Events & Experiences
Notes on Traveling in France
LAYING CLAIM TO UNIQUE “TERROIR”
We all know that you cannot grow Pinot Noir on red clay in a hot climate. Pinot does best on well-drained soils with good water-holding capacity in cool climates. But which came first, the Pinot or the terroir – the chicken or the egg?
Do we believe that in the same region, in the same climate, with the same orientation at the same elevation with the same sun exposure, the same winemaking techniques, and under the same AOC regulations that soil is the distinguishing factor? Or, as Mr. Parker puts it: “Certainly, the soil composition of each slope is different, and the type of wine produced is profoundly marked by the dissimilar soils.”
Why is it that no other branch of agronomy – apple growers or soybean farmers, for example – uses terroir as a concept in crop production? And why is it that terroir has escaped the rigors of scientific investigation?
The Northern Rhône Valley & Côte Rôtie
To answer some of these questions, my wife and I, in our travels around France, visited the northern Rhône valley; specifically, a tiny region at the very northern tip called Côte Rôtie. The wines of Côte Rôtie are of the highest quality, matching any of the first growths of Bordeaux or the Grand Crus of Burgundy. Surely understanding what makes these wines so great is key to our own industry. I am going to describe what I learned about the terroir of the Côte Rôtie, then make comparisons to other regions in the world where terroir holds equal importance and finally delve into the historical aspects of why terroir has been used by the French to protect their monopoly of the luxury wine market.
We got off the Train a Grande Vitesse (TGV) in Lyon, taking a regional train to the ancient Roman town of Vienne, which Pliny the Elder mentioned in his writings in AD 71. Indeed, our beloved Thomas Jefferson visited the region in the 18th century and liked the wines sufficiently to have them shipped back to Paris, where he was serving as U.S. minister to France. This very small appellation, just south of the town of Vienne, consists of only about 500 vineyard acres centered around the three villages, or parishes, of Ampuis, Saint-Cyr-sur-le-Rhône and Tupin-et-Semons. Even within the parishes, only certain plots qualify for the appellation! Here the steep hillsides, as steep as any in the world, rise sharply from the banks of the Rhône to heights of over 1,200 feet.
By the 1970s, following the Phylloxera blight and two world wars, the Côte Rôtie, along with Condrieu, was in danger of extinction. Two figures brought the region back to life: Marcel Guigal, a local landowner and wine grower, and Robert Parker, the aforementioned world-acclaimed wine critic. Between them, the Côte Rôtie has acquired almost cult status and, as you can imagine, an equivalent price tag.
Grapes grow here in this continental climate for two main reasons: the river that dampens the brutal cold in the winter and the steep southeastern exposure that literally roasts the slopes in summer and fall. Indeed, Côte Rôtie means roasted slope in French. Some claim that light reflected from the river is also instrumental in bolstering sun exposure.
In this region, Syrah is king, being the only red grape permitted in the appellation. The original rules allowed the inclusion of up to 20 percent Viognier, ostensibly to soften the tannins while at the same time preserving color and adding to aromatics. However, few modern-day producers add that much Viognier. The very finest vineyard sites are named the Côte Blonde and the Côte Brun. Legend has it that they were named after two daughters of a local dignitary, one with blond hair and the other dark. The Côte Blonde vineyard consists of sandy, slaty soil with a pale limestone element, while in the Côte Brun, increased iron in heavier clay produces a darker brown soil type. Prior to the rapid rise in popularity of the Côte Rôtie, the negociants would blend grapes from the two vineyards to produce what was generic Côte Rôtie.
Marcel Guigal was the first to realize the potential of making the highest quality wines by vinifying the wines separately and at the same time breaking with tradition by using high-quality new French oak barrels. It was this change that led to a quantum leap in quality, catapulting Côte Rôtie wines to quality levels comparable to the best of the best wines in the whole of France. Theory is that the blonde soil leads to lighter, more fruity and approachable wines, compared to the brun soil with more iron that makes the wine more tannic, with less fruit, necessitating longer aging.
Does this story seem familiar to you?
Think of the Piemonte in northwest Italy, particularly the Barolo region and the Nebbiolo grape which grows there. In the villages of Barolo and La Morra, Tortonian soils have a bluish tint made up of sand clay and limestone; typically the wines from this soil are softer and fruitier and mature earlier. In contrast, the so-called Helvetian soils of Serralunga, made up with sandstone that is rich in iron, produce stronger tannic wines that take longer to mature. In a previous article, I was able to show an area where a grand cru vineyard differed from premiere cru by a line dividing the white, more chalky soil from the red, higher iron-containing soil In Coonawara in Australia, the iron-rich red clay – the Terra Rosa – overlying limestone gives rise to what every vine loves: great water-holding capacity with great drainage and an ample supply of minerals that results in wonderfully deep-structured, tannic Cabernet Sauvignon wines.
These regions, from the Rhône valley to Italy to Burgundy – and as far away as Australia – all lay claim to be “terroir” wines, but it is worth just looking back on the word “terroir” itself and how it has been promoted as the key to wine quality. It will probably surprise you to know that in its original context “terroir” was used by the French as a negative term. “Gout de terroir” meant to the French that the wine stank!
Then came Phylloxera, the scourge from the American New World. In 1863, the innovative owner of Château de Clary in the Lirac region of the southern Rhône valley decided to try some California cuttings; the cuttings died, but the deadly aphid survived, and by 1869 Phylloxera had reached Bordeaux, and from there spread to decimate the vineyards of the rest of Europe. The reason why this is relevant is because after the Phylloxera epidemic, the French wine market was flooded by generic wines from everywhere but France. The wine merchants, then as now, were in the cat-bird seat.
In order to prevent fraud, first the Champenoise in 1909, and then Baron Le Roy of Châteauneuf du Pape in 1927, championed the idea of protecting the name of the wine by defining the area from which a specific wine was produced. Eventually, in 1937, the French government put into law the Appellation d’Origin Contrôlée. Used in the commercial context, “terroir” became a guarantee of authenticity, a protection against fraud.
Terroir from that time on took on a dual significance, one for the wine producer as well as one for the wine retailer. For the producer, it represented the factors both natural and human that bear on the growth of the vine and in so doing, it was considered as expressing the very nature of land from which the vine grew. For the wine retailer, it was a safeguard to the brand. And for those of us who would like to have an objective, even scientific, understanding of how to gauge terroir, just remember that there is no scientific method that can even approximate how to measure wine quality.
So how are we to measure the almost mythological concept of terroir?
My conclusion is that the Côte Rôtie wines are just as tantalizing and as unattainable as any of the first growths of Bordeaux or the grand cru wines of Burgundy. These Hollywood stars of the French wine scene are like any others, are the products of unique environments and winemaking practices that the French have protected in the guise of the word, “terroir.”
Parker R. M., Wines of the Rhône Valley, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1997.
Robinson J, The Oxford Companion to Wine, Oxford University Press, 2016.
Matthews M. A., Terroir and Other Myths of Winegrowing, University of California Press, 2015
Notes on Traveling in France
EXPLORING MINERALITY IN JURA
We have always loved being in France – the culture, the food, and of course, the wine.I have an almost Darwinian respect for the French wine industry as it still governs the world in all spheres of premium wine. Like it not, French wine is respected as the global gold standard. For two months, we went all over France. We started in Burgundy, then moved onto Champagne, Alsace, Jura, Languedoc and Bordeaux, before ending up back in the Languedoc. The Jura is the region in of all France that we enjoyed the most, and it’s the topic of this article.
A Geologic Masterpiece
While pre-phyloxera Jura consisted of almost 20,000 hectares, today its vineyard area is about the same as Virginia, or roughly 2,000 hectares. The thing about the Jura, though, is that it is a geologic masterpiece. For some reason, I am drawn to the history of the earth, and that plays into the fun of puzzling out what it is that gives a wine that zing, that tang of enjoyment that lights up pleasure and emotional centers of the brain. So it was for me in the Jura when I was awed by the monstrous beauty of the rock formations at the same time as being whacked in the palate by simple wines of wondrous authenticity.
I cannot tell you the joy I got; it was like finding a precious expression of nature that has not yet been exploited by commercialism. It was that very joy that made me want to know more about the fundamentals that challenge us all in wine grape growing – namely, the relation of the soil part of terroir to wine quality and, in this instance, the mystical quality of minerality. My search to figure this out took me through geology and soil science and to wine experts.
We started in Chablis, after the obligatory two to three days in Paris. For three days we tasted the whole range, from the least expensive village wine to world-renowned, premium Grand Cru Chablis. Chablis, as you all know, is the northernmost outpost of Burgundy, and Burgundy is all about place. Burgundy epitomizes the relationship between terroir and wine quality. And here’s the rub: Burgundy and Jura are on the same latitude. They are longitudinally parallel and only 156 km apart. Compared to Chablis, the wines of the Jura are virtually unknown, yet the two regions have more in common than you would think – in terms of geology and terroir, and also in the nature of the wines themselves.
Amazingly, before I got to the Jura I had not made the connection between “The Jura,” the region, and “Jurassic,” as in the geologic era made familiar to all of us by Steven Spielberg in the movie Jurassic Park, which focused on an era 150 to 200 million years ago, at a time when reptiles and dinosaurs ruled the animal kingdom. I sort of knew about Jurassic as a geologic era in the same way I knew about the Kimmeridgian soils and their relationship to the regional typicity of Chablis.
The marine fossils and plants found in and around Kimmeridge – a small village in Dorset England are from a time dating back some 150 million years. The term “Jurassic” was coined in the same way as “Kimmeridgian” by recognizing rocks and marls that contain plant and animal fossils of the creatures that roamed the earth over a much longer time period estimated at 150 to 200 million years ago. At that time, the Jura region was pretty much under water, and as sedimentary layers of rock formed, the remains of the creatures living at that time were trapped in the sediment. Some millions of years later, as the Alps were formed, layers of the sedimentary rocks were pushed westward to form the Jura Mountains. It was the exposure of the sedimentary layers of the Jura Mountains that provided the clue to the age of the rocks and the marl.
In the Jura we stayed in a little town called Voiteur and we had biked to a village called Baumes Les Messieurs. The countryside was absolutely stunning. It just so happened the village was located in a blind valley, what the French call a “reculee” formed as a result of fault lines in the deep bedrock that opens up the sedimentary strata.
Tired and weary from our bike ride, we found a nice-looking restaurant in the village called Le Grand Jardin. The wine list was inviting but we were on bikes so we couldn’t drink to much. I ordered a “pichet” (500ml) of the white house wine, which cost about eight euros! I took one sip, and Kaboom! It was bone-dry, with dazzling acidity. Not much fruit, but the minerality would have matched any of the very best from Chablis. I found out the wine is a blend of mostly Chardonnay with an unknown quantity of Savignin (a white grape of Jura) from an appellation called L’Etoile. Why is it called L’Etoile? Because of the starfish fossils found in the mostly marl and limtestone soils of the Jurassic Jura, which dates back some 150 to 200 million years. If Chablis is lauded as one of the best expressions of minerality, just try Jura appellation – L’Etoile.
In addition to L’Etoile, the other major appellations are Cotes de Jura, Arbois to the north and Chateau Chalon. Interestingly, there is no Chateau in Chateau Chalon; it is actually the name of the village. Chateau Chalon is the main source of Jura’s signature wine – Vin Jaune or yellow wine. A wine made from the Savignin grape that has to age, exposed to oxygen, for seven years. It is unique, tasting very much like a high quality Fino sherry.
The local delicacy is Vin Jaune with almond fresh rainbow trout from the nearby Sielle river. There are two native red grapes in the Jura, Poulsard and Trousseau; of the two, Poulsard was my favorite, expressing wonderful minerality. It was one of the few red wines to express that property. Jura also makes a sparkling wine – a Cremant de Jura – using Chardonnay, Savignin, Poulsard, and Trousseau: charming and shuddering with minerality
To complete the list of Jura specialty wines there is a concoction of grape juice and Marc (a French version of Grappa) that is drunk as an aperitif called Macvin, as well as a dessert wine made from grapes dried on straw, called Vin de Paille. However, it was the experience with “minerality” in the Jura wines that made me want to do this piece.
What is Minerality?
Prior to my visit to Jura, I thought I had a clear idea of what I understood by minerality in wine. Minerality is a function of the soil terroir, whether it is Jurassic or Kimmeridgian. But the more one looks into descriptive wine terms, including minerality, the less one knows. There is a scientific term for this: it is the Cheshire Cat phenomenon, as in Alice in Wonderland – the more one looks into a subject, the more it disappears leaving just the grin. Relating characteristics like minerality in wine to the elements in the soil is particularly disappointing.
Mark Matthews effectively debunks the idea that soil is the crucial factor in determining wine flavor components in his book, Terroir and Other Myths of Wine Growing – a myth that for me, and I think for most of the wine growers I know, is still a core belief. I reached out to Bruce Zoecklein and he was equally demurring, saying that minerality is a function of redox potentials in the wine. Desperate for further understanding, I searched for a descriptive definition of minerality from a tasting standpoint. There was no consensus; minerality means different things to different people.
The best I could come up with was an article by Sarah Jane Evans MW in the December 2014 issue of Decanter. She ended her excellent discussion with words to the effect that: if you are drinking a fresh white wine that that you know comes from a cool climate with stony soils, that has marked acidity, is not overly fruity, and is not oxidized then there is a good chance that the wine has good minerality! Almost tongue in cheek, she creates a scientific formula:
(SS+CC+A)–(E+T)-O2 = Minerality
where SS is stony soils, CC is cool climate, A is acidity, E +T are the fruity aspects of wine in Esters and Thiols, and O2 is oxygen.
I am left with the feeling that minerality defies both scientific definition and experiential description but you know that is the intellectual excuse for continuing the quest for knowledge and, of course, drinking more wine.
USEFUL RESOURCES ON JURA WINE
Jura Wine, by Wink Lorch at www. winetravelmedia.com.
Terroir and Other Myths of Winegrowing, Mark A. Matthews, University of California Press, 2015.
Minerality in Wine: What Does it Mean to You?, by Sara Jane Evans, in Decanter, Dec. 11, 2014.
Rescuing Minerality, by Jamie Goode on wineanorak blog.