Understanding the Terroir of Burgundy (introduction)

The History, the Threats, and Why Terroir is Important

 

Roman Wine FriezeTerroir as a notion: 

The notion of climate and terroir palpably began with the establishment of Clos de Bèze in 630 A.D.  And despite the countless changes of governments, laws, and ownership, the shape and size of Clos de Bèze have remained unchanged in the intervening 1384 years.  However, there were notions of terroir that appeared long before. In the first century, Columella (the only Roman agronomist whose records still exist) wrote of a varietal that had physical leaf characteristics that leave little doubt that the Romans grew Pinot Noir in Burgundy.  The quality of this wine would eventually eclipse Falernian wine in the eyes of the patrician class. That this vine was so perfectly suited to the Burgundy region, Columella wrote: “…it alone gives a good name to even the poorest of soil by reason of its own fertility.”

Monks at Clos VougeotWhile terroir is, at its heart, the physicality of a place, it is also the acceptance of terroir as a notion, that allows its expression in the glass. The concept of terroir asks that winemaker should produce the best wine they can, that still truthfully represent the site, while simultaneously requiring the wine drinker to appreciate what each site uniquely brings to the wine made from it.Interestingly it has been the historical difficulty of ripening grapes in the Côte d’Or that has made terroir apparent in Burgundy. This marginal ripening, coupled with the transparent nature of the Pinot Noir and the Chardonnay that is grown there, lay bare the influence of the vineyard position: the soils below and the weather above. In many ways, it is a quest of purity, and that is something that can easily and quickly be muddied by over extraction, over-ripeness, and blending. Jacques Lardiere, the now-retired manager of Louis Jadot used to say (in the late 1990s) that the terroir would speak, “even if you planted Syrah” in Burgundy. I mentioned Lardiere’s statement to the then winemaker of Mommessin (I don’t recall who that was) and his response was: “That’s funny coming from him.” (1)

The Historical Battle for Ripeness: The Importance of  Vineyard Protection and Exposition

Clos la Roche in winterComplete phenolic ripening in Burgundy has been the holy grail of every winemaker in the Côte d’Or since the middle ages. Given that the last so-called “Little Ice Age” only ended in the 1850s, it is not a complete surprise that only the warmest vineyard sites (the grand crus) could semi-consistently achieve ripeness.   The key to ripeness was a vineyard had to sit on a slope – facing east to southeast, angled to receive the longest rays of the harvest sun. Here, the hillside, and the flat village land at its foot created a heat trap for the ripening crop, sheltering it from the wind which might otherwise disperse the heat. In the long history of Burgundy, it has been only these protected vineyards, on the mid-slope, that could achieve the temperatures necessary to fully ripen the grapes right before harvest.

Climatic and Economic Threats

However, the climate is warming. In absolute numbers, from 1990 to 2006, the average temperature has gone up 1.2 degrees F., and it had already gone up 1.2 degrees F. in the previous thirty years. Today, the crop is consistently ripe enough to make good wine across all climates, in virtually every vintage. At this point in time, we are witnessing the greatest period of in all of Burgundy’s almost 2000 year history under vine. The confluence of winemaking and wine growing knowledge as well as perfect ripening temperatures is granting us truly remarkable wines. I think there is room for some additional warming without major concessions to wine style and terroir. Although, I suppose if it does, we’ll have bigger problems than lamenting the passing of the golden age of Burgundy.

With the increasing ripeness, the winemaker is both pushed toward, and drawn to, making wines with deeper color (anthocyanins), fuller fruit, and more structure. With the clamor for riper, richer, grand cru-styled Burgundies, regardless of how expensive they are, there is a significant economic reason for winemakers to follow this path. But as Burgundies fatten up, terroir is increasingly obscured. It is very possible there will be fewer noticeable variances between the wines from many vineyards unless winemakers and the wine buying public truly embrace terroir. The relevance (and indeed the future) of terroir in Burgundy hinges on the wine appreciation that goes far beyond what is good or bad, in a search for “the best.” The concept“the best” is often at odds, and in many ways contradictory the notion of terroir, and if we don’t actively embrace and extol the differences between vineyards, from grand cru to village lieu-dits, we will lose what is so unique about the region.

Classification

Chevaliers du Tastevin with clergy circa 1950

Chevaliers du Tastevin with clergy circa 1950

The terroir of Burgundy was codified unofficially in 1855, by Jules Lavalle, and again in 1920 by Camille Rodier, both of whom graded the vineyards in five qualitative levels, the best being the Tete de Cuvees. Governmental classification would not come until the late 1930s. Interestingly, it wasn’t until the depth of the depression, and against a backdrop of the tensions of a brewing second war in Europe, that the French Government finally moved forward with establishing the Appellation d’Origine Controlee (AOC) system. The Ministry of Agriculture established the Institut National des Appellations d’Origine (INAO) in 1935, and over the next few years this body defined the official regional appellations for wine and foods across France. It was a uniquely French thing to do, and in a marketing sense quite brilliant, but the idea was to protect these agricultural regions and heritages from change.  In doing so they both branded and secured these places and products as unique in an emerging global economy. When dividing the appellations, the INAO heeded historical ownership and village boundaries, as well as physical and observable geological observation, in as much as it was understood at the time, without intensive study and the benefits of modern technology. And it was done: nearly etched in stone.

But to look past the classifications: to the maps, the geology, and the topography of the region is the goal of this article, in order to understand why certain sites create certain types of wine. What’s more, this knowledge allows us to be predictive of what style of wine we might expect a vineyard to produce based on available geographical and geological information.The subject gains remarkable complexity if you dig too deeply, requiring significant chemistry and geological explanation, of which I’m not qualified. So I will attempt to keep this a more general overview of the important aspects of terroir in Burgundy: ripening and exposition, (meaning how a vineyard faces the sun, slope,) the amount of soil and it’s makeup (topsoil, limestone, and clay) and , and a vineyard’s protection from the wind and weather.

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Note

(1) I too disagree with Lardiere. While Syrah can be quite transparent when just ripe, like in Cote Rotie, the moment it gains weight it becomes significantly dense and can carry a remarkable level of dry extract. Pinot Noir cannot achieve the size, weight, and tannin of Syrah. The short distance between Cote Rotie and Hermitage generally produces a vastly different wine: of terroir is obscured by Hermitage’s additional size and weight.

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See the other articles in this series

Marl: The Most Misused and Misunderstood Word in Burgundy Literature?

Preface to my upcoming article: “Understanding the Terroir of Burgundy”

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