? Who can reliably tell the difference between those super-rich, alcoholic cuvées of Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz in Barossa? Of course, this is not solely a matter of climate: Warmer temperatures facilitate, but the trend to harvesting later is a major factor. It is a curious thing that while food is losing its taste — I challenge anyone to find a farmed fish with any perceptible flavor — wine is gaining more and more flavor… but it’s all the same flavor.

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