Terroir extraordinaire—a key to understanding the wines in Bordeaux (and elsewhere in France)
The ancient Greeks understood the effects of location on wine characteristics, but it was the French who really ran with the concept, coining the term “terroir” and making it an essential aspect of their appellation d’origine controlée (AOC), the controlled designation of origin that is granted to wine, and other agricultural products, based on the location where the product is grown. Take wine, for example. In the U.S., we tend to focus on the varietal, and every bottle will tell us the wine within was made from Chardonnay or Pinot Noir or other grape varietals. In France, however, the varietal is rarely mentioned. Instead, if the wine is from Burgandy, an informed drinker will know that whites are made from Chardonnay grapes and reds are made from Pinot Noir grapes.
In Bordeaux, almost all wines are a blend of grape types, with a focus on red varietals. Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are the dominant grapes—other varietals added in smaller proportions include Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc. Below is a map of Bordeaux that shows the major AOCs. While every word is not clear, you can at least see the different colors that pertain to the different AOCs. While in Bordeaux, we have focused on the Médoc—the long purple region on the Left Bank (SW side) of the Gironne estuary—and Saint Emilion—the roundish purple region on the Right Bank (NE side). Two rivers—the Garonne and the Durdogne—flow from the southeast into the Gironde estuary, where they mix with salt water from the Atlantic. In a few days we’ll be bicycling for 5 days in the Entre Deux Mers region, which is the large green area on the map located between the two rivers.
You probably know that terroir relates to geology! The rock and soil type in which the grapes are growing can impart qualities such as minerality and acidity. Climate and slope are also important aspects of terroir. Small differences in location—for example, north-facing slopes versus south-facing slopes—can result in variations in temperature and moisture that affect characteristics of the grapes and the wine produced. Consequently, the main AOCs are subdivided into sub-appellations based on these location differences. Of course, human ingenuity is also essential to the wine-making process!
We visited three chateaux in Médoc. It’s important to know that they aren’t called wineries here; in France, chateaux refer to the places (which indeed do usually include large house-type structures) where the grapes are grown and the wine is made and bottled. The wines are then labeled with the name of the chateau and the region. If produced in The Médoc region, although it will not say so on the label, we will know that most of the wine is made from Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, with a large proportion of Merlot +/- Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc. The terroir of The Médoc is defined by the Quarternaire (Quaternary) soils that are very gravelly. The gravel was eroded from the Pyrennes during glacial periods (past 2 million years) and carried north by rivers. The gravel soils are thick and bedrock is not much of an influence. Check out all of the gravel in the soil where I am picking the grapes at Chateau Le Crock (St Estéphe subappelation).
We are fortunate to be here during the harvest, and some of the grapes still hang in full, beautiful clusters on the vines. At Chateau Le Crock, we were able to accompany the workers into the field (although we only picked enough grapes for the photo) and to have lunch with the workers, including the wine maker and the vineyard manager.
In the Médoc we also visited Chateau Lèoville Poyferré (St Julien subappelation) and Chateau Prieuré Lichine (Margaux subappelation). The Médoc is almost 100% about wine, and the countryside is covered with vineyards and exquisite chateaux. Here is a photo of Chateau Margaux, that produces one of the most famous, and most expensive, wines in the world.