A Visit to Michel Drappier is Full of Surprises

Given that the basic concept of Champagne is to maintain consistency of the product by evening out vintage variation by blending, one tends to think of Champagne as a bit static in its approach. A visit to Michel Drappier gave me a different perspective, when I visited last week as part of research to update my Guide to Wines and Top Vineyards of Champagne.

Located on the Côte de Bar, well south of the main area of Champagne, and in fact closer to Chablis than to Reims, Drappier seems to occupy the center of Urville with a large group of buildings off the main road. Driving from Troyes to Urville along the Route Touristique de Champagne gives a rather different experience from, say, driving along the Côte de Blancs south of Epernay. The Côte de Blancs gives the impression of a monoculture of vines on gentle slopes: the Route Touristique along the Côte de Bar passes through more fields of sunflowers than vineyards, giving somewhat the impression of an alluvial valley. The vineyards in fact are along slopes a mile or so off the main road.

ChampagneRoute2The Route Touristique on the Côte de Bar passes by sunflower fields and granaries rather than vineyards

The visited to Drappier started with a trip out to his top vineyard, Grande Sendrée, in a fleet of old Citroens, led by the bright yellow Torpedo from the 1920s, followed by a 1930s model, and ending with the famous DS (which for me always brings Maigret to mind). The name of Grande Sendrée reflects its origins. A big fire in 1836 burned the whole village and the forest around. The ash was a good fertilizer so the area was planted with vines. Before phylloxera the village reached 370 ha, but now has only 170 ha. “This is an improbable place to make wine but it’s become iconic,” says Michel.

GrandeSendee1Michel Drappier’s fleet of old Citroens provide unique transport to the vineyard

“Grande Sendrée is a terroir not a clos. The name comes from cinders, it should be Cendrée. But whoever made the mistake made our fortune, because it’s a monopole.” The particular feature of the soil is that the limestone was broken up so it has more clay and humus. “It’s Grand Cru Chablis soil with Pinot Noir from Burgundy to make Champagne,” Michel says. Grande Sendrée was one of the early single vineyard cuvées. “In 1974 we decided to make a separate vinification and wanted to have a separate cuvée, but it was an awful vintage so we did not declare it. The first release was 1975,” Michel explains. It’s usually produced every 2-3 years.

From the 5 ha of Grande Sendrée you can see back to Urville and some of Drappier’s other vineyards beyond the village. Michel points to a plot of Pinot Noir that is used to make a red Coteaux de Champenoise. Adjacent to it are plots of some old varieties, no longer much grown in Champagne: Arbane, Petit Meslier and Pinot Blanc. These are the basis for the unusual cuvée, Quattuor.

“Quattuor was almost a joke. I wanted to make a new Blanc de Blancs with no Chardonnay. I planned to have one third each of Arbane,  Petit Meslier, and Pinot Blanc, which I planted in 2000. The first crop was 2004, and the first release in 2007. The blend was too vegetal–it was like Sauvignon Blanc–and at the last minute we decided to add Chardonnay. So now it has one quarter of each. Pinot Blanc gives fat and texture, Chardonnay gives balance and makes it all come together. Some years Arbane dominates, some years Petit Meslier.”

“We blend and press Arbane and Petit Meslier together, the others are made separately. The total surface of Arbane in Champagne is 1.6 ha, and we have 0.6 ha, so we are the largest producer of Arbane in Champagne. I found out why my father and his generation spent 30 years pulling it out, you work for nothing. But it’s elegant. We don’t produce Quattuor every year because I want to have one quarter of each cépage.”

“My father is very experimental and is always trying things,” says Charlene Drappier, as she takes us round the cellars, which date back to 1155 and were built by St. Bernard (who left Burgundy to found the abbey of Clairvaux). St. Bernard is supposed to have brought Morillon (a possible ancestor of Pinot Noir) from Burgundy. “So we have 800 years of Pinot Noir in the house,” Charlene says. “The cellars are made of Kimmeridgian limestone, so the vines grow on Kimmeridgian limestone and the bottles mature in it.” One experiment manifested itself in a wooden “egg,” in which the wine is supposed to mature with a natural movement of fluid that in effect keeps it in contact with the lees without any battonage.

After visiting the vineyards and cellars, we tasted through the range. Quattuor makes a sophisticated impression with faint herbal overtones. Michel says this release is dominated by Petit Meslier. Later in the week, at Champagne Duval-Leroy, we taste an unusual 100% Petit Meslier, which shows a distinctive herbal spectrum; you can see why it adds complexity in a blend. Drappier’s Millésime Exception from 2012 is quite different. “For Millésime Exception the idea is the vintage not the terroir. It has to reflect the weather of one season. It is chosen from lots in the cellars, not by picking–the other cuvées are chosen in the vineyard—but for Millésime we choose those wines that are an especially good reflection of the vintage.”

Grande Sendrée 2008 is not so much overtly rich as simply full of flavor. The Grande Sendrée rosé is unusual for its perfectly integrated red fruits. For me, obvious red fruits give a rosé a disjointed impression, but this is a rare case in which they really integrate to make a characterful wine. And then there is the Charles de Gaulle cuvée, faintly toasty, showing the typical body of Pinot Noir, which certainly dominates, with an impression more towards stone fruits than citrus. “The Charles de Gaulle cuvée is named for the general because he was a customer in the sixties, but not a big one. We would have preferred to have had Winston Churchill. That is probably why Pol Roger is a major house and Drappier is a small one,” Michel says wryly. Dosage is modest on all the cuvées. “My father used to have 13 g dosage, when I began it was 12 g, then it came down to 11 g, and from the nineties to 2005 it was 9 g. Now it’s always under 7g,” Michael says.

We wound up with a wine that had been matured under the sea. This was Grande Sendrée 2005, placed under the sea at St. Malo for a year, and then retrieved to be sold as part of a charity event. It was very smooth and supple, with only the first touches of development. “I have done experiments to see what affects aging,” Michel explains. “I tried putting Champagne at altitude in the mountains, but altitude is not the answer, it ages very quickly in the mountains, so I thought I would try the opposite, under the sea. The idea was to see the effect of pressure. The temperature is 9-10C, the pressure is 2.5-3 bars, and of course there’s no light. So you lose less pressure. There’s a slight difference, for me it seems a little better after a year under the sea.”

Drappier5 Jeroboams are riddled by hand

Michel is on a constant quest to understand and control every aspect of his wine. The liqueur d’expedition is produced in house and matured for 15-20 years in oak vats and glass demi-johns, there is no transvasage and sizes up to 30 liters are matured in the bottle, and a new shape of bottle is about to be introduced with a narrower neck to reduce oxidative exposure. It’s all go.

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A Perspective on Canadian Wine

Most people probably know Canadian wine only through the prism of its famous ice wine, but actually Canada has around 12,000 ha of vineyards (mostly in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley and Ontario’s Niagara Peninsula) roughly equivalent in total to Burgundy’s Côte d’Or. Most production is dry wine, with sparkling wine and ice wine a small proportion. A tasting at Canada House in London offered a rare opportunity to get a bead on whether this is a successful endeavor.

The wines were almost all VQA (Canada’s appellation system), so this is a look at the high end. I do think they’ve made a mistake in defining the VQAs in great detail at this stage, with ten sub-appellations in Niagara, for example, confusing rather than enlightening.

Living on the East coast of the United States, I am inclined to regard Canada as the frozen North, or anyway, distinctly cool climate, so I am frankly confused by the somewhat optimistic descriptions of climate by the Wine Council of Ontario. An amusing chart of annual temperatures in various wine growing regions appears to show that Bordeaux is warmer than the Languedoc and that Niagara is warmer than Bordeaux, which leaves me feeling somewhat sceptical.

Looking at weather station data, I place Niagara between Alsace and the Mosel. It is a little bit warmer in British Columbia, and there is certainly significant variation between the ends of Okanagan Valley as it extends for more than a hundred miles from north to south, but I am surprised to see the southern part described as warmer than Napa on the basis of degree days, as weather station data in the midpoint of the southern part suggest to me that temperatures are quite close to Alsace. Perhaps I am not paying sufficient attention to variations between microclimates.

Tasting the wines, the climate that most often comes to mind for comparison would be the Loire. With Riesling and Chardonnay as the main focus, but also a fair proportion of Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer, and Viognier, the impression is distinctly cool climate.

Most Chardonnays at the tasting had too much oak for my taste, even though the stated usage of new oak was usually quite moderate. Even allowing for youthful character, I’m not certain there’s enough fruit to carry the oak. My impression of the Chardonnays from Niagara is that the citrus palate can be a bit too much driven by lemon. It’s fair to say that the style is European rather than New World, but given the cool climate character of the wines, I would suggest that Chablis would be a better model than the Côte d’Or, and the question should be how much (old) oak to use together with stainless steel, rather than what proportion of the oak (with many wines barrel fermented) should be new. With prices often around or above $35, competitiveness seems an issue.

Curiously given the cool climate impression, I was not generally impressed with the Rieslings. My main complaint is the style: Riesling character is often obscured by a significant level of residual sugar. I did not find a single dry Riesling. I’m inclined to wonder whether, if you can’t successfully make a dry wine, you should plant a different variety, but I suppose you might say that the best Canadian Rieslings do show a nice aperitif style.

Given the cool climate impression made by the whites, the successful production of reds is quite surprising, especially the focus on Bordeaux varieties rather than those more usually associated with cooler climates. Among them, Cabernet Franc appears to be the variety of choice for single varietal wines, and although there are certainly some creditable wines showing good varietal typicity, I find many to be on the edge for ripeness. Certainly the style is much more European than New World­—the Loire would be the obvious comparison. The best Merlots or Bordeaux blends seem more like the Médoc than the Right Bank of Bordeaux in style.

To my surprise, Syrah outshines Cabernet Franc in Okanagan Valley. The Syrahs are evidently cool climate in character, definitely Syrah not Shiraz, in a fresh style with some elegance, which should mature in a savory direction; nothing with the full force impression of the New World. They remind me of the Northern Rhone in a cool year.

There are some successful Pinot Noirs in both British Columbia and Ontario, presenting somewhat along the lines of Sancerre or Germany. The difficulty is to bring out classic typicity in these cool climates, but the best are Pinot-ish in a light style.

Some producers are now making single vineyard wines. Is it worth it? It’s an interesting question whether at this stage of development the best terroirs have been well enough defined to produce reliably better wine every year or whether a better model would be to make cuvées from the best lots. There’s also the question of whether they are competitive at price points pushing beyond those of the estate bottlings.

Favorites at the tasting

Sparkling wine, Gaspereau Valley, Nova Scotia: Benjamin Bridge, 2008

This is called the Methode Classique Brut Reserve to emphasize the connection with Champagne: it comes from 61% Chardonnay and 39% Pinot Noir. It follows the tradition of Champagne with a faintly toasty nose showing some hints of citrus. Nice balance on palate with an appley impression. Flavors are relatively forceful.   11.5% 89

Syrah, Okanagan Valley, British Columbia: Painted Rocks Winery, 2013

Lovely fruits in a restrained style, fresh and elegant with beautiful balance, a touch of pepper at the end. A textbook Syrah in a slightly tight style.   14.9% 89

Syrah, Okanagan Valley, British Columbia: Burrowing Owl Vineyards, 2013

Black fruit impression on nose with hints of blueberries. Light style is quite Rhone-like on palate, nice clean fruits with faint buttery hints at end, more successful than the Bordeaux varieties. 14.5% 89

Pinot Noir, Beamsville Bench, Niagara Peninsula: Hidden Bench, Felseck Vineyard, 2013

Nicely rounded red fruits with faintly minty overtones bringing a slight herbal impression to the nose. Quite a sweet ripe impression on palate with touch of spice at the end. Slight viscosity on palate brings to mind the style of Pinot Noir in Germany.   12.7% 88

Cabernet Franc, Creek Shores, Niagara Peninsula: Tawse Family Winery, Van Bers Vineyard, 2012

Nose shows some faint tobacco and chocolate, with palate following with typically herbal notes of Cabernet Franc. Dry tobacco-ish finish. Does it have enough fruit to stand up when the tannins resolve?   13.0% 88

Chardonnay, Niagara: Norman Hardie Winery, Cuvee L, 2012

More restrained nose than Hardie’s other Chardonnay cuvees but some oak does show through. Nice balance on palate between oak and slightly lemony fruits. Follows Chablis in style.   12.4% 88

Viognier, Okanagan Valley, British Columbia: Blasted Church Vineyards, 2014

Barrel fermented with some new oak. Faintly perfumed nose with the perfume somewhat clearer on palate. Fry impression to finish short of phenolic. Nice long finish on which you can just see the oak.   13.0% 89

Alsace Diary part 1: Valentin Zusslin – Master of Subtlety from Riesling to Pinot Noir

Spending this week in Alsace, I am finalizing the producers to be included in my book, The Wines of Modem France: a Guide to 500 Leading Producers. While a producer should be judged on the range as a whole, I’m inclined to look at Riesling as the defining variety: top Rieslings should show minerality, piercing purity, freshness, and increasing breadth of flavor with age. I look for Pinot Gris to balance expression of stone fruits with more savory notes including a characteristic note of mushrooms (yes, I know that’s considered pejorative in some quarters, but it’s part of the character when subtle). Gewurztraminer is not my favorite variety, I find it simply too perfumed, but when the perfume is delicately balanced with lychees I can appreciate its qualities. I usually find Muscat a bit too obvious, and have lower expectations of Pinot Blanc (and Auxerrois), Chasselas, and Sylvaner, but I’m on the lookout for unusually fine examples that I could recommend. I hesitate to include Pinot Noir as a criterion in a region whose reputation is established for white wine, but full marks go to producers who have taken advantage of global warming to make fine Pinot Noir in Alsace.

Long vertical tastings of Pinot Noir and Riesling with Jean-Paul Zusslin at Domaine Valentin Zusslin fly into the top ten list for both varieties. We tasted Pinot Noir from the lieu-dit Bollenberg (near Rouffach, which is one of the candidates for promotion to premier cru, and where the clay-calcareous soils are suitable for red varieties). I hadn’t encountered these Pinots previously, but they seem to me to capture the essence of Alsace in the context of red wine. They are destemmed, vinified in wooden cuves with pigeage to begin with, switching to pump-over half way through fermentation, and matured much along the lines of top flight Burgundy, in barriques with 50% new oak. Color is deep, fruits are round, the palate is exceptionally smooth, silky tannins support the fruits, the overall impression is quite soft, and some wood spices show when the wines are young. I was puzzling over how I would relate them to Burgundy, and I think the main difference is in the aromatic spectrum: if it isn’t too fanciful, they have a more aromatic impression that seems to relate to the general character of Alsace in growing aromatic white varieties. A barrel sample of 2013 shows as very ripe, 2012 is a touch livelier in its acidity, 2011 conveys a sense of a more earthy structure, 2010 has closed up a bit and is more upright (the counterpart of the often crisp character of the white wines in this vintage), 2009 (my favorite) shows the first signs of evolution with an elegant nutty palate that is reminiscent of the Côte de Beaune, and the 2008 has lightened up and is moving in a savory direction. These are serious wines by any measure, and anyone who is serious about Pinot Noir should try them.

Our Riesling tasting started by comparing three Grand Crus from 2012, which seemed to increase in their savory impression as we went through the line. Bollenberg is precise without being tight, a very pure expression of Riesling. Clos Liebenberg brings more intensity and adds herbal elements to complement the citrus and stone fruits of the palate. Pfingstberg isn’t exactly drier than the other two but is more savory, showing herbal notes including tarragon before the citric purity of Riesling returns. Then we went back in time with Pfingstberg. In the 2010 vintage the savory notes of 2012 are joined by the first notes of petrol. (The first bottle we tried was very slightly corked, and the petrol was quite evident, perhaps because the fruits were a fraction suppressed. A second bottle brought the fruits out more clearly, and the petrol was less evident.) There’s a tense, savory edge to the palate, with an impression of salinity at the end. Back to 2008 where petrol is just beginning to replace savory elements as the first impression, and the palate follows with a classic blend of citrus and stone fruits. The defining word about age came from the 2001, a lovely golden color with some honey, tertiary aromas, and touch of petrol. The flavor spectrum here is moving in the direction of late harvest, but the wine is bone dry: that’s a wonderful combination that I’ve only really experienced in Alsace. Then with 2000 we had a Vendange Tardive, as that was the only Riesling made from Pfingstberg in this vintage. This is a very subtle wine for late harvest, with the sweetness of the apricot fruits cut by tertiary aromas and herbal impressions. In fact, if you want one word to sum up the style of this house, it would be subtlety.

Will people please stop trying to prove terroir exists. It’s more useful to look for gold at the end of the rainbow

Grow one plot of grapevines on the top of a hill in a really sunny, exposed, windy spot. Grow another plot at the bottom of the hill in a shady waterlogged spot. It is really not rocket science to understand that the grapes are likely to be quite different, as will wine made from them. That’s terroir, stupid.

Pushing the argument to these extremes doesn’t really resolve the issue of whether terroir effects exist that produce wines with subtle but consistent differences from adjacent vineyards where there is a little perceptible difference in growing conditions. Burgundians will argue, for example, that the adjacent vineyards of Cazetiers and Combes aux Moines in Gevrey Chambertin produce different wines. Faiveley have adjacent vineyards with vines of the same age, tended the same way. “The tractor doesn’t stop,” says Jérôme Flous of Maison Faiveley. But as I describe in my book, In Search of Pinot Noir, the wines are consistently different.

Well, yes, but maybe in such cases, producers, consciously or unconsciously, are treating the wines just a little bit differently to produce results that conform with their expectations for each vineyard. You might almost call it the Holy Grail of Terroir to demonstrate that the wines from different vineyards are intrinsically different. A group of scientists have just reported an attempt to prove this.

They took Pinot Noir berries from two vineyards managed by the same producer in Burgundy, one in Flagey-Echézeaux and one in Vosne Romanée. They don’t give exact locations, but the vineyards appear to be within a mile of one another. They report that soils types are similar in each vineyard: they don’t comment on the age of the vines or planting density, but let’s give the benefit of the doubt and assume that all extraneous parameters are the same.

They took two samples of 100 berries from each vineyard in 2010, 2011, 2012 and compared the berries and wine made from them by microvinification. Well, here’s the first problem. ONE HUNDRED BERRIES! How many berries do you suppose there are in a vineyard? Let’s try to estimate this. Suppose the vineyard is 1 ha and has 8,000 vines, each with 6 bunches, and each bunch has 50 grapes. I make that 2.5 million berries. I do not think you need to be an expert in statistics to see that 100 berries is not going to be representative of the vineyard. (For the more geekishly minded, you’d need a few hundred to achieve a 5% statistical significance level.)

I won’t go into the details of the analysis, which uses formidably complicated equipment, but comes down to the ability to measure small amounts of phenolic compounds. The authors conclude that  differences between vintages are more significant than differences between vineyards. This is not a surprise. But they go on to say they can find  differences between the vineyards, for both grapes and wine. This I do not believe. It’s definitely fair to say that when you compare the samples in one vintage, all four are different. But I’m not at all convinced that the two samples from each vineyard identify any distinct character. The results look  higgledy-piggledy, and the two samples from each vineyard seem just as different from one another as from the other vineyard. Misquoting Monty Python, Every berry is sacred, every berry is great.

I believe in terroir, but I don’t believe this study proves any more than that each sample of one hundred berries is a different from every other sample of one hundred berries. (Gives a whole new meaning to micro-cuvées.) Anyway, do we want to see a scientific basis established for terroir, wouldn’t that spoil the fun?

Terroir in New Zealand

Anyone who does not believe in terroir in the New World should have come to the Circle of Winewriters tasting of Central Otago Pinot Noirs, which compared different cuvées from Felton Road and Two Paddocks. “I remember when people were not convinced that regions of New Zealand show differences,” says Nigel Greening of Felton Road, “but now we see differences even between vineyards.”

The tasting displayed Central Otago’s versatility by starting with two whites. The Riesling came from Two Paddocks. “I planted Riesling because I wanted to make a white wine and Riesling is the only white grape that succeeds in Central Otago,” says Sam Neill of Two Paddocks. He allowed an exception for Felton Road’s Bannockburn Chardonnay, which followed. Central Otago whites show a tendency towards exotic fruits: Pinot Noir is more successful, in my opinion.

Central Otago is still going through the argument of whether the best wines come from assemblage from sites with complementary properties or from single vineyards. “We are working with two different approaches to Pinot,” says Sam Neill, describing the differences between the Last Chance single vineyard wine and the Two Paddocks bottling. “One comes from a tiny vineyard in a corner. The other is an estate wine, it’s a blend of our best lots.”

Two pairs of comparisons certainly made the point that there are real terroir differences here. From Two Paddocks came the First Paddock and Last Chance 2010 Pinot’s. First Paddock comes from Gibbston, more or less the central part of Central Otago (“always the most perfumed,” says Nigel Greening), while Last Chance comes from the most southerly vineyard in the Southern hemisphere, according to Sam Neil. “There are no grapevines between here and the penguins,” he says. The difference was somewhat like the rusticity of Pommard versus the sheer refinement of Volnay.

The difference between Felton Road’s Cornish Point and Calvert vineyards 2012 was equally striking. Both have wind-blow loess, but Calvert has heavier soil, whereas Cornish Point has a calcareous subsoil. There’s also difference in wind exposure. “This is a descent into hedonism,” says Nigel of the Cornish Point. I would actually describe the wines differently, as I find the Calvert to have more obvious weight and tannin, while the Cornish Point gives a refined impression almost of delicacy. Here is a sense of finesse that quite sets the lie to the notion of boisterous new world fruit.

My own preference is for those wines that display coolest climate impressions, Last Chance from Two Paddocks, and Cornish Point from Felton Road. “Central Otago is growing up. It was known for its fruit bomb wines but I don’t see that here; there’s expression of place in these wines,” says Nigel Greening.

Link

 Tell him to buy me an acre of land, Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme;

To the east and south of Burgundy, the Jura is an old but little known wine growing region where the wines are a mix of the familiar (Pinot Noir and Chardonnay) and unfamiliar grape varieties (Savagnin for whites, Poulsard and Trousseau for reds), and familiar and unfamiliar styles. White wines made in a conventional style are called ouillé locally, meaning that the casks are topped up during élevage; the word comes from ouillage, meaning topping up. But the traditional style here is oxidized, when a voile of yeast is allowed to grow on the surface of the wine in the barrique. The wine matures under the layer of yeast, giving a result resembling fino sherry.

The ultimate expression of this style is Vin Jaune, which is matured for six years in the barrique, and comes only from Savagnin (a subvariety of Gewürztraminer but usually showing a savory rather than perfumed impression). Other oxidized wines can come from either Savagnin or Chardonnay; even after only a year or two under voile, the wines in oxidized style are quite savory. Ouillé whites may come from either Chardonnay or from Savagnin. The conventional Chardonnays have a minerality that sometimes resembles Chablis or Puligny Montrachet, but which tends to have savory overtones resembling the Savagnin. In fact, those savory overtones somewhat resemble the flavor spectrum of the Vin Jaune.  Jancis Robinson remarked on the similarity between Chardonnay and Savagnin and suggested to me that one possible explanation might be use of the same containers for fermentation and élevage.

Although the layer of yeasts that forms on the surface of the maturing wine has different species in Sherry and in the Jura, one common feature is the formation of Sotolon, a compound with an aromatic, spicy, aroma. Sotolon is also formed naturally in the plant fenugrec, whose seeds have a curry-like aroma. In fact, fenugrec is a component of Madras curry. I have been wondering if fenugrec might be making an unsuspected contribution to the aroma spectrum of whites wines in the Jura (much as eucalyptus makes a contribution to some New World Cabernet Sauvignons).

When I visited Stéphane Tissot in Arbois recently, we went out to see his vineyards, and the air was redolent with a savory aroma, hard to pin down, but somewhere between rosemary, tarragon, and curry. It had a noticeable resemblance to the characteristic aroma of Vin Jaune and the common savory element of Savagnin and Chardonnay. I’m wondering whether this could be the result of fenugrec growing in the vineyards.

There are some difficulties with this idea: the aroma of fenugrec is usually attributed to its seeds, so it’s not obvious how it would influence the grapes. And it’s usually considered to be a Mediterranean plant. On the other hand, they produce a fromage “aux graines de fenugrec” in the Jura.

The idea that fenugrec might give an interesting aroma to wine is scarcely new. Writing in the first century in Rome, Columella proposed a formula for adding fenugrec to wine: he recommended a spoonful or two per urn. This very likely produced a wine with a similar flavor spectrum to today’s Vin Jaune or Fino Sherry.

At the end of the day, cross contamination in the winery may be the most likely explanation of Chardonnay’s resemblance with Savagnin, but next time I visit the Jura I shall take a careful look for fenugrec in the vineyards (especially among cover crops in organic vineyards) to see whether it might be common enough to contribute to the profile of the wine.

Two of Tissot’s wines give a perfect demonstration of the difference and resemblance between the two styles. The conventional style is labeled Traminer and the oxidized style is labeled Savagnin.

Tasting notes

Arbois Traminer, Domaine André et Mireille Tissot, 2011 This is a Savagnin matured without any oxidation. It’s quite savory at first impression, with the aromatics showing slightly after. Savory suggestions extend to texture as well as flavor. It’s hard to disentangle savory and aromatic influences on the finish. Lots of character here. 88 Drink now-2018.

Arbois Savagnin, Domaine André et Mireille Tissot, 2011 This spent 30 months under voile. Medium gold color. Powerful nose in which savory notes mingle with oxidative notes like Fino Sherry. The finish seems quite manzanilla-like. Very nice balance of influences. 89 Drink now-2023.

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.