Sniff or Sip?

A Burgundian debate over how to taste terroir

Sniff or Sip?
Burgundy educator Jacky Rigaux and vigneron Bruno Clavelier advocate evaluating "wines of place" through the "mouth" method of tasting, which they feel provides a more complete and accurate picture. (Robert Camuto)
Jul 21, 2021

A guy walks into a bar. (For our purposes, a wine bar.) He orders a glass of, say, fine Pinot Noir. He lifts the glass, scrutinizes the color and clarity of the wine and … what does he do next?

a) He holds the edge of the glass to his nose, sniffs, swirls and sniffs again.

b) He raises the glass to his lips and sips.

Answer “a” is the mainstream—following modern professional tasting practices that make seeking out a wine’s aromas the first order of business.

Answer “b” represents an older, alternative way—rediscovered and rebranded as “geosensorial tasting.” It places more value on mouthfeel and texture, which proponents say better reflects the soils and conveys a wine’s unique sense of place.

The options highlight a Nose vs. Mouth debate that’s been simmering for some years in Burgundy, a wine region emblematic of the concept of terroir.

I personally hadn’t given much thought to the mechanics of wine tasting until my mild bout of COVID-19 last winter was followed by a loss of smell, which only gradually returned over two months. During that period, I focused on the “mouth” qualities of wines—like viscosity, mineral character, salinity and quality of acidity.

So earlier this month on a trip to Burgundy, I met with the man who has stirred the debate: Burgundy author and educator Jacky Rigaux, who, at an energetic 73, is the leading voice for the “mouth” camp of wine tasting.

Rigaux’s argument—detailed in his slim, 66-page book, Géosensorial Wine Tasting: The Art and Manner of Tasting Wines of Origin (2015)—is fairly simple. By emphasizing aromas, many or most of which come from the grape variety or winemaking methods, modern tasting practices favor “technical,” aroma-preserving enology over traditional methods and wines that express the vineyard locale.

On the other hand, he posits, the mouth—through touch and taste—is more adept at understanding complex wines and the nuances of the soils in which the grapes were grown.

“Today, there is a whole science of enology in accentuating aromas,” Rigaux says one evening in his Gevrey-Chambertin home packed full of wine bottles and books. “But the true vins de terroirs are based on consistency and texture.”

 In Bruno Clavelier's cellar, a table displays rocks from the domaine's many different vineyard sites.
In Bruno Clavelier's cellar, a display of rocks from the domaine's different vineyard sites illustrates how varied Burgundy's terroirs are. (Robert Camuto)

To test his point, Rigaux and I head over to the cellar of his friend and stellar Vosne-Romanée vigneron Bruno Clavelier—a former professional rugby player and fifth-generation winemaker who took over his family domaine in 1987.

Clavelier—at 57, an evangelist for the climats in this elite viticultural neighborhood and for biodynamic viticulture—opens bottle after bottle of the 2019 vintage. His small-production bottlings include 15 site-specific reds from 15 scattered acres that have consistently scored outstanding or classic in Wine Spectator blind tastings.

Over a couple of hours, we taste through most of his line, from Vosne-Romanée village wines to premiers and grands crus from Vosne, Gevrey-Chambertin and Chambolle-Musigny.

At the center of the cellar room is a large, old wood vat that had been turned into a table and is covered with large stone samples from all his vineyards. The wines themselves are a fantastic lesson: deliciously varied from site to site and ranging from austere to voluptuous. Of course, this is the point of tasting in Burgundy.

We use the mouth method, sipping first, rolling the wines around in the mouth for their feel and density, tasting the flavors picked up by the tongue—sweet, sour, bitter, salty and umami—and retronasally smelling them through the olfactory passages at the back of the throat.

“To meet a wine, you have to start with the mouth,” says Rigaux. “And you have all the messages of the wine at once.”

Underlying the geosensorial method is the belief that the nose on its own is a powerful but fickle instrument.

“The nose is directly linked through our nervous system to our individual memories,” says Rigaux, a career psychoanalyst who has written 25 wine books. “So no one smells the same thing as somebody else.”

“The nose can trick you,” Clavelier chimes in, with aromas cuing your brain to anticipate flavors in the mouth that differ from what you’d find by just tasting.

Terroir, Clavelier says, is first detectable in a wine’s texture, influenced by tannins: “I always think about a fabric. The weave is either tight or loose. After that, you have the thickness of the yarn. Astringency is when you have a fat yarn with a loose weave. Silkiness is a fine yarn with a fine weave.”

With identical winemaking, the greatest differences in his wines are indeed felt on our lips, tongues and gums; the crus vary from stony to velvety, tightly woven to more loosely structured, powerful to subtle. While there are differences in the “nose” of each wine, they are more discreet; we don’t focus on them or try to call out scents as so often happens in professional tastings.

After texture, Clavelier says, terroir expresses itself in the quality of acidity. “It’s like a musical string that is either taut or lax and gives the wine a vibration.” Then there are the more elusive minerals that influence both taste and feel.

Rigaux did not invent this style of tasting. A native of the Loire Valley’s Pouilly-Fumé appellation, he came to the University of Dijon as a psychology professor in 1976. His wine career launched that year when the head of the enology department recruited him to run the wine continuing-education program.

His epiphany came three years later on meeting Vosne wine legend Henri Jayer and tasting his wines.

“I was in ecstasy,” Rigaux recalls.

Jayer mocked Rigaux’s “nose” style of tasting at the time and said, “Do not forget wine is not meant be sniffed. It is meant to be drunk.”

Jayer schooled Rigaux in the centuries-old tradition of wine brokers who used tastevins, the traditional shallow silver cup designed for visual inspection and sipping (but not sniffing).

On this afternoon, as we climb through Clavelier’s crus, the descriptors become more wide-ranging. Was the wine—using a dated cliché still alive in rural France—masculine or feminine? Was it well-dressed or athletic? Strong-willed or influenceable?

In the end, Clavelier concedes that sometimes he tastes a wine that leaves him speechless. “There are wines so complex, you lack words, or the right adjectives,” he says, “and all you can do is look up on high.”

“Then,” he adds, “you just need to listen.”

People How to Taste Pinot Noir Burgundy France

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