The Terroir Test

As those who know me are probably aware, I am a terroir sceptic.  If you are going to include regional climate in your definition of terroir, then OK I would agree that is important, but I would call that climate rather than terroir.  If you include winemaking in your definition of terroir, I would also agree that is important, but I would prefer simply to call it winemaking.  Why bundle everything together under the one label to the extent that the concept becomes meaningless?  I would also accept that there are good and bad places to grow grapes, but again do not feel the need to use the terroir to describe these differences.

For me, the most meaningful claim made for terroir is that different vineyards of roughly the same quality, and in the same village or nearby villages, can produce strikingly different wines.  And for me it has to be the vineyard per se that is the key determinant of the differences. Not, for example,  the clones planted, the rootstock used, or the age of the vines, which could also vary from vineyard to vineyard.  That, it seems to me, is the claim that best captures the spirit and mystery of terroir.  And even that does not totally exclude human influence on terroir, as the landscape, shelter and soil of most vineyards is influenced by man in some way.

To help specify my definition of terroir with more precision, I formulate here the Terroir Test.  For the test, you need a number of wines covering combinations of vineyards and producers.  Something like 3 or 4 vineyards and producers might be good, giving 9, 12 or 16 wines altogether.

The vineyards must be of similar quality within a few miles of each other.  Other than that, feel free to choose vineyards of different aspect and geology.

As far as the producers are concerned, I agree that it is fair not to insist that those who spoofulate are included.  But I would call foul if the selection was carefully made to include only those with very similar styles.

You would be allowed to use the same grape variety or blend for all wines, even though some terroiristes claim that terroir is more important than the grape variety.  But I think you should include wines of different vintages, as surely an important part of the terroiriste creed is consistency of expression across vintages.

The tasting test be performed double-blind in the medical experiment sense.  That means that no one in the tasting room, should know which wine is which, and the blinding of the bottles must be done by a third-party.   It is key that the tasting is blind, with no chance of hints being passed on to the tasters.

The tasters should be experienced tasters, but not experts of the particular area of the wines.  If terroir is to mean anything it must be accessible to a much larger group than the very specialised. 

The challenge is for the tasters to put the wines into groups according to terroir, and they will be judged by their ability to do so correctly better than chance, which will be assessed by a statistical test. It would also be interesting to see if, as I suspect might be the case, the groups better correspond to producers rather than vineyard.

It would be great if anyone could really be bothered to perform such a test, or even one remotely similar.  And if you do I would love to hear the results.  But the main point of the Terroir Test is to explain what terroir means to me, to show what it would take to turn me into a believer, and to illustrate some of the reasons I do not buy many of the arguments that have been presented to me thus far.

I must admit that part of me wants to be convinced, as I can appreciate the romantic attraction of terroir.  But I also appreciate at an emotional level the many other factors involved in producing a good and interesting wine.

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.


Terroir is utter bollocks

Not my words, but a parting shot from Malcolm Gluck as he recently left The Oldie magazine.  Taken at face value anyone who spares a moment to think about his assertion would have to disagree.  Even using the narrowest of definition of terroir, it is clear that certain soils and vineyard slopes are more auspicious for viticulture than others.  And using the broadest definition, which as far as I can make out encompasses just about everything that influences wine production, it is trivially true that terroir is important.  But I doubt that Mr Gluck was thinking in those terms, and neither are most people who enthusiastically embrace the concept.

I think the real issue is how meaningful all the various usages are.  My observation is that terroir can mean all manner of things to different people and that the meaning subtly shifts depending on what point is being made.  It is often justified in the terms I have given above, and then used in whatever way is most convenient.  In that sense, I think Gluck has a valid point.

It is informative to consider the history of the terroir concept.  According to this article, from the 18th century people wrote about the peculiarities of various Burgundian vineyards, but the T-word was not extensively used in that context.  “In the early 19th century, when experts were beginning to speak of ‘fine wines’, terroir had pejorative connotations. To speak of a terroir wine was to speak of a peasant wine – harsh and earthy – a definition that was to stick until the 20th century”, and “the contemporary idea of terroir – that a wine (or food) acquires a particular quality and character because of where it was produced – is a relatively recent phenomenon”.  And the rest of the article goes on to explain how the 20th century notion of terroir was closely linked to the creation of the AOCs in France.  You have to wonder if the Gallic explanation “c’est le terroir” for a badly made wine refers back to 19th century usage.

Whatever the details of the history, I think we have to accept that the concept has evolved rapidly in the last two centuries.  And even today there is little agreement about what it means.  I think that is why it lends itself so well to misuse and exploitation – bollocks if you like.  Here are some examples of what I see as more bollocky usages:

  1. Several years ago Bordeaux was promoting itself by saying that it was its terroir that made the wines so great.  Terroir is a marketeer’s dream.  With it you have a ready made USP for your wine, especially if you include in your definition of terroir that the wine making methods have to be traditional in the area.  And does Bordeaux really only have one terroir?  If there is one thing that unites the whole of the region, surely it it simply climate.  Of course this is not the only example of marketing using terroir in a questionable way.  One of Gluck’s earlier tirades was directed at WOSA.
  2. Another misuse in my book is to distinguish between terroir-driven and fruit-driven wines.  I can understand fruit-driven – it means fruity I presume.  So are we really talking about fruity and non-fruity wines, with the implication that wines without fruit have some mystical relation with the terroir not available to fruity ones?  I find it very difficult to buy into that idea.
  3. The above distinction also seems to hint at the fact that terroir-driven wines might taste earthy or minerally, which brings me onto another point: the naive assumption that wines taste of the soil the vines were planted in, or indeed that rocks taste of anything at all.  The vast majority of rocks have no flavour, the most common exception being Halite, which is rock salt.  Others are listed here on page 15.
  4. Then there is the idea that winemakers allow the terroir to express itself through minimum intervention.  Putting aside anthropomorphic objections, one wonders why it is the terroir in particular that expresses itself under those circumstances.  Why, for example, do the grape varieties decide to take a back seat.  Besides, how can one isolate the influences of terroir from anything else on the palate, especially if your concept of terroir covers pretty much everything anyway?  In blind tastings people have enough difficulty telling white from red, let alone  identifying terroir influences.

So in principle I think I agree with Gluck.  I just wouldn’t use such extreme language.

The terroir in the picture is from Côte de Py by the way, but of course you knew that.  How could it be mistaken for anything else?


Beaujolais and the benefits of a good map

There is a myth abroad that the less prestigious straight Beaujolais, as opposed to Beaujolais-Villages and the Beaujolais Crus, originates in the sandy alluvial plains of the South and East of the region.  In fact I have heard this said so often that I thought it appeared in many introductions to the wines of the region, but when preparing to write this blog post I could only find one textbook, albeit a rather influential one, making the claim in such an extreme way.  The culprit is the WSET Advanced Certificate textbook.  Maybe it has been rewritten now – the most recent version I have is from 2004 – but the damage has already been done.

When I visited Beaujolais, also in 2004, in our hotel and at several producers I noticed a raised-relief map of the region showing the geology and the limits of the various appellations, and after quite a search I managed to buy one – from De La Vigne au Verre, a gift shop in the centre of Fleurie.  There is a picture of it above to show you roughly what I am talking about (be sure to note the invaluable reminder of why there is an “s” at the end of Beaujolais).  The salmon pink areas are for straight Beaujolais, turquoise is used for Beaujolais-Villages, and the other colours for the Crus.  I understand contour lines on maps pretty well, but I must say a raised-relief map makes it so much easier for me to appreciate the landscape.  A quick glance at this map immediately casts doubt on the idea of sandy alluvial plains of the South and East of the region; it is pretty obvious even in the image above.

The alluvial plains lie by the river as you might expect, to the East of the region only, and there is little or no viticulture of any sort on them.  The largest areas vineyards on low lying hills are actually to the river side of the Beaujolais-Villages area; not in the South.  Most of them are classified as straight Beaujolais, but from the geology and relief alone the reason for the location of the border between Beaujolais and Beaujolais-Villages is not immediately obvious to me.

Southern Beaujolais is actually quite hilly – not noticeably less so than the North.  Some is calcareous, and thus not so good for Gamay, but around 50% of the area is schist and granite.  One can only assume that the main reason the granitic parts are deemed only to be worthy of the lowest appellation is the orientation of the the slopes.  But even then some slopes do not seem to be much less auspicious than many in the Beaujolais-Villages area.  I suspect there are quite a lot of decent wines produced here being sold for not very much money at all.  A few years ago I enjoyed several bottles of a straight Beaujolais called La Doyenne, Domaine des Pierres Dorées **-***. The domaine is based in Le Breuil, which is in this promising-looking area of Southern Beaujolais, and according to Nick Dobson the grapes were from old vines grown on sunny slopes of granitic outcrops.  I see he does not stock it now, so presumably it was a hard sell.

Having dealt with low-end Beaujolais, let’s turn our attention to the Crus, which are exclusively in granitic and schistous areas. Côte de Brouilly stands out on my map literally and figuratively.  The Cru limits are basically defined by the all the slopes of an extinct volcano – even those that are facing North.  And Brouilly is the area around the volcano, some quite hilly and some flat. These two Crus lie to the South of all the others, and are largely separated from them by a river. The Crus of Saint-Amour, Juliénas and Chénas seem a bit detached to the North.  They have as their focus another river valley, and also have slopes facing in all directions.  Most of the Crus however, including the most prestigious ones of Fleurie, Morgon and Moulin-à-Vent, basically lie on one gentle slope that is largely South-Easterly facing.  Looking at the relief map it is easy to jump to the, possibly false, conclusion that it is the angle and direction of the slope that are the key factors in being a top Beaujolais Cru.  That and the granitic soil of course.  Or perhaps there is something more specifically special about the soil and rock on that particular slope.  But if not, it has to be said that other bits of Beaujolais-Villages look hard done by.

While I am in the mood for criticism, I’d like to point out in that WSET textbook from 2004, the map of Beaujolais also leaves a lot to be desired.  The Crus are strung out as a series of dots from North to South like villages on the Côte d’Or.  But they are areas, not villages.  Some don’t even have an obviously associated village, so dots are not particularly helpful.  And even if you can get past that, the dots are not nearly in the correct relative positions, e.g. Fleurie and Chiroubles seem to be inverted.  I am a great believer in the use of maps to illustrate any subject with a geographical element, and that certainly includes any book on wine.  They do not have to be perfect, but should be accurate to extent implied by the map’s scale and level of detail, and to be fair many of the WSET maps are precisely that.  So there we have a good and bad examples of wine maps.  Good ones can be very informative, but beware being mislead by poor ones.