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Terroir Comes Shining Through -- And Doesn't

James Molesworth
Posted: February 3, 2000

Terroir Comes Shining Through -- And Doesn't
By James Molesworth, tasting coordinator

Terroir. As Matt Kramer has said, terroir is that sense of "somewhereness." The effect of a vineyard's specific soil, exposure to sun, drainage, altitude and other multitudinous minutiae that express themselves individually in wine. For Burgundy, it's what makes Nuits-St.-Georges taste like Nuits-St.-Georges and Vosne-Romanee like Vosne-Romanee. But does it really exist? And is it alone in what makes a wine individual?

Helping to answer these questions was a recent tasting held in New York City. Billed as an exercise in terroir, it was led by four Burgundian winemakers. Jean-Marc Roulot of Domaine Guy Roulot and Dominique Lafon from Domaine Comtes Lafon from Meursault hosted a morning session featuring 19 wines from their village. In the afternoon, Francois Faiveley from Maison-Faiveley and Jean-Pierre de Smet of Domaine de L'Arlot took over for a look at 20 wines from the village of Nuits-St.-Georges, in which both their domaines are based.

For the Meursault segment, the first 11 wines were not poured blind, but rather just meant for us to get a grounding in the different vineyards and their styles: Limozin, Meix Chavaux, Clos de la Barre and other village-level wines, along with such premier crus as Genevrieres and Charmes. While Lafon and Roulot had some of their own wines in the tasting, wines from other top Meursault producers -- including Pierre Matrot, J.-F.Coche-Dury, Olivier Leflaive and Francois Jobard -- were also poured.

After the first 11, wines were then poured in flights of two, blind. Wines were from the same vintage and producer, but two different vineyards. It was up to the audience to guess which one was which. Assuming that terroir is indeed a tangible subject, this exercise should have been relatively easy.

So there we were, about 100 people thinking they could pick Jobard's Meursault Charmes from his Meursault-Blagny. Charmes, with its class and power, vs. the overriding minerality and four-square nature of the Blagny. No problem, right?

Well, most of the room got it wrong. We didn't feel so bad though, as a few of the winemakers missed it as well. It might have been easier to call had we been given a sample of Jobard's Blagny in the nonblind flight. The Blagny which was poured as an example was from Matrot, a fine producer, but one whose wines don't usually show the power and weight of Jobard's. Perhaps that was why we all missed it -- or could it have been something else? Could winemaker style also have an effect?

Ah -- now we come to it. Terroirists must admit, albeit in small groups among ourselves, that even the most ardent Burgundian terroirist leaves an indelible imprint on the wines from his own hand.

But the argument for terroir always seems to be posed in terms of white and black. Either a wine has terroir, or it's "international" in style. Just listen to Roulot resist the idea of winemaker style, saying "Terroir takes the place of winemaking. The richness of my wines comes from Meursault; I don't need or want to accentuate or change it in any way."

Then why do I always pick out Roulot wines (which get some new wood) vs. Jobard wines (which get no new wood)? Hmmm.

The next three blind pairs were from Lafon, Roulot and then Matrot. Though the winemakers got smart, and started to decline guessing which was which, most of the audience started to get it right. Lafon's Charmes and Desiree were indeed different and much in the way that their winemaker described them, as were the Meix Chavaux and Tessons from Roulot, and the Charmes and Perrieres from Matrot.

Though the differences between two vineyards from the same producer began to show through, there were, however, some definite winemaker styles showing up, whether it was the mouthfilling honeyed richness of Lafon's wines or the pure, clean, vibrant fruit in the wines from Matrot.

Perhaps the afternoon session would clear things up a bit. Nuits-St.-Georges is a study in terroir in and of itself. At 3 miles long, the village is large, taking up 10 percent of the entire Cote d'Or. The vineyards at the Southern end are quite elegant; those in the middle rather gamy, rustic and powerful and often thought to be the village's best; while those at the Northern end, adjacent to Vosne-Romanee, take on a more supple and richer quality.

Again we started with a series of wines, 10 in total, that were not served blind. From the southern end we were provided with three wines, and all three showed exactly as they were supposed to, elegant fruit (the soil is sandier at the southern end of Nuits) and rustic tannins.

From the middle section we were poured what is generally considered to be the pride and class of Nuits-St.-Georges, wines from the Clos de Forets, Les St.-Georges and Vaucrains vineyards. As advertised, they demonstrated raw power along with gamy aromas, deep colors and massive, tough tannins. True vin de garde and wines not for the faint of heart.

And, not surprisingly, the wines of the northern section of vineyards -- Chaignots, Vignerondes and Boudots -- all showed the more supple, plummier side of Nuits-St.-Georges (wines that tasted quite similar to Vosne-Romanee, which happens to be the bordering village).

Then the blind tests again, and I must say the audience was clearly learning their lesson, as the majority were right on all the blind flights. In particular, the flights with L'Arlot's Clos L'Arlot and Clos Forets were dramatically different, as were the Porets-St.-Georges and Chaignots from Faiveley, and Ronciere and Cailles from Robert Chevillon.

Terroir really seemed to be shining through, as de Smet stated; "My winemaking process is always the same. Whether destemmed or not, macerated or not, I treat all my wines the same. Yet my Clos l'Arlot is always more elegant than my Clos Forets. Always."

There was no doubt about that -- his two wines were dramatically different, and just as he described them. But why then the unmistakable aromas of sandalwood and spice in all the L'Arlot wines? The plummy, plush, fleshy character of the Daniel Rion wines? The intensely aromatic, yet densely structured Faiveley wines? The opulently savage Chevillon wines? Another hmmm.

Does terroir exist? Absolutely. Yet as well as the point of terroir was demonstrated in this tasting there is simply no denying the stamp that the winemaker leaves on their wine. The French can clamor all they want about how their wines have that sense of place and others don't -- and let them, as they've been making the stuff for a while and they ought to know something.

But while Burgundian terroir is unique and no doubt makes its wines different from other Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays, that dash of winemaker style adds just a wee bit to it as well. It's a welcome addition too. I like Nuits-St.-Georges for its gamy, rustic wines. And I like the sense of spice that Domaine de L'Arlot has in its wines. It complements the terroir, and makes it a better wine, no matter what the French care to deny.

The same can be said for those wines that are the bane of the terroirist -- California Cabernet (gasp!). Those who really know the stuff can tell you why Silver Oak is different from Robert Mondavi, and Bryant is different from Colgin -- and it's not just Alexander Valley vs. Napa Valley, or the Pritchard Hill vineyard vs. the Herb Lamb vineyard. While the sources for those grapes clearly have an overriding impact on how the wines turn out, those who make the wine, and the methods they employ, add just a little bit more dimension to the final product.

I like filet mignon for a reason -- because it tastes like filet mignon. But I enjoy my filet mignon with peppercorns, or a blue cheese sauce, or with just plain roasted garlic and nothing else. Terroir is the main thing for sure, but the winemaker is the spice that keeps it all interesting.

This column, Unfiltered, Unfined, features the opinionated inside scoop on the latest and greatest in the world of wine, brought to you each Monday by a roster of Wine Spectator editors. This week we hear from tasting coordinator James Molesworth. To read past Unfined, Unfiltered columns, go to the archives. And for an archive of senior editor James Laube's columns, visit Laube on Wine.

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