Does Terroir Survive Distillation?

“I really believe terroir survives distillation, but you have to work for it,” says Guillaume Drouin, at Calvados producer Christian Drouin. Guillaume’s grandfather made Calvados as a hobby, his father started producing commercially—“his intention was to make the best Calvados he could”—and Guillaume has taken the company further into artisanal production, concentrating on vintage Calvados as well as a range of blends with differing ages. Drouin was the perfect producer to visit to investigate the effects of terroir on spirits.

I have always been sceptical about the role of terroir on Cognac. The official definition of an appellation hierarchy decreasing in concentric circle around the town of Cognac is, of course, a geological nonsense, and I’ve always been puzzled how terroir can exert an effect when the starting point for production is to make a wine that is as neutral as possible. I thought Calvados might be different, as coming from apples, via an intermediate stage of cider, it offers more opportunity to show differences  that might survive or even be magnified during distillation. And Pays d’Auge comes only from apples, whereas Calvados AOP and Domfront, another appellation, farther west) can include pears as well.

Drouin is located at the northern edge of the Pays d’Auge, the best appellation within Calvados (AOP Calvados can come from a wine range of areas with outcrops as far as Cherbourg and Neufchatel). In fact, you might regard Drouin as a cool climate Calvados, as the 30 ha of orchards are near Honfleur. Two parallels with vines are the location and ages of the trees. Some orchards are 10 km farther south and harvest is later there. And they get better as they age,  “Apple trees last up to 60 years, and flavors get deeper in old trees,” says Guillaume, although it seems that the effects are not so pronounced as with Vieilles Vignes.

Drouin1Drouin’s winery is typically Normand.

 

There are probably a couple of hundred varieties of apples in the region. “Every producer will tell you he has more than 20 varieties,” says Guillaume, “we work with 30. It’s important in our style. We categorize the types of apples as sweet, bitter sweet, bitter, and acid.” Because there are so many varieties, picking lasts from the end of September to early December. Apple trees function on a two year cycle, so if a variety gives high yields one year, it compensates with low yields the next year. Blending is the crucial tool for ironing out these differences from year to year. “Every time I have tried to make single variety cider or Calvados, I was very disappointed,” Guillaume says.

The blending process has many parallels with aged tawny Port. A blended Calvados has an average age, rather than an exact age. At Drouin, VSOP is 6-8 years, XO is 10-12 years, and Hors d’Age is 15 years (the legal minimum average for Hors d’Age is 6 years). Some producers make a range comparable to the ages of tawny ports—at Domaine Dupont, I tasted 20-year and 30-year Calvados, and the increase in refinement going from the younger to the older was very similar to my experience with tawny Ports. In the same way, blending may involve many lots, including very small amounts of very old spirits as well as larger amounts of younger ones. “Up to 40 lots might be blended, but the exact number is a secret,” I was told when I asked for details.

As the objective of blending is to maintain consistency of style, this does not seem fruitful grounds for investigating terroir, but Drouin also makes vintage Calvados. Most producers make vintage Calvados occasionally—when the year is good and when market demand supports it—but Drouin is really committed. “We are a specialist in vintage and make one every year,” Guillaume explains. “We bottle it after 30 years aging. Probably 70% of character is due to the aging, and 30% is the quality of the vintage. We find differences from one vintage to the next, but not as much as you would find in a wine region.”

Issues of balancing acidity and tannins are similar to wine. Lots that are unusually well balanced are not blended but are kept aside to become vintage Calvados. While blended Calvados is aged in French oak, for the vintage other sources may be used, depending on the year. “Calvados is traditionally blended, it’s the way to get balance. With vintage we change the source of the casks each year to get balance. The blend is made by the same production method each year, it has to have the same style, but for the vintage every year is aged in a different way.” So the 1993 shows a light, delicate style—it was my favorite in a vertical tasting—and it was aged in casks from Sauternes. The 1995 is much denser and was aged in old Port casks. When I commented that it seemed more classic, I was given the 1973—“this is really classic”—which was aged in Calvados casks.

So this makes it a little difficult to assess the effect of vintage. The differences are sufficiently striking, however, that it seems fair to conclude that, much like wine, they reflect what happened to the various cultivars in the specific conditions of that year, perhaps even amplified by the choices made during aging. Vintages are a bit easier to compare with Calvados, of course, because there is no aging in the bottle: once the Calvados has been imprisoned in the bottle, the signature of that vintage has been captured for once and for all.

There are really too many variables for it to be possible to compare terroirs. I’m not aware of individual producers making different bottlings from different orchards; comparing different producers would be complicated by different blending choices; and with vintage the main point is to emphasize the success of the year. But I am quite convinced that vintage Calvados offers something of the same interest as comparing vintages with wine, and certainly allows for choices in matching style to palate.

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The Scandalous Expansion of Amarone

Valpolicella is an area of extremes. On the one hand, Valpolicella tout court is simple, light, and fruity. On the other hand, Amarone is a weighty wine, with lots of extraction coming from the use of dried grapes, definitely in the direction of power and opulence. Given this bifurcation, you might expect the emphasis in the region to be on methods of vinification, but on a recent visit I discovered that in fact a major concern is the abuse of terroir.

You might say the problem started years ago, when the area of Valpolicella was extended. The original area, close to Lake Garda, is now called Valpolicella Classico, and remains (or should remain) the mark of quality. The general Valpolicella area extends far to the east, past Verona, and to the north of Soave.

Three types of wine are made in the Valpolicella region. Lowest in the hierarchy is the regular wine labeled with the name of the DOC (Valpolicella Classico or Valpolicella). Superiore is supposed to indicate slightly higher quality. These are very much wines for quaffing, a bit like Beaujolais. Then there’s what you might call an intermediate style called Ripasso, which I will discuss in tomorrow’s blog (When Ripasso Is Not Ripasso).

At the top of the pyramid come Recioto (sweet) and Amarone (dry), which have their own DOCGs based on the method of production. In the Appassimento technique, grapes are dried for a minimum of 100 days on wooden trays in drying lofts before pressing and fermentation. This concentrates everything to make wine in a rich, oxidative style, but the style isn’t due just to greater concentration: a wide range of aromatic changes also occur during the drying period (and are emphasized further if any botrytis occurs, although it’s discouraged by many producers). The basic difference between the two styles is that Amarone is fermented dry, but fermentation is stopped for Recioto to leave some residual sugar (typically around 100 g/l). Sometimes the grapes are dried a month longer for Recioto. Masi3 Grapes drying on traditional wooden racks at Masi.

It seems pretty obvious that if the basis for making the wine is concentrating the grapes before fermentation, those grapes are absolutely going to have to be of the highest quality. “You can’t just use any grapes for Appassimento. Large bunches don’t work well as they get too much rot. You need lighter bunches that are open and not too compact. Harvest occurs a few (5-6) days before what would be regarded as peak ripeness, to help to preserve acidity,” says Massimilla di Serego Alighieri at major producer Masi.

AllegriniLoftGrapes drying in plastic boxes in Allegrini’s vast drying loft.

Until the early nineties, Amarone production was 1-2 million bottles, which is around 6% of all production in Valpolicella. But then it took off exponentially, and now is around 10 million bottles, accounting for more than a quarter of the grapes. What does this do for quality? According to Marilisa Allegrini, “Production has increased drastically, and the only way to do that was to expand. People started planting on the plain in the sixties, in areas that aren’t historic for producing Amarone, because of the demand. There is no regulation. The Consorzio [who make the rules in Italy] are dominated by companies that pay more contributions (because of higher volume) – in Valpolicella it’s the coop. The irony is that the people who make the rules today are the people who didn’t make any Amarone ten years ago. Now much of Amarone is produced in areas that never made it before.”

ValpolicellaProductionThe exponential expansion of Amarone. Graph shows use of grapes; pie chart shows proportions of wine produced.

Single vineyard Amarone’s are relatively rare, so it’s difficult to get a direct feeling for the effect of terroir, but at Allegrini all grapes for Amarone come from hillside vineyards. In addition to the effects of increased elevation, the soil turns from clay to limestone. All this brings a certain precision, which in my opinion is needed to counterpoise the effects of the extra concentration from drying. It is awfully easy for the style of Amarone to slide into clumsiness. There’s not a trace of that at the top producers whom I visited, whose wines I’ll discuss in detail in a future blog (I Visit Four Top Producers in Valpolicella).

So what’s to be done? The Consorzio did take a step in the direction of quality by reducing the proportion of grapes that can be used for Amarone from the legal limit of 65% to a lower 50%, but the expansion of plantings has reversed the reduction in output. When Amarone (and Recioto) were promoted to DOCG in 2009, the rules specified the length of the period for drying, the proportion of grapes that could be used—but not which subregions within Valpolicella might be appropriate. It’s time to rectify this major mistake.

The Pseudo-Science of Investigating Terroir (and Why Some Reports May Prove the Opposite of What They Think)

I am fed up with reading reports in the press that scientists have shown a role for microorganisms in terroir. I don’t know which is worse: the lack of logical analysis in the original scientific papers, or the uncritical acceptance of the conclusions by the press.

The running defect in all these papers is a misunderstanding of the meaning of terroir. The concept of terroir is simple enough: fruit grown in one place will have consistently different characteristics from fruit grown in another place. In the case of grapes, this translates to differences in wines according to their origins. But a crucial feature is consistency: it does not prove a basis for terroir to show a difference between grapes from different sources, but that difference has to be persist over multiple vintages.

Whether local microbial populations – in particular yeast, which are responsible for creating most of the flavors of wine during fermentation – contribute to terroir is the subject of paper just published by a group led by Sarah Knight at the University of Auckland.[i] It goes so far as to put “evidence for a microbial aspect to terroir” in the title. But the work is fatally flawed.

The approach superficially seems controlled: yeast were collected from different vineyards and then used to ferment examples of the same batch of sterilized juice from Sauvignon Blanc grapes. Differences in the resulting wine must be due to the yeasts. The analysis rests upon previous work from the same group that showed genetic differences in S. cerevisiae populations in different locations in New Zealand.[ii] Ignoring the fact that only 4 yeast genotypes were found on grapes (potentially able to affect the properties of wine) while the remaining 21 genotypes were limited to soil, this makes the unsurprising point that there are variations in natural yeast populations.

Each isolated yeast population gave wine with a different profile of volatile compounds. Talking about reinventing the wheel! There have been too many demonstrations to count that different cultivars of yeast can have profound effects on the character of wine. Indeed, this is the basis for a sizeable industry in which yeasts selected to emphasize (or de-emphasize) particular aspects of wine character are available commercially. It’s almost trivial to choose yeast to bring out herbaceous character in Sauvignon Blanc, for example.

The logical error in the paper is to conclude that the observations demonstrate any role for microbes in terroir. Taking a single snapshot entirely misses the point, because the population of yeast may be quite different the next year. According to Ribéreau-Gayon’s authoritative book on viticulture and vinification: “In a given vineyard, spontaneous fermentation is not systematically carried out by the same strains each year; strain specificity does not exist and therefore does not participate in vineyard characteristics. Ecological observations do not confirm the notion of a vineyard-specific yeast.”[iii] Surely it behooves any new work to explain why this wrong?

A couple of years ago, a group led by Dr. David Mills at the University of California showed directly by DNA sequencing that different microbes were present on the skins of grapes in different vineyards.[iv] That work was fatally flawed because most of the microorganisms were what are known as spoilage organisms, and are probably not part of useful fermentation (see The Answer to Terroir Does Not Lie on the Skin).

After that, a group led by Régis D. Gougeon at the University of Dijon sampled two vineyards in Burgundy and claimed that they could find differences in both grapes and wine, although differences between vintages were more significant than differences between vineyards. I reckon their samples were too small to be significant because they analyzed only 100 berries from each vineyard, but anyway it’s interesting that vintage was a bigger effect than origin (see Will people please stop trying to prove terroir exists. It’s more useful to look for gold at the end of the rainbow).

These studies are naively touted in the press as showing the involvement of microbes in terroir, but to date there is really no evidence at all: in fact, if the microbes vary significantly from year to year, they may dilute the effect of terroir rather than contributing to it. One could make a career of debunking these studies, which could provide a really good exercise for students of science in how to misinterpret uncontrolled studies.

References

[i] Sarah Knight, Steffen Klaere, Bruno Fedrizzi & Matthew R. Goddard.Regional microbial signatures positively correlate with differential wine phenotypes: evidence for a microbial aspect to terroir. Nature Scientific Reports 5, 2015, doi:10.1038/srep14233.

[ii] Sarah Knight and Matthew R Goddard. Quantifying separation and similarity in a Saccharomyces cerevisiae metapopulation. (The ISME Journal (2015) 9, 361–370; doi:10.1038/ismej.2014.132; published online 25 July 2014).

[iii] Pascal Ribéreau-Gayon et al., The Handbook of Enology, Volume 1, The Microbiology of Wine and Vinifications, 2nd edition (John Wiley & Sons, New York, 2000), p. 46.

[iv] Nicholas A. Bokulich, John H. Thorngate, Paul M. Richardson, and David A. Mills. Microbial biogeography of wine grapes is conditioned by cultivar, vintage, and climate (Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci. USA doi/10.1073/pnas.1317377110).

Clos Vougeot from Top to Bottom: Is it Really a Grand Cru?

Clos Vougeot is perhaps the most variable of all the grand crus of the Cote de Nuits, and the one whose status is most often questioned (Echézeaux being the other). It’s only the accident of the area being literally enclosed by a surrounding wall that led to the uniform classification, as it extends right from the top of the slope (more or less in line with the premier crus) through the middle (in line with the grand crus) to the bottom (usually mere communal territory). In fact, it’s worse than that, because the fault line that mostly runs along the N74, dividing the great communes from the mere Bourgogne on the other side, actually diverts to run through the bottom edge of Clos Vougeot. (I discuss this in detail in my book In Search of Pinot Noir, from which the figure below is taken). Classified by geology, Clos Vougeot would include everything from ordinary Bourgogne to Grand Cru. Now if you taste your way across, for example, Gevrey Chambertin, from say the N74 to Le Chambertin, the difference between communal appellation, premier cru, and grand cru is usually fairly obvious. An unusual opportunity to see if there are obvious differences with location for Clos Vougeot came from a tasting of the 2011 vintage organized by Fine and Rare Wines in London, with examples from 38 producers. ClosVougeotCross

A cross-section of Clos Vougeot shows the strong variations in terroir.

Clos Vougeot has been divided between many producers since the French Revolution, but its division into climats hasn’t changed much since the sixteenth century. The monks knew all about this, and supposedly used the wine from the bottom for communal use, the wine from the top for visiting bishops, and reserved the wine from the middle for princes and the pope. Most of the wines at the tasting represented one of these three areas, but some were blended from multiple plots. However, the striking feature was a lack of any clear correlation between location and style.

VougeotMapClos Vougeot is divied into many plots with around 80 proprietors.

For me the wines of character fell into two general groups, which roughly might be defined as those I would (mistakenly) have placed in the Cote de Beaune in a blind tasting, because flashy red fruits showed more than structure, and those that I would unhesitatingly have placed in the Cote de Nuits (sometimes farther north than Clos Vougeot). Perhaps there is a tendency for the wines from the bottom to show more overt fruits and those from the very top to show more obvious structure, but I’d be hard put to support that in a blind tasting.

Clos Vougeot may offer the most fleshy character of the Cote de Nuits, certainly more opulent than delicate Chambolle Musigny or stern Gevrey Chambertin. I was really surprised by how sweet and ripe many of the wines were, although that’s not the reputation of the 2011 vintage. I was frankly disappointed by about half the wines, which seemed to lack grand cru quality (meaning that fruits were relatively simple and I could not see where future complexity would come from), but these showed no correlation with position, and came from plots all over the Clos. (It’s true that none of my preferred wines came exclusively from the bottom, but I don’t think that’s statistically significant.)

Wines in my category of delicious but rather Beaune-ish, with red fruits dominating, include Chanson, Chateau de la Tour, Louis Max, Denis Mortet, Mugneret-Gibourg, Jacques Prieur, Drouhin, Roche de Bellene, Domaine de la Vougeraie, Chauvenet-Chopin. Nice wines, but shouldn’t we expect more from a grand cru than simply a delicious crowd-pleasing quality?

Wines that melded the fleshiness of Clos Vougeot with a sense of structure of the Cote de Nuits, with black fruits more prominent, include Jean-Jacques Confuron, Louis Latour, Marchand-Tawse, Domaine d’Eugénie, Anne Gros, and the Vieilles Vignes from Chateau de la Tour (quite different from the regular cuvée). This is my concept of Clos Vougeot, anyway.

Some top wines came from old-line producers. Méo-Camuzet, including a large prime plot close to the chateau, really showed as a classic grand cru from Cote de Nuits, Arnoux-Lachaux (from plot in the upper third) a nice mix of fleshiness and structure in the modern style of the house, and Louis Jadot (from a plot extending from bottom through the middle) showed their characteristic sense of balance.

It is a sign of the times that I thought two of the best wines came from micro-negociants who do not even own any land in the Clos. Olivier Bernstein showed his usual opulent style, but with enough underlying structure to support longevity for years. The wine lives up to the reputation of the plot, which has very old vines (more than 80 years) in the middle of Clos Vougeot towards the south. The wine I found the most interesting of all came from Lucien Le Moine, and is not identified with any single plot. “Our Clos Vougeot has a particularity, it’s a blend from all three parts,” winemaker Mounir Saouma told me on a recent visit. The monks would have been very pleased with this: it captures the fleshiness of Clos Vougeot in the context of the structure of the Cote de Nuits and Mounir’s trademark elegance.

The take-home message for me was that producer triumphs over terroir in Clos Vougeot. Should it be a grand cru? I’d say about a third of the wines met my standard for grand cru. I’ll have to do a similar tasting for Chambertin or Musigny to see if the ratio goes up.

The Black Wine of Cahors Turns Into Modern Malbec (Sometimes)

On a recent visit to Cahors, I gained an entirely new view of the effects of terroir on Malbec at two producers. At Cosse Maisonneuve, wines coming from the bottom, middle, and top of the slope of vineyards surrounding the winery showed a transition from fruit-driven at the base to fine and elegant at the top. At Clos Triguedina, Jean-Luc Baldès gave me a box of his Trilogie wines from the 2011 vintage to take home and taste at leisure. I have been waiting for the weather to cool down to provide appropriate tasting conditions for these strong red wines, and August Bank Holiday Monday in London seems the perfect occasion: cold and rainy. (Is this global warming? What happened to summer?)

To best demonstrate terroir, the Trilogie wines are 100% Malbec. Malbec is not a grape that occasions a lot of discussion of terroir. The basis for the old “black wine” of Cahors, it reached its peak in France in the fourteenth century, when Cahors amounted to as much as half of all exports from the port of Bordeaux. One of the dominant grapes of Bordeaux in the nineteenth century, it was replaced with Merlot after the phylloxera epidemic, when it also essentially disappeared from Cahors.

Malbec was revived in Cahors in the late 1940s; when the AOC was created in 1971, regulations required a minimum of 70% Malbec. Most people’s view of Malbec today, of course, comes from its success in Argentina (which now accounts for almost three quarters of world plantings). Yet this has not been bad for Cahors. “The success of Argentina opened the door to export and to making another style of wine. The Malbec from Argentina is a different wine, different terroir, different climate – even here the terroir is not the same 10 km away – that’s what we try to show with Trilogie,” says Jean-Luc.

The terroir of Cahors consists of a plain around the horse shoe bends of the river, rising up a couple of hundred meters to the south across a series of terraces. Each terrace represents a different geological era. Trilogie includes wines from the second, third, and fourth terraces.CahorsCrossFrom the second terrace, closest to the river, Au Coin du Bois comes from near the town of Puy l’Eveque, and its evident ripe fruits give a distinctly modern impression. The black fruits are balanced by a delicious counterpoise of acidity and savory notes. I might not go so far as to draw a direct parallel with the New World, but, this is certainly the most approachable of the Trilogie, and would be a fine introduction to the modem style of Cahors for anyone familiar with Argentine Malbec.

The reputation of the third terrace, a little higher up, is that the wines are richer, but in the case of Les Galets, which comes from the area of Vire sur Lot, I was more struck by its structure. With less obvious fruit and more acidity, there’s a more restrained impression. This is the most backward wine of Trilogie; the fruits can’t quite get out from under the tannins yet. Here you can see the resemblance with the old Black Wine of Cahors, known not only for its dark color but for its impenetrable tannins.

Petits Cailles lives up to the reputation of the fourth terrace for producing the finest, most elegant wines. Black fruits are supported by fine-grained tannins and good acidity, with just a touch of tobacco at the end. This shows most clearly the origin of Malbec in Bordeaux, and there’s a resemblance to the wines of the Médoc.

Trilogie expresses all the aspects of Malbec in one box, running the full gamut from a fruit-forward modern expression of Malbec, to a fine elegant Bordeaux-like impression, to the traditional tough youthful structure. It’s a fascinating combination of showing terroir with recapitulating the history of Malbec

A Visit to Jean Luc Thunevin: the Bad Boy of St. Emilion Explains his Philosophy

My visit to Jean Luc got off to an interesting start when I explained that I was writing a book called The Wines of Modern France: A Guide to 500 Leading Producers. He looked slightly quizzical. “You don’t believe that France can be modern,” I asked, as that’s a wry response that has been made by other producers in France. “The title of your book seems curious to me because even the classic are modern now,” he explained. “I give you an example,” he continued. “Le Pin: is it a modern wine or a classic? It’s not a garage wine but it inspired me.” Then another example: “It’s not so easy to find a classic wine: Léoville Barton? But it’s also a modern wine.” Then a little more argumentative: “the image of modern wine is new oak. But then Mouton 1947 was a modern wine.”

True to the French tradition, Jean Luc then asked what is the philosophy of modernity. “The success of modernity is to be able to have a product that pleases the clients,” he concluded. “What’s a wine that’s a has-been? It’s one that doesn’t please the clients.” I argued that Valandraud was a modern wine that altered the paradigm by introducing changes that many others followed, first in St. Emilion and then elsewhere. Jean Luc agreed at least that he is a modernist. “I’m modern, I was the first garagiste. We protected the fruits, took precautions against oxidation, introduced green harvest, leaf pulling. Everyone does it now.”

“The first wine that I loved was Pétrus. Then Le Pin was my inspiration,” he explained, “I wanted to make a wine like Le Pin, hedonistic and sexy, soft and chic.” This seemed to be an argument for instant gratification, so I asked about the importance of ageability. “Ageability is a big obligation of Bordeaux,” he agreed, “everyone wants wine that can age because of Bordeaux. But happily we can now make wines that are good now and age well. When I started people said Valandraud would not last more than ten years, but now it has lasted thirty years.” Later he proved his point by pulling out a 2002 Valandraud for tasting. “I give you this because it’s easy to make a sexy wine in a good year, but this was a difficult year.” The wine was delicious, just on the tipping point into tertiary development. I asked how long Jean Luc thinks it will last. “It’s a baby, it’s just beginning to develop,” he said. “The 1992 is still good and we didn’t have the same techniques then, for example, sorting,” he explained.

I thought I might provoke an interesting response by asking whether garage wines are finished. “As a phenomenon, that’s sure. But not as a niche. And there are garagistes in other places, Spain for example. But anyway, it’s not the phenomenon of garage wines, it’s the phenomenon of expensive wines.” Of course, Valandraud has now come a long way from its origins as a garage wine: it’s now a St. Emilion Premier Grand Cru Classé. Doesn’t the latest reclassification in St. Emilion show a big change in attitude, I asked. “You have a point,” Jean Luc agreed. “It’s hard for people to accept that success can depend on a person and (just) on the terroir. But it’s only fifty years since the first classification. At that time it was incredible to believe that St. Emilion would be ready for reclassification in ten years…Angelus’s promotion is due to Hubert de Bouard’s talent… If Cheval Blanc hadn’t had good proprietors, it wouldn’t have become a Premier Grand Cru Classé.”

As you might expect from the first garagiste, Jen Luc has some reservations about terroir. “People don’t understand what is good terroir. They confuse aesthetics with reality. I give you the example of Chateau Rayas—the soil is sandy… It’s (only) necessary that the soil isn’t bad, not too dry, not too wet. You have to have good berries.”

Jean Luc has a strong sense of independence, but for all his success, no pretension. We met above the l’Essential wine shop in his tiny office, where Jean Luc has a desk at one end and his assistants are grouped at the other end. “There’s a glass ceiling in the Médoc, he said, “I could get nowhere, but in St. Emilion the door was open. I sell my wine in my boutique, I don’t need negociants, I don’t need to export, I have autonomy.” Then we went down to the wine shop and tasted the 2011 Valandraud—“this was an austere year in Bordeaux, the problem for me was to make a sexy wine”—followed by the 2002. Jean Luc sent the shop manager up to the office to collect the staff, who came down to try the 2002. It was a good end to the day, with appreciative murmurs all round.

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?