Terroir expression as described in books

Following my previous post, I thought it would be interesting to see what some books say about terroir in the Côte d’Or.  I was after specific detail as to how the terroir of each vineyard gives rise to different characteristics in the wine, and expecting to find little agreement.

So I assembled my Burgundy library of rather weighty British tomes:  Anthony Hanson’s Burgundy, Clive Coates’ The Wines of Burgundy and Jasper Morris’s Inside Burgundy.  And alongside these I had somewhat more lightweight French books: Pitiot and Servant’s The Wines of Burgundy, Charles Pomerol’s (Ed) The wines and Winelands of France and Gérard Corret’s Les Grands Crus de Bourgogne vus du ciel. I don’t want this to become a book review, but it is perhaps worth mentioning that The wines and Winelands of France is full of mind-numbingly geeky detail about terroir and wine across France, but it also manages to be superficial at the same time.  There is no way I could read it from cover to cover, hardly even a whole chapter, but I am pleased I have it.  Les Grands Crus is not really a wine book at all, but has pretty aerial shots of vineyards.  The books are pictured above, complete with a rare glimpse of the WordPress dashboard I am currently typing into.

Hanson gave me very little to go at at all. His village-based chapters are divided into sections on producers, and very little is said about specific vineyards at all.

Coates looked more promising.  He at least had sections on all the major vineyards, and most of the vineyard descriptions describe the terroir in terms of geology and slope.  But it is largely left as an exercise for the reader to correlate the terroir with anything the wines have to offer.  There are a few exceptions though.  I concentrated my search around Vougeot and Vosne-Romanée, and all I could find was on Grand Exchézeaux, which he says compared to Exchézeaux is “a richer, more structured wine with greater intensity and definition and a black, gamey flavour: rustic in the best sense.  It can be firm, even hard in its youth, less obviously generous then either Exchézeaux or the more refined grand crus of Vosne-Romanée”.

What about Morris?  Well, Jasper is more than willing to give his own evaluation of each important vineyard, and compare it with the official classification and historical views; this he does in a very systematic fashion.  But I could find no clear attempt to typify the wines coming from each vineyard in qualitative terms.  He did make an interesting comment in the section on Clos de Vougeot though, where he says a tasting organised to link quality and style with location within the vineyard failed in its mission, as no such link was obvious.  However, strangely, in the following paragraph he goes on the say a “huge amount will depend on exactly where in the Clos a parcel of vines is located”.

In marked contrast to the British books, Pitiot and Servant is much more willing to give a short tasting note for each appellation or group of appellations it deals with. Thus, Clos de Vougeot is “deep red in colour, has a generous bouquet, is harmonious, highly bred, elegant, and with a long finish in the mouth”.  And on the grand crus of Vosne-Romanée: “These wines, (like [Exchézeaux and Grand Exchézeaux]) have a good nose and are well-bred, solid, robust, harmonious and exceptionally suitable for ageing”.

The book edited by Pomerol is not afraid to pepper the book with potted notes of how wines of an area or vineyard should taste.  For example, an author (who apparently did not attend Morris’s tasting) writes that “the wine of Clos Vougeot, with its robustness and aroma of truffle and violets, continues to be consistently finer and more delicate from the higher ground and heavier from the slope bottom”.  And on the opposite page, I see that that you will observe that Aloxe-Corton is “the most muscular, most robust wine on the Côte de Beaune”; Pernand-Verglelesses “resembles it, but is less robust and has a flavour of rasperries or cherries; Savigny-Vergelesses “starts off with a more pronounced flavour of cherries”; and Chorey-lès-Beaune appellations “are more vigorous in the north-east and have a flavour of cherry in the south-west”.  This, we are assured, “is a good illustration of the relationship between the geology and the soil, with the elements eroded from the high ground above continuing to play a role in the aromas and the flavours of the wines produced further downhill”.

Corret’s picture book has a paragraph-long tasting note for each of these three areas: Clos de Vougeot; Exchézeaux and Grand Exchézeaux; and the Grand Crus of Vosne-Romanée.  I will not reproduce them here, but they look very much like notes for specific wines, complete with phrases like “violets in the morning dew”, serving temperatures, and “best with red meat, cheese and pasta dishes”.  OK, I made up the last bit – there were no serving suggestions – but the rest is true.

Well, I did not get what I expected, and was quite heartened to see how reticent the more serious British books were in describing the wines of different terroirs. The French ones though seem quite happy to trot out naive simplifications which I find difficult to take seriously.  It is probably unfair to judge French wine writing on these three books, but I do think it can be concluded that French readers seem to expect and accept these little terroir portraits a lot more readily than we would.


Author: Steve Slatcher

Wine enthusiast

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