Last October the Bordeaux Wine School in New York offered a webinar to wine professionals to discuss the terroir of Bordeaux and its effect on wine styles. It was presented by Jane Anson, a highly respected authority on the wines of Bordeaux where she has lived since 2003. She is Decanter
magazine’s Bordeaux correspondent, has authored many books on Bordeaux, and is an educator at L’Ecole du Vin among her many accomplishments. With her was David Pernet, a soil scientist with degrees in agronomy and enology. He works with wineries and notes that he must understand a client’s vineyard soils to help them make the best wine from it.
Anson has written Inside Bordeaux: The Chateaux, Their Wines and the Terroir
, which was released last spring. My initial thought was…do we need really another book on Bordeaux? However, this book doesn’t focus only on the chateaux, it also explores the terroir of Bordeaux. Her aim was to look at Bordeaux as it is today, to look at what is changing. She said “I couldn’t escape the fact that twenty years ago—even 10 years ago—people were not taking the idea of terroir seriously in Bordeaux. I don’t mean the winemakers and consultants; I mean those of us looking at Bordeaux from outside. What we are used to doing is thinking about Bordeaux as big brands.” She recalled being at a conference a few years ago with attendees from Spain, Italy, southern France, Burgundy, but no one from Bordeaux. “When the name Bordeaux was mentioned there was laughter in the room about the idea that Bordeaux could have terroir. It made me cross living here and knowing that that was not true. It crystallized for me what I wanted to do.”
She acknowledged that historically Bordeaux has not been its best champion of terroir. The 1855 classification was based on its price in the marketplace, not terroir, although part of the reason it had gained that price was because of its location and its soils. Then, there is fact the that, Lafite, for example, may have been 50-60 ha in 1855, but today, according to her book it has 110 and it still called Lafite. “It gives the impression that it is more about brand than soil,” she said.
Bordeaux and its wines do conjure up visions of grand chateaux where wealthy owners host extravagant parties. Example, in 2005 I was in Bordeaux for VinExpo, a major international wine trade show featuring wineries from around the globe. This was the 150th anniversary year of the 1855 classification that created wine quality levels and anointed the Grand Cru estates, although Mouton Rothschild was added after the fact in 1973. A celebration dinner for international press was hosted by Château d’Yquem, home of the legendary Sauternes. Upon arrival, guests were serenaded by an orchestra arranged on the lush lawn. Dinner was in an elaborate tented structure that seated a hundred-plus guests. Chefs were stationed along the side of the room arranging each course. All five first growth wines were served with the main course. Before dessert was served, two columns of sommeliers emerged, each man holding over his shoulder a magnum of Yquem. As they served it, fireworks the color of the golden wine celebrated the occasion. This is the image of Bordeaux, and the Bordelais work to keep it that way.
It has only been in recent years that some winery estates welcomed consumer visitors. Traditionally, wineries sell their wines to a courtier or broker, who chooses which negoçiant will sell the wine to the consumer market. In other words, Bordeaux wine producers traditionally do not know who is drinking the wine they produced.
In 30 years of visiting Bordeaux as wine buyer and later as journalist, about five years ago was the first time I set foot in a Bordeaux vineyard. Most books about Bordeaux are about the Chateaux and the business of Bordeaux. Oh sure, we know the grape varieties and we’ve learned that the Left Bank has gravel soils and the Right Bank has clay soils. But mostly we know that Bordeaux is a place with lots of grand estates and some very good wine. However, there are folks who have been researching the soils of Bordeaux wine country and finding out interesting effects on grape growing, such as what soil type and temperature gives smooth tannins or result in a powerful wine.
Anson believes that terroir includes people as well as climate, soil and sunlight. If you want to start a very heated discussion, ask wine folks their definition of terroir. Including people can make the sparks fly. Anson gave a list of people she calls “terroir heroes,” those who intervened to improve the terroir, and help us learn more about Bordeaux terroir.
The first is Jan Leeghwater, a Dutchman who was one of the lead engineers of the team that drained the Medoc in the 1700s. The Medoc is a flat, narrow area with the sea on one side and the river on the other, and it was covered with water. Pernet explained how the gravel outcrops on the Left Bank are very important for understanding quality on the Left Bank, but for much of the time in the Medoc, only the topsoils were exposed. Leeghwater represents the intervention in the Medoc of exposing the gravel.
Naron de Branne, an owner of Mouton at one time, recognized that Cabernet Sauvignon did very well on that gravel and encouraged his neighbors to plant that noble grape. Gerard Séguin, a researcher and professor, was one of the first to do a full study of Bordeaux soil. Published as part of a thesis, it was one of the first in depth studies that showed the differences in Bordeaux soils.
Today Kees van Leeuwen, Xavier Choné, David Becheler and David Pernet are at the forefront. They are the soil scientists, the consultants, the soil experts, working with, either with the appellations with the CIVB, or with individual chateaus to try to understand the terroir. “This is where we are today” she said.
David Becheler identified six terraces and named them, simply Terrace 1, Terrace 2, and so on. “In most of the Medoc you will find terrace 3, 4, 5 and the totally amazing thing that will blow your mind is…of the 61 estates classified in 1855, they are all on terrace 3 or 4. This is when I first realized that these estates were not just famous because they had wealthy owners,” she said.
Ideas I found most interesting were Pernet’s comments on how soil affects wine components. What does it mean in the glass to have clay soils? He described the soil on south slopes Fronsac and Côtes de Cadillac as a mix of clay, silt and a bit of sand, with clay dominating. “It’s mainly the effect of the subsoil and geological aspects that are expressed in the wine,” he said. “The vines can take a lot of water in this soil. There is moderate stress, but very low nitrogen availability which can give the wine good structure with quite a lot of tannins.”
Petrus has old, very heavy clay with little limestone among gravel terraces. He describes how this might have happened imagining that in some glacial period, heavy ice created intense pressure causing a bubble of clay to extrude into the gravel. Petrus is on this bubble of clay and it is very heavy clay, making it difficult for the vine roots to find air. The lack of oxygen in the subsoil, limited porosity and a low level of nitrogen can create moderate stress for the vines’ ripening a which can result in soft tannins. “A situation which is really good, especially for Merlot,” he said.
Pernet feels that Bordeaux may have some advantages with climate change. He noted that for the past ten years, there have been more very good vintages than 30 or 40 years ago, especially good ripening of Cabernet Sauvignon, which is at the heart of Bordeaux. “To have better ripening of Cabernet Sauvignon is something encouraging for the future,” he said. In the last three vintages, with Merlot on clay we have experienced hydric stress and the alcohol was lower, because the stress reduces photosynthesis, which creates sugar, therefore alcohol is lower.”
It has taken a few centuries to have some understanding of the best places to grow certain grape varieties to make great wines. Today we have more knowledge about of why a certain grape will do well in a certain place. Jane Anson has dedicated years to learning about Bordeaux and sharing what she has learned. She was inspired by the people from the past who have believed in terroir in Bordeaux and excited by the scientists who have helped to connect the cause and effect of soil type and environment to desired qualities in grapes. The result is a magnificent tome full of information and resources such as original maps showing where soil types are located. In addition to winery profiles, she has provided a tool to help consumers find wines based upon a checklist of five conditions created by the Institute of Oenology. These include conditions that determine successful development and ripening of the fruit. Perhaps her main point is that, “Bordeaux is so familiar to so many of us that we almost stop seeing it.” This is not a book you will want to attempt to read in one sitting. Her writing is accessible, for example suggesting that “wines from Pomerol have the ability to sit back, relax and smile.” Perhaps that is the best way to read this book.