Tag Archives: terroir
Since I’ve started working at SoDivin I have noticed that wine connoisseurs in France do not buy the same wines as our customers outside of France. French customers have been surrounded by French wine their whole lives, at every dinner growing up, perhaps a nicer bottle for a special occasion, the entire culture of wine creating a convivial atmosphere has constantly been a large part of every meal and get-together their whole lives. As a result, the average French person, who is not opposed to wine, has a depth of knowledge that those of us from non-wine producing countries couldn’t possibly have. Though some of us are trying to catch up.
Our customers in non-wine producing countries often buy wines from the top chateaux in France: Lafite Rothschild, Petrus, Latour, Mouton Rothschild, Cheval Blanc. These wines with an international market and luxurious reputation have prices to match. They are undoubtedly some of the top wines in the world, universally recognized as such, but to the average consumer the prices make them unattainable. Not to say that there is no overlap between the very top tier of chateaux and French consumers, the French just know that there are good values to be had amongst the grand cru classé wines of Bordeaux. French wine is complicated to understand compared to some New World wine producers who are allowed to put more information on their labels but Bordeaux is not the most complicated region in France to understand either (that would be Burgundy).
So what do the French know that helps them navigate the grand cru classé wines of Bordeaux?
Appellations and terroirs
While wine drinkers in non-producing countries and New World wine producing countries look to the grape variety to tell them the style of a wine, in France people look to an appellation or terroir to tell them about the style of the wine. In France they mostly grow vines that are well-adapted to a given region therefore grape variety is found in the notion of style but it is not the most telling information. Case in point: If you have ever tasted a Chardonnay produced in Burgundy and a Chardonnay produced in the Languedoc region, it becomes very clear very quickly that terroir and climate can make the elegant, mineral wine from Burgundy unrecognizable in the Languedoc.
Terroir is a hotly contested notion amongst wine connoisseurs in the New World wine producing
countries. In France terroir is literally and figuratively the foundation of all winemaking. In general, in France winemakers have utmost respect for their terroir as it is what allows them to grow their noble vines (and therefore make incredible wines). There is a very general notion of terroir like for any plant; some plants grow better in more or less acidic soil or more or less salty soil. For French winemakers there is a more specific notion of terroir; there are differences in structure and aromas in wines from different appellations and terroirs just a few kilometers away from each other.
Saint Emilion (as I wrote in a previous blog) has a soil that is better adapted to Merlot than to Cabernet Sauvignon therefore the wines dominant in Merlot have a different character than the top appellations on the left bank of the Gironde that are dominant in the Cabernets.
Some examples of Saint Emilions with excellent reputations:
Some examples of Pauillacs with excellent reputations:
While Saint Julien doesn’t have any 1er cru classé wines in its appellation it is known that it is easy to find excellent bottles and difficult to find even a mediocre bottle in Saint Julien.
Some examples of Saint Juliens with excellent reputations:
Try try again
To learn about French wine it is most important to try as many different wines as you can: different chateaux, same chateau in different years, different appellations to learn what you like. There are so many choices within the grand cru classé wines of France and with just a little research it will be easy to find lovely wines amongst the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th grand cru classé that are a fraction of the price of the very top tier. Wine is life-long learning experience.
Drinking a wine in its prime 20, 40 or even 60 years after production is a unique drinking experience that even few regular wine drinkers have. Most wine is consumed within a couple of years after production and it is estimated that only 1% of all wine has the ability to age 10 years or more. So, what makes this 1% of all wines special? What gives them their superior quality and therefore a long life? Experts mostly agree on many of the reasons and research is always being conducted on the subject. Here are just a few reasons that the top wines in the world become stars.
The basic structure of both a grape and a red wine is sugar, acid, and tannin (a polyphenol). Each grape variety has different amounts of these innate qualities that are directly transmitted into the structure of the wine. (Winemakers can add these components to their wine to change the structure but I won’t go into that here). In red grapes some are sweeter, for example, or have thicker tannic skins. Syrah, mostly grown in warm climates, is dominant in sugar while Merlot is dominant in acid and tannin. Acid and tannin help give longevity to a wine therefore grapes that have these components will have the potential to have a longer life.
Terroir is a notion that is often mistranslated from Europe to the New World. In France, terroir is known as a homogenous soil within a homogenous climate. Yes, when a French winemaker talks about his terroir he is also talking about rainfall and sun exposure. The French believe that a quality terroir is one that is very rocky and well drained so that rainfall is held deep in the soil which forces the vine roots to grow very deep to search for water. The roots are therefore stronger and exposed to more nutrients in the soil. It is the case that the terroirs in Bordeaux, from which some of the longest lasting wines in the world are grown, are exactly like this and the winemakers are very proud of their terroir.
The number of vines in an acre or hectare is called yield. Vines need low yield i.e. less vines in a given area to become the best they can be. Each vine needs space around it to fully express all of its natural qualities. Grapes also need to be pruned well to, once again, allow full expression of each vine.
Each year the growing season is unique. The climate starting in winter and lasting until harvest determines the composition of the grapes and therefore the makeup of the wine. For example, if the year is hot the grapes may have thicker skins and a sweeter, more concentrated juice. If the year is cold the grapes may be underdeveloped and the wine may be more acidic. These are generalizations, of course. The growing season lasts months and weather changes constantly which impacts the grapes more subtly then I have described. An ideal vintage will be one that brings out the best in the fruit with balance in sugar, acidity and tannin. This translates directly to an excellent wine. Some of the best vintages of the 20th century are universally revered but they are never exactly the same in character.
Once nature has done its part and the fully mature grapes are moved into the cellar for vinification, it is up to the winemaker to guide the grapes through the transformation to wine. The choices throughout vinification are too numerous to talk about here, but every winemaker agrees that you can’t make an amazing wine without grapes that are anything less than a full expression of their potential.
The rare wine that peaks after 10 years in the bottle (or up to 50 or 70 years in some cases) is a rare conversion of ideal conditions from vine to vinification.
Here are some excellent vintages from supreme terroirs that embody perfect conditions for making wine that peaks decades after it was grapes on a vine:
1921 : Excellent in Sauternes