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Jefford on Monday: Terroir: France’s duelling definitions

Andrew Jefford reveals a strange truth behind French wine’s key concept...

Bordeaux and Burgundy are France’s two most celebrated vineyard areas.  The concept of terroir is France’s greatest single contribution to wine culture.  How strange, then, that terroir is defined in a strikingly different manner in Bordeaux and Burgundy.

Burgundy’s notion of terroir provides the global paradigm.  It was, significantly, the region’s “climats and terroirs” which won World Heritage Status last year (whereas Bordeaux is listed for the city’s Port de la Lune and St Emilion’s ‘jurisdiction’).

A Burgundian climat is one of 1,247 individual, small parcels of vineyard land which, according to the 2015 UNESCO decision, “materialise in an outstanding manner the long-lasting relationship of the local human communities with their territory and their ability to identify, exploit and distinguish progressively their geological, hydrological, atmospheric and pedological properties and associated productive potential since the Middle Ages”.  A wordy formula – but cunningly worded.  When wine producers outside Europe begin the long and ‘progressive’ journey towards understanding their own terroirs, this parcel-based definition is generally what they have in mind.

It doesn’t hold, though, in the Médoc – where you’ll find no official recognition for any terroir unit smaller than the commune (in fact a political unit, often of a thousand hectares or more).

Any property, including those in the 1855 classification, can buy, sell and incorporate land from anywhere in the commune in their wine, despite the fact that the terroir potential of that land varies from sublime (when positioned atop the greatest croupes or gravel mounds) to miserable (poorly drained land heading towards the bottom of the jalles or creeks), and regardless of any classification the land might have.  Some properties even include land outside their own commune, like Lafite (which usually includes vinified grapes from the St Estèphe parcel of Caillava, close to Lafon-Rochet).

Put more simply, this means that the vineyards of Latour (for example) would not be, in Burgundy terms, a Grand Cru. Some of Latour’s vineyards are certainly of Grand Cru quality (Grand Enclos or Sarmentier); some of Premier Cru quality (Canterrane, Bois de Latour, Chêne Vert); some merely ‘village’ wine (Petit Sablonnet, La Prairie).  Any great Médoc wine is a crafted synopsis of a set of vineyards, often of 50 parcels or more.

Why?  The answer lies in history, not geography or geology.  These vast estates did not have antecedents in the Middle Ages, tended by monks or small-holders.  Instead they were developed speculatively in the eighteenth century by a wealthy bourgeoisie.  That primacy of ‘estate’ over individual parcel received nineteenth-century sanction with the 1855 classification.

Things are different – though this is not widely understood – on the right bank in St-Emilion: a part of Bordeaux which was indeed producing wine in the Middle Ages, and where both monks and small-holders played a key role.  You cannot simply buy and absorb land within a commune into a set of château holdings in St-Emilion, since parcels are classified there. You have to apply for permission to do this; the quality of the land will be scrutinized before permission is given.  Nor can you (in contrast to the Médoc) produce multiple wines from different sets of vineyards in a single cellar.

Take the case, for example, of Château Canon.  In 2011, it bought the 12 ha of its neighbour Ch Matras.  Matras was a Grand Cru Classé but not a Premier Grand Cru Classé; its parcels weren’t regarded as being of equal merit to those of Canon.  Canon’s owners – the Wertheimer family of Chanel – applied (and obtained in 2012) the reclassification of two of those parcels.  The rest of the Matras land, though, was renamed Croix Canon, and it has to be vinified in a separate cellar, housed in an old chapel on former Matras land.  For the record, it also includes the second wine of Canon (though there isn’t any in 2015), since declassification is of course permitted.

This is a striking contrast to, for example, the production of Moulin Riche at Léoville-Poyferré, or that of Lalande-Borie at Ducru-Beaucaillou, though the situations are largely analogous.  Had it found itself in the Médoc, Canon could even have swallowed Matras whole, in one gulp.  End of story.

Will the Bordeaux interpretation of terroir always differ from that of Burgundy?  And will the Médoc definition of terroir always differ from that of St Emilion?

A recent week travelling with students on both sides of the Gironde set me thinking about these questions.  Even after the stuttering en primeur campaigns for the 2011-2014 vintages, top properties in Bordeaux are extraordinary wealth-generation machines.  The cost price of great Bordeaux is rarely more than 30 euros a bottle, yet many sell at four or five times that price; yields of 45 hl/ha need not compromise quality; and it is not unusual in the Médoc for a property to run 80 ha or more of vines.

What is all that money being spent on?  Proprietors would generally prefer to minimize what they surrender in tax, so they invest – in their vineyards, with a move towards organics and biodynamics (I was told Gruaud-Larose will join Pontet-Canet, Palmer, Climens and Latour’s L’Enclos in adopting biodynamic cultivation from this autumn; Ch Margaux is mostly organic and experimenting with biodynamics); and in their cellars – with elaborate and often strikingly beautiful refurbishments.  The result is a huge leap forward in what we could call precision: cultivation and vinification by single parcel.  Canon and Cheval Blanc, for example, are just two properties among many to have a tank of the correct size for every parcel.

This in turn means that insights into terroir in Bordeaux have multiplied greatly in recent years.  Secretly, behind the scenes, to those involved in producing fine Bordeaux, the parcels are, if you like, beginning to modulate into climats – giving producers the wherewithal to deliver a more Burgundian vision of Bordeaux should they wish.  That trend is already underway in style terms, with many producers easing back on maceration times and the force of their extraction techniques.

Don’t expect an explosion of single-parcel wines next year, or even the year after: the simple effectiveness and ‘brand power’ of the château name remains an awesome commercial force, and Bordeaux’s refined blending traditions, too, have served the region handsomely down the years.  The same things, though, used to be said about Champagne – and look at the explosion in single-parcel wines there.  The revelation of terroir, in sum, is usually followed by a desire to share those insights with the world.  In a decade or two, it’s possible that we may be tasting a new set of fine wines from Bordeaux.

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