Reactions are usually set to cynical during en primeur but one conversation with an American buyer gave me pause last week...

The American buyer told me that Bordeaux was now so unfashionable in the States that many sommeliers have never even considered it for their lists – but that this means it is now a discovery wine, the new Gruner, or Jura. One that can appeal to the craft beer generation that is always open to authentic new discoveries.

He wasn’t talking about the 1855 châteaux, but the Graves, the Castillons, the little guys who are affordable to buy and often have a real family story behind them.

Potentially good news for the Bordelais, but things need to change if this theory is really going to hold up. My feeling has increasingly been over the last few years that Bordeaux will never connect with the next generation of wine drinkers in significant numbers until it admits that it lost its way over terroir, and that it is slowly but surely finding its way back.

‘For too long in Bordeaux people used the concept of terroir to sell everything,’ Eric Monneret at Chateau La Pointe in Pomerol was telling me a few weeks ago. ‘It became a marketing term and so lost its meaning. But if we are going to reclaim its meaning, we need to be practical. The whole idea of terroir is often blurred, people get lost. In the 1980s and 1990s Bordeaux was very much about technical and oenological skills, and they forgot to talk about the soils. I see and feel that changing now, and am very excited about the next decade’.

La Pointe is an interesting case in point. Among the biggest estates in Pomerol, it long had a reputation for being planted on sand and producing easy drinking wines of charm but little complexity. But recent years have seen new drainage channels, careful replanting (the pulling up, for example, of Cabernet Sauvignon that was planted on soils that were never going to ripen the grape) and working the three sections – only one is on sand – of the vineyard very differently. ‘Everyone dreams of finding a sleeping beauty, of restoring an undiscovered terroir and bringing it to life. But you can only do that in the vineyard – and by taking a risk of it not working. We had to see if the wine was showing its intrinsic quality or if it was because of the way they were working the soils’.

For authenticity, you also have to be able to honest about what you have. ‘We are on the second terrace of Pomerol which means beneath the plateau but higher than the third terrace. It would be easy to try to cover that up and go for critical acclaim by cropping low and oaking high, but we have chosen instead to work on expressing the very best of this terroir. When we arrived almost ten years ago, La Pointe had the image of third terrace Pomerol, with the potential of a second terrace. We have brought it up, I hope, to the best of the second terrace, grazing the plateau, along with estates like Feytit-Clinet, Bourgneuf, La Croix, Beauregard’.

Understanding terroir is definitely an area where ‘show don’t tell’ holds strong, and for that I would recommend a trip to Chateau Olivier in Pessac Léognan. They have recently held a fascinating tasting for the 2015 vintage showing three samples of the wine made with their vineyard configuration in 2005 and 2010 as well as that of 2015.

This is another interesting estate when it comes to understanding how Bordeaux is reclaiming its terroir, for different reasons than La Pointe. There are only six Bordeaux estates classified in red and white, and yet Olivier has consistently filed under the radar. I have long thought it produces one of Bordeaux’s very best white wines, but until recently found the reds far less consistent.

When director Laurent Lebrun arrived in 2003 (originally from Pouilly-sur-Loire but working first in Champagne then at Remy Martin at Blue Pyrenees in Australia before moving to Bordeaux), he enlisted Terroir expert Xavier Choné to carry out an soil study not just of the 50-something hectares in production but the entire 230 hectares of the estate, that was once a hunting lodge. Much of the land was covered in forest, but they discovered one extremely high quality plot of deep gravels and powerfully compacted clay that was growing pine trees at the time. Separated from the main vineyard by about a 10 minute walk, this plot is now named Bel Air. It was given over to planting vines, and the grapes have slowly come into the first wine over the past decade. They have a 1760 map of the estate that shows it was planted at the time, and are currently doing historical studies in local archives to find out more.

It was the effect of this plot on the wine that this terroir tasting was demonstrating, and it proved absolutely fascinating. ‘This is a particularly fair representation,’says Lebrun, ‘because already in 2005 we had the ambition to do better, with new cellars that were finished in 2003 that brought in different small sized vats instead of the previous 220hl lithe vats. Owner Alexandre de Bethmann already was investing in the future of his estate. Money is clearly one barrier to entry for becoming an exceptional wine, but until you have the terroir you can’t fully realize your ambitions’.

The wines

Chateau Olivier 2015, version 2005

Wine composed of the vineyard plots as they were in 2005, when overall surface area was maybe 75% of size today, and zero addition of Bel Air as the vines had just been planted. Most of the terroir was still deep gravel but not as compacted with clay as Bel Air is, so less powerful. This has good clean fruit, perhaps a little too much austerity in the mid palate, a little short on the finish. 50%/50% merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon.

Chateau Olivier 2015, version 2010

The wine used all of Bel Air at this point but low yields so only 15% of overall. So here’s 55% cab Sauvignon and 45% merlot, because using more Bel Air. Remember this is still exactly the same age wine, because made with 2015 grapes, but the colour has more violet reflections. On the palate there is a brighter and fleshier feel, more depth, not the austerity of the mid palate from the 2005 configuration.

Chateau Olivier 2015, version 2015

Bel air makes up 30% of the wine here, and vines are now ten years old. Good yield of 45 hl/h in 2015. There is also one hectare of petit Verdot in the wine, so overall blend is 55% Cabernet Sauvignon, 45% merlot and 5% petit Verdot. Same proportion of cabernet as in 2010 but twice the quantity from Bel Air. This has another step up in colour intensity, power and poise, the tannins here have a real rich quality, this is still fresh and poised but has more muscular frame that expands over the tasting, clear ageing potential.

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  • Miguel Lecuona

    Good post. Completely true – the consumer pyramid narrows in size as Bordeaux climbs the pricing ladder, and that certainly is a major issue for future growth and generations… hence their embracement of Asian market billionaires starting with the Chinese Olympic year 2008 vintage (which was well priced), followed by spectacular 2009 and also-great-but-we’ve-had-enough-epic-Bordeaux 2010. But, their preferred consumer-grade solution (2nd and 3rd 3rd wines) may not serve them well in the long run either, and I don’t see those wines retaining the shelf spaces once reserved for the Grand Crus. How many S-Class Mercedes buyers start with C-Class and steadily trade up? Or VW owners into Audis? I don’t know. Seems like luxury buyers are already in place and don’t need the “introduction” at lower levels, while those who don’t have the means take small consolation in Baby Lafites.

    While your premise on pricing of indifferent vintages vs 2004 rings true, I am not sure I am on board with that last line — seems to me that reclaiming a clay-over-gravel historic plot within the geo-boundaries of the estate because it ideally suits the growing requirements for a specified grape would make for a spot-on terroir driven exercise. How is this objectionable? In fact it seems to be the perfect antidote to the problem you cite – purchasing cru bourgeois acreage and sticking a grand cru flag in it. If the true objection is higher profits, is that really a terroir-driven objection! 🙂

  • adrian latimer

    We really don’t need Bordeaux to jump on the terroir marketing bandwagon. The reason Bordeaux is so unpopular and untrendy is that many of the top estates are characterized by arrogance, greed and a total disconnect with the consumer. It is more about corporate bottom lines, multi million pound ‘look at me’ new construction and every vintage being either great or ‘saved by a miraculous autumn’. Wines from indifferent recent vintages sell for three times the price the did in 2004… also one cant help suspect that some of them have an eye on the US market & critics scores and the other on the Chinese (the latter a bit of a mistake as they have realized).
    But forgetting the problems, look at the historical epicenter of terroir – Burgundy. Unlike Bordeaux, it is mono varietal (well, one for red and one for white). the 6 Vosne crus of DRC taste different but the whole lot would fit comfortably into many Bordeaux chateaux where the vineyards can be very separated and are basically more a brand than a single terroir. Indeed many grand crus have recently purchased cru bourgeois in the same commune and guess what, the wine is immediately entitled to the grand cru classification. Not so in Burgundy – when de Vogue & Roumier mix some of their village wine with 1e cru Chambolle, the whole lot has to be classified as village.
    But apart from the history and geography, why is Bordeaux pretending to be, all of a sudden, a terroir wine region? It is not Burgundy and it is not the Mosel. Do all the vineyard plots on different terroirs have names that date back centuries? And why are they embarrassed? Because terroir is trendy and therefore a good marketing tool. But why? Grange Hermitage is a blend from all over the place, but I don’t see it doing too badly. So is Chave’s Hermitage and La Chapelle – they are not single vineyard wines, they are brilliant blends from varying vineyards on the Hermitage hill. So is Bartolo Mascarello’s iconic Barolo etc etc – one could go on for pages of examples of wines that are blends and that are beautifully made, refined and sought after. So, for that matter, is Haut Brion and Lafite, (etc) just with a lot more ego and arrogance these days, alas, and most sadly, a price tag and sales strategy since 2005 that has made their wine inaccessible for all except the very wealthy or those one endless corporate expense accounts.
    Finding a plot of wines that is covered in pine trees and could be cleared to sell wine at much higher profit does not really make it a terroir driven exercise!

  • Miguel Lecuona

    Great read, fascinating tasting, Jane, would have loved to be at that table with you. Terroir discovery, in this case, benefits from the reclaiming of the old 1760 vineyard plot. But that’s not necessarily to imply that Terroir equates to Historic Authenticity, is it? After all, over the entire appellation of Graves, isn’t Merlot a relatively modern varietal — when Merlot arrive in force to garner as much as 50% of any red blend?

    To David Stannard’s point below, “increasing majority of consumers want good value for money for wine…” The other trend to note is increasing interest in Direct-To-Consumer wine sales, clubs and experience. I am seeing a rather forceful phenomenon in the extremely new “Texas Terroir” movement that pushes for authenticity and expression among Direct-to-Consumer wineries, where the buying public has access to winemakers, vineyards and barrel tastings at smaller wineries, on a frequent basis. They also sell more than one wine, so the fascination with varietals, blends, new products, and food-and-wine pairings is endless.

    Finally, this may be more in response to your other article about the demise of En Primeur, but it seems relevant here: If I had anything to recommend to the smaller Bordeaux chateaux, it would be to study the DTC model, open up your estates to those seeking personal authenticity, develop and cultivate a following with as much patience and planning as they do their vineyard plots, and bypass the Place de Bordeaux. How about going from a 0/100% mix of DTC/Place sales to 20/80% in 10 years, and 40/60% in 20?

  • David Stannard

    As owner of niche Bordeaux wine producer Paradise Rescued, it has certainly been interesting to look closely at this issue of terroir! I recall so often as I toured different vineyards and properties that when I asked a particular patron why his wine tasted a certain way, his answer was almost always “Ah, monsieur, it’s the terroir!” The reply indicated that the only variable (in his / her mind) was the location and that through inheritance or good luck he / she ended up in the right place and consequently his wine tasted a particular way. Terroir has a fourth and possibly more important dimension – people. People create the magic and taste behind a wonderful wine.

    The world outside a few highly skilled and learned professionals doesn’t worry that much whether the soil is all limestone or clay. They want a great tasting wine that fits with the price they are willing to pay. Outside of Bordeaux, maybe France, very few people can even start to understand why one property on one side of the road making average wine but with a “village appellation” can be worth three times as much compared to a better wine produced just metres way but only able to carry a “generic appellation”.

    Bordeaux makes very good wines at all levels. But we have to be more market and customer focussed and less introspective. An increasing majority of consumers want a good value for money wine – including the best – but without the need for an interpreter, soil analysis and label decoder. And of course with a great story about its people.

  • Antoine Bisset

    Looking back at the history of the regions is a good place to start. The 1855 classification sometimes prompts the question, “how did that estate get on this list?”
    Because the wines were ranked according to price or scribbled in at the bottom when everyone else had gone home, the result was generally a fair reflection of perceived quality at that time. Similar production methods, the difference being the terroir.
    I would go from there to the view that any properties that would not now hold their place are underachieving. By that I mean that they are not exploiting fully the natural qualities of the domain. From there to the view that “upping their game” by investing in fitting out vinification and storage facilities, and overhauling the vineyard and growing regime, would return the property to a high place in the rankings. Be it noted that the return on investment may be high. Ch Pontet Canet has gone from a wine sold as “Canet” on French trains to an exceptionally well regarded wine with a high selling price.
    Similar views may be taken of the other areas and properties in Bordeaux.