TERROIR? WHAT’S ALL THE FUSS ABOUT?
Recently, I had an occasion to attend a dinner that compared Premier Cru Red Burgundies from two different villages/appellations, namely Pommard and Morey-St-Denis. The purpose of the exercise apart from pure, unadulterated pleasure was to learn, if anything, about the general characteristics that typify the wines from these two superior Burgundian appellations.
The underlying principle that determines the characteristics of Burgundy, as understood by Burgundians, is the concept of ‘Terroir’. Whilst there is a much better appreciation of this term than there was some twenty years ago in Australia there are still many wine consumers who are not familiar with the concept. Matt Kramer, in his ground-breaking masterpiece, “Making Sense of Burgundy” published in America in 1990, spends a whole chapter carefully explaining what terroir means. He concludes that it is the notion of ‘somewhereness’. In other words, what makes one wine different from another? In simple terms it can be the fact that one particular wine has been aged in brand new oak barrels whilst another has had little or no oak treatment. The wines will be different because of the influence of oak.
Kramer regards this distinction as being the ‘signature’ of the winemaker. The wines will be different because of differing treatments. However, if you allow a wine to ‘make itself’ then what will be the distinctions that emerge in each of the wines? In this case he explains that the conditions under which the grapes are grown will be the determining feature of the characteristics of each wine. Hence, if you make a wine from Pinot Noir grown in Gippsland and then compare a Pinot Noir made in the Barossa Valley the wines will differ because the ‘terroirs’ are different. Gippsland is cool, the Barossa is warm. The soils in Gippsland differ from the soils in the Barossa. The ripening processes will be completely different. In the end it is likely that you will conclude that the Barossa Valley is not a good place to grow Pinot Noir but perfect for Gippsland.
This is an extreme example of the defining characters of ‘terroir’. What happens if you actually compare wines from differing parts of the same region? In Burgundy this becomes the defining feature that resulted in the division of Burgundy into five broad regions. These regions are Chablis in the North, the Cote d’Or, the Chalonnais, Maconnais and, finally, Beaujolais in the south. It is in the Cote d’Or that the fine distinctions of ‘terroir’ are best played out. The Cote d’Or is broadly divided in to two sub-regions, the Cotes de Nuits to the north of the village of Ladoix-Serrigny and the Cote de Beaune to the villages that are located south.
Generally, heading north to south the appellations (names of places) of the Cote de Nuits starts with Marsannay then follows on through Fixin, Gevrey-Chambertin, Morey-St-Denis, Chambolle-Musigny, Flagey-Echezeaux, Vosne-Romanee and Nuits-St-Georges. The southern area, the Cote de Beaune, begins broadly at Aloxe-Corton and goes through Pernand-Vergelesses, Savigny-Les-Beaune, Chorey-Les-Beaune, Beaune, Pommard, Volnay, Meursault, Puligny-Montrachet, Chassagne-Montrachet, St Aubin, St Romain, Auxey-Duresses, Santenay and ends at Cheilly-Les-Maranges.
These names are simply not the names of villages but actual locations where the wines produced will be different from that of their neighbouring village. ?These differences will be the fine distinctions that can be made from an observation of the soil, micro-climate, aspect, harvest time and any other ‘natural’ feature that may apply. In simple terms, each wine will be different from that of its neighbor and these fine distinctions can be identified by taste. Hence when Matt Kramer refers to ‘somewhereness’ he is saying that this wine is typical of this specific vineyard and cannot be produced anywhere else?it is unique.
If we examine the red wines from Pommard and Morey-St-Denis there are some accepted differences that shine through no matter was the ‘signature’ of the winemaker is. With Morey-St-Denis there is an underlying cherry/strawberry fruit character that is evident in all but the most inferior examples and those inferior wines are most likely incompetence by the viticulturist and/or the winemaker. Generally, Morey-St-Denis tannins tend to be a little ‘stalky’, but not excessively so and the overall impression is that the wines from this appellation are fine, long and develop complexity after twenty years or more in the bottle. What is also evident is that the ‘size’ and ‘structure’ of these wines change according to the location of the vineyard in the appellation. The ones planted close to Chambolle-Musigny are ‘prettier’ and quite fine with a ‘laciness’ that is delicious. From the vineyards closer to Gevrey-Chambertin the tannins are firmer and the wines show more ‘weight’ and intensity.
On the other hand, Pommards are made of sterner stuff. Because of the spelling and ease of pronunciation the word ‘Pommard’ was regularly found on bottles of negociants’ Red Burgundies even when there was little or no Pommard in the bottle. This practice has almost completely disappeared as the regulators are better equipped to detect fraud and the consumer is more aware of what the term ‘appellation’ means. Pommard tends to show a ‘riper’, slightly plummy character when young. They have some ‘juiciness’ that, with time, develops into a mouthful of lovely, rich fruit supported by plenty of tannin. This tannin structure can be both a virtue and a vice. For some years many Burgundy drinkers have shunned Pommard because the tannins have been judged to be too assertive and unyielding. There is evidence that many ‘modern’ producers are lessening post-fermentation maceration time and seeking to highlight the fruit and subdue the tannins.
The wines that were chosen from Pommard and Morey-St-Denis represented a diverse range of Premier Cru vineyards and producers. There are twenty (20) Premier Crus in Morey-St-Denis and this represents, along with the Grand Crus of Clos des Lambrays, Clos St-Denis, Clos de Tart and Clos de la Roche, fifty seven percent (57%) of the appellation, the highest proportion of any other Cote de Nuits village. On the other hand, Pommard has 28 Premier Crus but no Grand Crus. There have been suggestions that if any Premier Crus in the Cote de Beaune were to be elevated to Grand Cru status that Pommard’s Les Rugiens and Les Grands Epenots would be two of them.
In general, the wines lived up to their reputations with the possible exception of the last two Pommards. The Moreys all showed a richness of strawberry fruit with some impressive, but not over-powering, tannins. The 2001 Les Faconnieres made by Virgile Lignier was understated, a little closed and quite elegant. It displayed the essence of the ’01 vintage which gave lighter, quite fine wines that are beginning to drink now. Both of the 1996 Morey-St-Denis, Les Chaffots of Michel Magnien and the La Riotte of Perrot-Minot were in excellent condition but have yet to evolve. In other words, they were both identifiably Moreys but the tannins were still quite evident and masking some of the fruit. The 2006 Les Charrieres from Herve Sigaut had not ‘closed’ down and showed the prettier side of Morey-St-Denis. The tannins are there but the vintage, though good, is not profound. The best Morey was the youngest, the 2009 Les Ruchots made by Pierre Amiot which is a seriously good wine that, at a later tasting, was considered to be good enough to be a Grand Cru. Lush and ripe, a typical 2009, this wine shows Morey-St-Denis fruit at its very best with a dense, plush berry (strawberry) aroma, a little spice and a long finish.
The older Pommards had all of the characters that we were expecting with some intense fruits, plenty of middle palate weight and tannins ‘to burn’. The 1988 Clos des Epeneaux, a monopole of Comte Armand, has still time to evolve. Still relatively youthful in colour the nose has an underlying earthy character often identified in Gevrey-Chambertin. Very good but, not ready at this point in its evolution. The 1990 Clos des Boucherottes by Caste Caumartin is still a ‘pup’. Looking little more than 4-5 years old, the nose is both rich and powerful but still very closed and is a wine that needs another 10 years before it will lose its tannic structure. The two 2006s made by Domaine Thierry Violet Guillemard, a Derriere St Jean and Pezerolles, can only be described a ‘modern’ Pommards. Here are the rich fruits with plenty of stuffing and weight but lacking the bone-jarring tannins of previous Pommard manifestations. Words like ‘lush’ and ‘delicious’ were used in the descriptors and both wines were/are ‘open’. They may close down at some point in the near future but they will be accessible after 2016.
The last wine, a 1988 Les Jaroli?res made by the late Gerant Potel at Domaine de la Bousse D’Or is a masterpiece of richness, depth and complexity. The best part is that this wine is ‘ready’ to drink. Showing quite developed colour, unlike the Comte Armand from the same vintage, the nose is highly perfumed with a rich, intense berry fruitiness leading in a lovely, ripe and soft palate. The tannin structure is quite fine and the flavours persist for ages in the mouth. This is one of those Burgundies that aficionados seek?one of the Holy Grail of wine drinking.? ??????
Exercises like the one above allow the participant to be able to get closer to the ‘essence’ of wine appreciation. Wisdom and Wine will be presenting some wine seminars/tastings over the coming months and if you are interested please let us know through our website.