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I finally finished Bernard Lewin MW’s great book, What Price Bordeaux?, and want again to recommend it. It’s not a book about how Bordeaux tastes, it’s about the historic, legal and social underpinnings of what may be the world’s greatest, most important wine appellation.

Perhaps because he edited a biology journal, Lewin is a rigorous reporter. Whenever there’s a question that needs to be asked, Lewin asks it. In re: the concept of appellations, he is the ultimate skeptic, wondering over and over again why the Classification of 1855 should remain relevant, and throwing down gauntlets that the Bordealais may find it difficult to jump over.

He has a great way — you could call it Socratic — of asking questions that practically answer themselves. “Do any of the existing [Bordeaux] classifications really make a useful difference?” This refers to the fact that chateaux move up and down in quality over the years regardless of their official level, so who cares if, say, Sociando-Mallet is a classified growth or not? (It isn’t.)

“And does the range of variation become so broad as to lose utility when a class is as large as the 46 Grand Cru Classés” of Saint Emilion? Lewin doesn’t answer his own question, but you find yourself thinking, Well, yes, it probably does become too broad.

And this, on the terroir the Bordelais so treasure: Given the intensive human intervention in the Médoc (beginning with draining the swamps), and given the fact that individual parcels pass between different chateaux with some frequency, “Do they [chateaux] provide unique representations of conditions that can be found only in their specific vineyards? Or are they brands, representing commercial margues…?” Once again, Lewin’s lips are sealed, but you can infer his answer. Commercial marques, anyone?

My own feeling, which has evolved over years since I began studying wine, is that there’s less than meets the eye to the classic Bordeaux argument of terroir. I think the First Growths are Firsts because people were willing to pay the greatest amount of money for them 200 years ago, which allowed their proprietors to lavish the greatest care possible upon the vines, which improved the wines, etc. etc. ad infinitum.Throw in the Snob Factor — “I can afford Lafite, too bad you can’t” — and we have a system petrified in time.

I think the Classification of 1855 is irrelevant, but also represents the greatest marketing triumph in the history of wine (or, possibly, the second, after the Champenois). I think when you classify 46 chateaux as Grand Cru Classés, the title does lose meaning: it’s like all the children in Lake Woebegon being above average.

There are lessons to be absorbed here in the States, and especially in California.

1. Let’s never, ever classify vineyards or wineries. It’s a no-win proposition.
2. Human perceptions of brands are stubborn and persistent. It’s nearly impossible to alter the typical view that Lafite, say, is better than Talbot, even though it may not be. That’s good news for wine brands that have implanted themselves into the consumers’ psyche, bad news for brands that haven’t.
3. There’s no such thing as terroir. Yes, there are better and worse places to grow wine grapes, but the place in and of itself is not enough. You need the right vineyard management and winemaking techniques. Even the latter — good winemaking technique — is not enough, if the grapes are not perfect. The combination of terroir plus human intervention is called cru. That’s why there are Grand Crus in both France and in California.
4. California’s Grand Crus will survive this economic mess, just as Bordeaux’s got through civil war, the Napoleonic Wars, devastating phylloxera, war with Prussia, and two World Wars in the 20th century, with a Great Depression inbetween. Not to mention Jerry Lewis.

I go to Seattle today, a city I love, to drink wine with my friend and colleague, Paul Gregutt, who I expect will play a little music on his guitar. I’ll try to post your comments, although it’s sometimes tough on the road. Have a great weekend!

  1. But no matter what, let us vow, here and now, forever and for all time, to keep that beloved 100 point rating system.

  2. Your comment on Bordeaux terroir reminds me of Kermit Lynch’s in Adventures on the Wine Route. Paraphrasing roughly, he says he couldn’t comprehend how there was any terroir in a place so flat as Bordeaux. Is there terroir beyond Bordeaux, perhaps?

    Considering the approach to elevage in Bordeaux (and Napa)–many months in small, new barrels–terroir probably isn’t that important. You need good raw materials, yes, but the winemaking techniques are going to have greatest influence. Maybe for a similar reason collectors fixate on celebrity winemakers in Napa.

    I have a feeling that for other varietals and regions, cru has much more terroir than human intervention.

  3. Morton Leslie says:

    Terroir exists, it’s just difficult often impossible to see as a consumer or critic. Where you really see it is as a winemaker. If you have a vineyard of a single variety that rests on varying soils or with varying exposures you see the vines grow differently, grapes ripen differently and naturally, you ferment and age them in separate lots. Over a few years you see characters that come through consistently associated with certain parts of the vineyard. Often in blind tasting after the harvest as you begin to think about assemblage, the identity of a block is obvious based on previous years experience. Blending diffuses this character. Oak covers this character. Brett hides this character. Letting grapes raisin on the vine destroys this character. Terroir exists and is common, winemakers just get in the way. They didn’t at one time.

  4. Morton says “Terroir exists; winemakers just get in the way. They didn’t at one time”.

    And yet, I can taste distinct differences in wines from one side of Rutherford to another, from Tokalon to Rubicon to Corison all on the West Rutherford Bench. Winemakers can get in the way, but the suggestion that terroir, or the character of an area, does not exist in Napa or Bordeaux is folly. Even in the drained swamp that is Bordeaux’ left bank, the differences in grape flavor from Margaux to St. Estephe is sufficient that it makes a whale of difference to the wines in question.

    Okay, so is Morton all wet? No, of course not. Angelus and Pavie-Maquin on the Right Bank are examples of where the regional character is lost to a deeper, richer character that derives from the grapes and winemaking. Does the loss of terroir kill those wines dead in their tracks? Maybe to Morton, and that’s OK, but not to Parker apparently.

    Same for wines like Hewitt, whose character is always an amalgam of ripeness and West Rutherford Bench. So, yes, it is obvious that terroir can be reduced. But what is less obvious to me is whether loss of terroir means a reduction in the ability of the wine to please those who drink it.

    Put it this way. Terroir exists. Does it trump all else in the final analysis?Not on your nelly.

  5. Thats an interesting comment you made, Steve. I remember having a discussion on terroir with our winemaker and he considered the human effort in wine(vineyard management, winemaking techniques) a part of his definition of terroir. I say it’s interesting because, being from France, he didn’t never mentioned Cru to me, or made that distinction something separate from his understanding of “Terroir.”

  6. Dylan, Cru is a word that some people mean terroir + human factor. I guess it doesn’t matter so much what word you use, as the concept.

  7. Bill Adams says:

    Terroir certainly and most obviously exists in distinctive climats; one would be a fool to argue with the examples in the Cote d’Or or the Mosel. But, in the nature-versus-nurture dialectic, it may be either obscured or revealed by human intervention, never invented by it.

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