My profile of Château Lafleur posted earlier this week contains a lot of information on the terroirs – or at the very least the soils – of the Lafleur vineyard. Reflecting on my recent visit to meet Jacques Guinaudeau and look at this very special Pomerol vineyard got me thinking about terroir, how people use and interpret the word, and whether or not there were any other possible explanations for what we call terroir.
When I first became aware of the concept of terroir, the prevailing view was that it was something overtly detectable in a wine. For instance, at a Château Talbot tasting I attended many years ago, a taster with far more years and much more tasting experience behind him than I had leaned back in his chair and sighed “ahh…. the gôut de terroir…. lovely”. The gamey, horsey edge on the wine in question was to him something related to the soils of Talbot. Of course, despite his experience, he was wrong; many years later I realised what we had tasted that evening was nothing more than Brettanomyces. But it was a good example of how many people viewed terroir. The idea that Mosel Riesling tastes slatey because of the slate on which it grows (and I often get a ‘sandy’ feel when tasting lesser St Emilion – but I don’t see many/any others reporting this) is another example of terroir misconstrued. Vine roots can’t absorb ‘molecules’ of sand or slate. Both sensations are quite plausibly the result of auto-suggestion, the idea that we are tasting the soil itself is vaguely nonsensical, and both provide plenty of ammunition for those arguing against the existence of terroir.
I think that terroir is an important determinant of how wine tastes is self-evident though. Taste two wines from one vigneron that he or she has managed the same way in vineyard and cellar; to appreciate the differences between the wines is to appreciate the impact of terroir. The wines of Lafleur don’t quite count, because although the grand vin comes from three terroirs, and the second wine from a fourth, the vinifications are different, introducing a second variable. You need a vigneron making several wines in exactly the same fashion to see the impact of terroir. It’s easiest in Burgundy, where one man or woman might have several wines from several vineyards, all harvested and vinified in the same manner, and yet they taste different. That’s terroir.
Thinking back for comparable experiences from my own tasting history in Bordeaux or the Loire doesn’t produce a plethora of examples, but here are a couple, both from the Loire. A visit to Château de la Roulerie a couple of years ago brought several tastes from different barrels from different sections of the vineyard, the vines managed in the same manner, the vinifications the same, and yet the wines were profoundly different. The same was true when I tasted the component barrels with Richard Leroy (pictured above – inspecting his terroir, perhaps), before blending. Different sections of the same vineyard, same variety, same pruning, same vinification, same wood, but different wines. That’s terroir – it’s the difference between two wines, rather than intrinsic characteristics within each wine, that is down to terroir.
Reflecting on that conclusion, I have wondered whether there are any other plausible explanations for why wines from different vineyards, or even from different sections of the same vineyard, should taste so different. The only one that looked remotely promising was the impact of yeasts. Could different yeast populations in the two vineyards account for the differences?
There are those out there who think this possible, and indeed there are some who have wondered out loud why yeasts shouldn’t be included in the terroir ‘definition’. I have a problem with this though. Although there is no doubt that yeasts come into the winery on the fruit, and start fermentation, much of the fermentation process is completed by yeasts – specifically Saccharomyces cerevisiae – which are resident in the winery. [As an aside, there's plenty of research on this out there, and I recall Jamie Goode wrote a nice article on it for the World of Fine Wine a year ago. I also recall I wrote a lengthy letter in response, published two issues later (I was a bit slow in responding!) picking holes in the science.] Hence, because it is largely the winery yeasts that do the work, the two wines from the two different plots will largely be fermented by the same population of yeasts, removing this as a variable which could account for the ‘terroir‘ differences. Secondly, it seems likely that the population of yeasts within a vineyard will change over time. If yeast differences are responsible for terroir differences, why do some vineyards produce wines with identifiable characteristics year after year? Lastly, what about different sections of the same vineyard yielding different wines? Are we supposed to accept that the yeasts population is so diverse it differs from row to row?
So although yeasts can have a huge impact on flavour (this is an important consideration when purchasing cultured yeasts), when it comes to wines that are fermented spontaneously by indigenous yeasts, I doubt the yeasts play a very large part (or at least a very large consistent part) in the flavour differences we find between wines. Having said that, arguing for their role makes for good debate, so I hope research into how yeasts can affect flavour continues.
So terroir matters. It’s in the soil. But it’s not in the wine (or rather it’s not directly translated into an easily identifiable taste that makes for easy conclusions, like slatey Riesling or sandy St Emilion, although as I have alluded above some vineyards do behave in the same manner year after year). It’s in the differences between the wines that we can find it. When you look at it that way, it seems to me that the importance (or indeed, existence) of terroir is impossible to refute. Why else do wines made by the same people, in the same vintage, vinified in the same way, show such profound diversity?