It’s not all about the terroir

Even the most casual reader of this column will have noticed that I’m a ‘terroirist’.

That is to say, my approach is that the taste of a wine reflects the interaction between grapes, soil, rock, climate, altitude, the slope of the vineyard in relation to sun and wind, etc. Bordeaux will always taste like Bordeaux and nowhere else can make wine that tastes the same. The role of man is to facilitate the expression of the terroir.

I love this idea on an emotional level – every glass of wine becomes a trip to the area in which it was made – but if you look a little deeper you realise it’s not so black and white. What the wine maker does can make a huge difference, not just to quality but to the character of the wine too. To illustrate this I’ll go into some detail with Chardonnay.

Chardonnay is the main white wine grape from the top to the bottom of Burgundy. In the north, in Chablis, it makes a dry, flinty wine; in the south, in the villages around Montrachet, it makes a rich velvety buttery wine. The books explain this by discussing the differences in terroir between Chablis and Montrachet but the biggest difference is that they make the wine in a different way! Chablis is fermented in stainless steel vats then bottled. The addition of sulphites prevents any further fermentation. Southern burgundies are fermented in oak barrels, without the addition of sulphites. So bacteria multiply and cause malolactic fermentation (MLF) – that is, the bacteria convert the malic acid in the wine to lactic acid, changing the tart astringency found in Chablis into a velvety buttery creaminess. If you want to be really technical, MLF produces a number of chemicals that make the wine feel fuller in the mouth and which produce among other things diacetyl, which make your pee smell like rancid butter next morning.

How about some proof that it can be the winemaker who makes the difference not the terroir?

Domaine de la Colombette sits a few kilometres north of Beziers on the Languedoc plain. When I used to visit regularly it was run by Guy Pugibet, a short, stout, taciturn man with a huge beard. His son runs the estate now but then it was Guy himself who would pour your wine. And if he felt moved he would launch into a long and impassioned account of his ideas.

Alma Tadema 'Love's Votaries'
Alma-Tadema ‘Love’s Votaries’

His first big idea was to plant Chardonnay. Everyone said it wouldn’t work. Ce n’est pas d’ici – “it’s not from round here” – as the standard Languedocien response to anything new goes. In fact the vines flourished. Then his problem was what style of white wine to make with them. Pugibet decided to make some of his Chardonnay in the Chablis style and some in the Montrachet style. My wife prefers the former; I prefer to lose myself in the velvety luxury of the latter. It’s like sinking into the cushions of a harem painting by Alma-Tadema (‘Love’s Votaries’ pictured). My point is that two very different wines have emerged from the same terroir; both totally successful.


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