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.

An Experiment with Corks and Screwcaps

It’s years since I did a scientific experiment but there is one I would like to see done with corks and screwcaps. It’s quite amazing that even with a more than a decade’s experience of bottling wines under screwcaps, the long term effects of the type of closure remain controversial. One issue that I think should be finally resolved is just what effect exposure to oxygen has on long term maturation.

When the same wine is bottled both under cork and under screwcap, it’s evident within a few months that they develop differently. Most of the comparative tastings that I have done have been with white wines, where the usual difference is that wine under screwcap retains brighter fruits with more evident freshness. Preferences are usually split at such tastings between the bottlings: some people prefer the fresh, young style of screwcaps, while others find more complexity in the greater development of the wine under cork.

When I was out in New Zealand and Australia earlier this year, I had several opportunities to compare older red wines that had been bottled under both types of closure. The results were completely consistent.  The wine under screwcap always seemed younger – in a blind tasting you might have said by a couple of years – with more primary fruits, whereas the wine under cork showed some development towards more savory, sometimes even tertiary, aromas and flavors. All of these wines were Pinot Noir (mostly from the first few years of this millennium) but I assume the results would be generally true for all red wines. (The tastings are described in more detail in my recent book, In Search of Pinot Noir). This may not be a completely fair comparison, because the reason for the switch to screwcaps was often the terrible condition of the corks available down under. In fact, when there was the opportunity to taste multiple bottles under cork, they often tasted as different from one another as they did from screwcap, an immediate validation of the decision to switch to screwcaps.

So wines under screwcap clearly develop more slowly: the question in my mind is whether they develop in the same way at a slower pace or whether the overall pattern of  development is different, reflecting a different relative timing of the loss of primary fruits and the appearance of tertiary flavors. Among the wines I tasted, when the wines under cork were in perfect condition, I generally preferred them: but that may be because my taste generally runs to older wines. I would be really interested to repeat the comparison in a few years when the screwcap wines have developed further to see which I prefer then.

Anyway, back to the experiment. The difference between screwcaps and corks is the rate with which oxygen gets into the bottle. It can be close to zero for screwcaps: in fact, there have been problems involving reduction for wines bottled under screwcap, just as damaging in their way as problems with oxidation for wines with faulty corks. Sulfur levels need to be reduced when bottling under screwcap and it may take a while to establish the most appropriate levels for wines intended for any aging. The very best corks (defined operationally as the tightest) have very low oxygenation levels close to those of screwcaps. But the unanswered question is whether you do actually need some level of oxygen exposure; for corks this comes from the supposed “breathing” of the cork; for screwcaps it could come in the future from liners with defined rates for passage of oxygen.

So the experiment I want to do is to determine definitively whether the difference between corks and screwcaps is solely due to oxygen exposure. It is very simple in principle. Bottle a (red) wine under both cork and screwcap. Take bottles with each type of closure and keep one set in normal cellar conditions (cool, dark, humid). Put the other set under identical conditions but in an atmosphere of nitrogen. Then see whether the wines with cork and screwcap closures develop in exactly the same way under nitrogen (which is what you would expect if oxygen is the sole relevant factor). And of course see what differences emerge with and between the wines in the normal cellar. All that’s required is a cellar filled with nitrogen (and I suppose a means of retrieving bottles for periodic testing). Then finally we would know the answer instead of speculating and arguing about it.

Pinot versus Cabernet

I’ve spent the last year visiting producers and tasting Pinot Noir for my book, In Search of Pinot Noir, published this week. I’ve been so immersed in Pinot Noir that I feel somewhat guilty about deserting it for Cabernet Sauvignon now that I’ve started writing the next book, Claret and Cabs: the Story of Cabernet Sauvignon. They are so different that it’s going to be a big transition, from a wine made from a single variety to a wine that’s mostly blended in Europe but often monovarietal in the New World, from elegance to power, from small producers to large producers. Some issues are similar but take different forms for the two varieties. For Pinot Noir, I spent a good deal of time considering the differences between Old and New Worlds; for Cabernet Sauvignon, the question is more the reversal from the New World copying the Old to influencing it. Will I find as much variety of style in Cabernet as there was in Pinot?