Terroir is the passion of wine cultivators and connoisseurs but the bane of anyone keen to convince the world that the vine isn’t a feature of a fearful landscape where newcomers repeatedly trip over obscure French terms. The theory is that wine tastes as it does because of where the component grapes were grown – just as I seem to be English because of where I was grown.
The favourite example is Pinot Noir, which never tastes Burgundian when grown anywhere else (which is not to say that it doesn’t often taste very good). The problems arise when people make “tasting Burgundian” the standard of quality. With wine, this means missing out on wonderful Australian or New Zealand Pinots; with people, it can become more dangerous.
Not that the concept of terroir refers purely to soil. It is sunshine, rainfall, maybe even air quality: the ineffable difference between one place and another that even globalisation and the internet can’t alter – although climate change might. We understand that the best Pinot grows on the eastern slopes of Burgundy’s Côte d’Or, but we may never really figure out why these vineyards differ so greatly from those elsewhere – or from each other. And as for Bordeaux, whose wines are blends of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot: why should different proportions of these particular grapes work so much better in one spot than another? Even the belief that Right Bank soils must make wines that are mostly Merlot – while those across the Dordogne suit a higher proportion of Cabernet Sauvignon – is somewhat scuppered by the high proportion of Cabernet Franc in the great Cheval Blanc. What it all comes back to is not (as in William Goldman’s famous formulation on Hollywood) that nobody knows anything, but that some things are unknowable, and don’t taste any the worse for that.
The other danger with terroir is that the useful theory for matching wine with food – pick wines from the same place – may become law. One of the best practitioners of this art I know is the sommelier at the Epicure restaurant at Le Bristol hotel in Paris. Marco Pelletier (whose name suggests that he, too, may be a blend of terroirs) needs to be good: the food has three Michelin stars and is spectacular. With the famed Bresse chicken he serves red Burgundy – a Domaine Jean Grivot Nuits-St-Georges or a Chambolle-Musigny Premier Cru from Jacques-Frédéric Mugnier – made about 80 miles up the road from Bresse; but with langoustine or lobster he opts for wines that, unlike those crustaceans, have never seen the sea: a Grüner Veltliner from Schloss Gobelsburg in northern Austria and another Burgundy, white this time, Domaine Roulot Meursault “Les Tessons”.
All four wines are superb, and magical matches. Budgets at Epicure are large; that helps. But you can mess up an expensive meal at least as easily as a cheap one.
The secret seems to be a sufficient, but not slavish, respect for terroir. This fits with a hotel named for an enthusiastic traveller, the 4th Earl of Bristol, an 18th-century epicure and art-lover who was not from Bristol at all, but from Suffolk – and much preferred Italy to either.
Another person connected with Le Bristol who offers an interesting perspective on terroir is the managing director, Didier Le Calvez, who has land in Puisseguin-Saint-Émilion on which he makes Château Clarisse, a reasonably priced claret of a quality that belies the view that Saint-Émilion is not encircled by suitable terroir for good Bordeaux. It’s an opinion perpetrated, one suspects, by the winemakers of Saint-Émilion, because self-interest, as I have mentioned, is also often rooted in terroir – and that’s a flourishing plant if ever there was one.
This article appears in the 09 Dec 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The clash of empires