Terroir Reflects Culture as Well as Geography

terroir4Andrew Jefford’s recent post reports on his disorientation at encountering a Castillon Côtes de Bordeaux from Chateau Le Rey sold in a slope-shouldered bottle instead of the classic Bordeaux bottle.

I couldn’t make it taste like Bordeaux – at all. It kept tasting like a mid-Rhône wine…Yet there it was: Castillon, 80% Merlot with the balance from Cabernet Franc, limestone soils, 15% alcohol, oaked.

He exclaims:

Unless you have been given a wine blind and wholly free of context, a wine’s visual cues are dictatorial. They shout, stamp, whistle and roar. In doing so, they can hide knowledge and understanding, rather than nurturing them.

I suppose so. But I think his experience tells us more about the concept of terroir than the importance of bottle shape.

This wine was made without sulphur. It was oaked, but not in a pencilly or cedary style as even Merlot-dominated Right Bank wines can be; it had lots of fresh, almost pippy raspberry fruit. Despite its generous alcohol (which was invisible), it was pure, urgent, acidic, untamed, almost primal. It had sap and lignin rather than textural tannin, and finished with some bitterness; there was a greenness to its freshness, which made me wonder whether it was the result of partial early picking, or even had a whole-bunch component.

The purity was admirable, but it did come with aggression and bite. Progressive, vanguard Bordeaux, rather than classic Bordeaux.

The wine didn’t taste like Bordeaux because it was made in a style utterly unlike what is typical of Bordeaux.

So what does it mean to express the terroir of right bank Bordeaux? On what grounds could we assert that the Le Rey is so atypical as to be a poor expression of Bordeaux? I don’t think those grounds exist.  There is no such thing as terroir that isn’t an expression of the decisions made in the vineyard and winery. Terroir is as much a cultural expression as it is an expression of climate, weather, and soil.

I have long been of the opinion that it is useful to have a term such as “terroir” that refers to the non-human inputs to a wine. But the case of the Chateau Le Rey shows the futility of maintaining a distinction between human and non-human inputs. Classical Bordeaux tastes as it does because of countless decisions made in the vineyard and winery. The Chateau Le Rey tastes differently because they made different decisions.

Both express terroir because terroir is inherently an interpretation that reflects human decision-making.

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