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Vines and Terroir - Does the grape or the soil make the flavour?

The Vine

Despite the whingeing of people like me, the marketing of wines by grape variety continues unabated. From an intellectual point of view this has a built-in problem, and it's this. What the French call 'vignes nobles' or noble grape varieties, are noble because they express clearly in their resulting wine the 'terroir' of where they were grown.

Despite the whingeing of people like me, the marketing of wines by grape variety continues unabated. From an intellectual point of view this has a built-in problem, and it's this. What the French call 'vignes nobles' or noble grape varieties, are noble because they express clearly in their resulting wine the 'terroir' of where they were grown. This isn't true of all grape varieties. A grape like the Muscat will produce a very similar tasting wine no matter where it's grown. It has a marked taste characteristic that is dependent on the grape itself, not on the soil where it was grown. The Chardonnay grape on the other hand is an example of a 'vigne noble'. When it's grown in Chablis, for example, it's deep rooting characteristic ensures that whatever minerals are in the subsoil are present in the wine. In Chablis it produces a flinty, mineral taste that characterises a Chablis. In other words, it perfectly reflects the terroir in which it finds itself. Chardonnay in the Maconnais produces a very different wine, again a reflection of the soil type of where it was grown.

You can see that the simple word 'Chardonnay' emblazoned upon a label can't really tell you much about the wine in the bottle. Hot climate Chardonnays taste different from cool climate ones, when the growing season was long and cool as opposed to hot and short. Couple this with different countries' soil types and climactic conditions and suddenly there's a whole lot of variables in the mix, all of which impinge of the wine's ultimate character.

It was always a trial and error science, working out what vines did best on a given plot of land. There was, over the years, a constant tweaking process that eventually led growers in a particular region to settle on a particular variety that best suited their terrain. Muscadet is grown extensively in the Loire, but not a lot elsewhere. The Rhone valley has its Viognier and Syrah, Burgundy its Chardonnay and Pinot, Bordeaux its Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc. Each area discovered its own best-suited grape and specialised in it.

You could argue that centuries of grape-growing knowledge has gone into these choices. Matching varieties to climate and soil type is truly an art form, because the resulting wine can really only be assessed by a human palate, not by an organic analysis of a wine's constituent parts. In practice this means that choosing a wine from a recognised area rather than by varietal name is more likely to be a better indicator of what kind of wine you can expect inside the bottle.

Wecommended wine

Bourgogne, Jean-Marc Brocard 2001

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