The Best Terroir is the Best Terroir

How far can you take terroir? It seems blindingly obvious that some sites produce better wine than others: it is not rocket science to suppose that a sunny spot in the middle of a well drained slope will produce better wine than a cool, shady, damp spot at the bottom.  And I am prepared to buy the fact that slight differences in terroir can reliably produce different nuances in the wine: I was quite convinced of this by several series of pairwise comparisons in Burgundy when I was researching my book on Pinot Noir. Other convincing examples come from comparing, for example, Ernie Loosen’s Rieslings from different vineyards in the Mosel. You can’t mistake the fact that these wines are consistently different, although all made in the same way. But the unresolved question that sticks in my mind is whether different terroirs match different grape varieties or whether the best terroirs are simply the best terroirs. (The middle of that slope would probably produce better plums, apricots, or apples than the bottom.)

I was much struck by this issue when visiting Pinot Noir producers in Germany. All of them, of course, also produce Riesling; in fact, for most of them the Pinot Noir is little more than a sideline. Everywhere in Germany, Riesling is planted in the best terroirs. Those terroirs that aren’t quite good enough for Riesling are planted with other varieties. But where is Pinot Noir planted? Are there spots that are really suitable for Pinot Noir but where Riesling would not succeed? This does not seem to be the case. Pinot Noir is a demanding grape, and it is usually planted in spots that would also have made good Riesling. The best terroirs are the best terroirs, and it’s a matter of choice whether Riesling or Pinot Noir is planted there. And as for the effect of terroir on the nature of the wine, I saw similar effects on both Pinot Noir and Riesling: more minerality, more sense of tension in the wines from the volcanic soils in the north, to rounder, fatter wines from the limestone soils in the south, and softer, lighter wines from sandstone soils in the east.

Is it a general rule that every wine region has a top variety (or varieties) that take the best terroirs? Even on the left bank of Bordeaux, where you hear a lot about the perfect match between Cabernet Sauvignon and the gravel-based soils, it’s really more the case that the gravel-based soils are the best terroirs – so Cabernet Sauvignon is planted there. Merlot is planted in the spots that couldn’t ripen Cabernet Sauvignon. I’ve yet to hear a proprietor extol a vineyard for the perfection of the match of its terroir to Merlot – I suspect the match is more faute de mieux.

Are there regions that grow multiple top varieties where we could test the argument that there are terroirs that are equally good but suited for different varieties. Burgundy seems the obvious case, where the contrast is increased by the fact that Pinot Noir is black but Chardonnay is white. Isn’t it the case that the terroirs of Puligny Montrachet, Chassagne Montrachet, and Meursault, are uniquely suited to Chardonnay whereas those of (say) Nuits St. Georges, Clos Vougeot, and Gevrey Chambertin are uniquely suited to Pinot Noir?

Not exactly. The focus of the appellations to the south of Beaune on white wine is quite recent. Until the second half of the nineteenth century, Puligny Montrachet was mostly planted with Gamay, Chassagne Montrachet was almost exclusively red, and Meursault was divided between red and white wine. The area that is now Corton Charlemagne mostly produced red wine until the twentieth century.  And in the eighteenth century, Clos Vougeot’s white wine was almost as highly regarded as Le Montrachet, as indeed was a white Chambertin. Could we at least argue that the change is due to better understanding of what grape varieties are suited to each terroir. No:  it’s the economy, stupid.

When fashion has swung to and fro on red wine versus white, plantings have followed. Here’s a modern case in point. Beaune’s Clos des Mouches is one of the few vineyards that have both black and white grapes. But there isn’t any pattern to the plantings that follows details of terroirs: in fact, rows of black and white grapevines are more or less interspersed, according to what was needed when replanting last occurred. And as Chardonnay has proved more profitable than Pinot Noir, there’s been a trend towards replanting with Chardonnay.

If the best terroirs are the best terroirs, what determines the best variety for each location? Well, climate is no doubt the most important factor: heat accumulation and hours of sunshine are basically going to determine whether and when the grapes reach ripeness.  Are the best terroirs simply those where historically the grapes have ripened most reliably? On the hill of Corton, where the plantings of Chardonnay for Charlemagne stretch round to the western end of the hill, where Pinot has trouble in ripening, you might argue that the best terroirs are planted with Pinot and second best with Chardonnay, although I have to admit that they make wonderful white Burgundy.

So here is the challenge. Are there examples where two terroirs in the same vicinity give different results with two grape varieties of the same quality (and color if we want this to be a rigorous test)? If one terroir gives better results with one variety and the other terroir gives better results with the other variety, then I will withdraw my conclusion that the best terroir is the best terroir and matching grape varieties is down to climate.

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