I posted this photo recently showing a contrast between the vineyard of Jeff Coutelou on the left, with grass growing between the vines and separating his vineyard from that of his neighbour who uses herbicides and chemicals which an organic producer does not want on his/her land.
I mention it again because as we travelled north last week to celebrate Christmas and New Year in the UK I was reminded of the clichéd but nonetheless relevant French word terroir. There is famously no direct English translation of the term, it means the soil but also the particular climate, aspect, position and subsoils of the vineyard. The French have said for years that terroir was what makes their wines special whereas New World wine producers were more willing to say that great wines come from great grapes and great winemakers, they often would call a wine by its variety, eg Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay, rather than by where it came from. In recent years the argument appears to be won as Australia and other countries have begun to look to terroir to identify their best wines too.
As I travelled through Burgundy last week the terroir issue sprang to mind. The region is made of many vineyards, of which large numbers are tiny and even they are (usually) divided between numerous winemakers. It is the region of terroir par excellence. The following photo shows Les Malconsorts a 1er Cru vineyard in Vosne Romanée. You can see different parcels of land clearly divided. Wines from one parcel will taste different to those from another. Terroir advocates will tell us that this is due to changes in soil, angle of the land facing the sun, drainage etc. Others would say it is more to do with the winemaker, the way s/he tends the soils and vines and how they work in the cellar.
La Grande Rue is another Vosne Romanée vineyard but this time rated even higher at Grand Cru status. It is owned wholly by one estate and the wines cost well over £100 a bottle. Yet look a few metres to the side the wines are worth half of that as they are not Grande Rue. This is the price of terroir or is it the expertise of the producer Lamarche which merits that premium?
Clos Vougeot is a famous vineyard which has multiple producers working inside its walls. The prices vary from around £55 to £400 depending on the producer.
My take on it is that terroir is hugely important. Vineyards which are well looked after and have good climate, soils etc should produce good wine. However, a good winemaker has a role to play and can make average vineyards produce very good wine and good terroir into a memorable bottle.
Jamie Goode wrote this on the subject and sums it up very well in my opinion. I hope these photos might help to illustrate why.
“I reckon terroir deserves to remain at the heart of fine wine. It’s the soul of wine, and like the soul, it’s very hard to define, but that doesn’t stop it being of utmost importance.”
Jeff Coutelou works vineyards which are traditionally not in the best of places. The work done by his father and by himself has helped to hugely improve that terroir. Combined with great winemaking this is why his wines take pride of place, like this display I came across in a Troyes restaurant / wine bar last week.