Terroir plays no part in the production of great wines, a report to be presented to the Royal Economic Society in Nottingham will say today.
The study threatens the long-held belief that the best French wines are unbeatable because of their terroir – an inimitable combination of soil, climate and topography.
Olivier Gergaud from the University of Reims and Victor Ginsburgh of the Université Libre de Bruxelles argue that winemaking technologies, not terroir, determine the quality of the wine.
The pair collected data on environmental conditions and winemaking techniques across the vineyards of the Haut-Médoc in 1990, including the first-growths Mouton-Rothschild, Latour, Lafite-Rothschild and Margaux.
The information was entered into a database in order to compare terroir characteristics with winemaking techniques for 100 vineyards in the region. The data was also compared with the prices certain vintages fetched on the wine market and the scores they received from tasters including Michael Broadbent and Robert Parker.
The results, the authors say, show that winemaking techniques completely overshadow the effect of terroir.
‘The French terroir legend obviously does not hold; at least in the Médoc region,’ they say.
Influential members of the wine business do agree that wines can be well made anywhere in the world but they are unshaken in their belief that terroir adds complexity and depth.
‘Very good wines are produced in Chile, for example,’ says Denise Capbern Gasqueton of Château Calon-Ségur in St Estèphe. ‘But they can lack terroir, and terroir is what makes everything. A wine that is well-produced is a good wine, but lacks complexity and other elements to which we are used.’
‘Anybody can make the argument either way. They’re just being contentious for the sake of it,’ said UK wine consultant Bill Baker. ‘Many new world wines are very good but don’t have the depth and structure [of great Bordeaux] and never will have.’
The Royal Economic Society – one of the oldest economic associations in the world, according to its website – has 3,300 individual members, of which 60% live outside the UK.
Studying the difference between Bordeaux prices influenced by the American critic, and prices set without reference to his journal the Wine Advocate, economist Michel Visser and two colleagues concluded a Parker score could add up to €3 to the price of a bottle.
Parker normally tastes in the spring of the year following the vintage, but for various reasons he did not taste Bordeaux’s 2002 vintage until the autumn of 2003 – leaving producers to set prices without referring to his scores.
The difference in prices between the wines of 2002 and those tasted and rated by Parker in other years was found to be around €3 per bottle. This corresponds to 15% of the average en primeur price in 2003.
The three authors at INRA, France’s institute for agronomic research, quantified the ‘Parker effect’ at exactly €2.80 per bottle.
When looked at by appellation, it was found that the ‘Parker effect’ is largest for wines made in Pomerol, ‘which is interesting since these are precisely the wines which Robert Parker appreciates the most,’ a statement from the conference organisers says.
Written by Oliver Styles