Terroir in Bordeaux

Part of my enthusiasm for wine, and I’m sure other’s as well, is that the character of the wine is, or at least should be, a reflection of where the grapes were grown.  For me, this is a fabulous expression of Nature and an almost magical one at that.  Wines made from the same grapes grown in adjacent vineyards, separated sometimes by only a narrow dirt path, can often taste very different.  This concept can be difficult to appreciate because the producer’s winemaking technique can overwhelm the influence of place.  When tasting two wines from different locales made by different producers, the question becomes, is it the producer’s hand or the locale that is speaking?  So, for consumers to appreciate and understand the potential of what is known as terroir, or what noted wine writer Matt Kramer called, “a sense of place,” it is essential to compare wines from different places made by the same producer.

The concept of terroir is universal, and not just for grapes.  The Europeans have hundreds of appellations for a variety of foods because they know that certain areas excel in growing certain products.  We in the U.S. have fewer legal, geographically-determined appellations for foods, but still recognize the concept, as with Florida oranges, Vidalia onions, or Washington State apples.  We all know that some people’s homegrown tomatoes taste better than those of others.  Maybe they were better “farmers,” but maybe their backyard was better suited, for some reason, for growing tomatoes.

For wine, Burgundy is ground zero for this phenomenon for historical reasons.  French inheritance laws stemming from the Napoleonic era mandated an equal distribution of land among the heirs, which meant that, over time, many people wound up owning small patches of vineyards.  For many of these farmers, it made little economic sense to make and market wines from such small holdings, so they sold their grapes or newly made wine to firms, known as négociants, that finished the winemaking process and marketed the wines.  As a result, these producers, such as Maison Louis Jadot, Maison Louis Latour or Maison Joseph Drouhin, wound up making and selling wines from many different sites within Burgundy.  Since the winemaking of each négociant is the same or at least similar for all their wines, one can easier discern the incredible differences between two wines whose grapes might have come from vineyards separated by that dirt path.

This phenomenon is not restricted to Burgundy.  Bruno Borie, President of Ducru-Beaucaillou and related properties, showed me during a recent trip to Boston that it is alive and well–and very important–in Bordeaux.

Of course, terroir is alive and well in Bordeaux.  Everyone knows that the wines from the commune of St. Éstephe are very different from those of neighboring Pauillac or from Margaux.  But how about within an individual commune?  I’ve heard many times from the Bordelais themselves and have read reliable authors who have said that the best wines in St. Julien come from those properties that can “see the estuary,” that is, those châteaux that are the furthest east, bordering the Gironde River.  And indeed, though there are exceptions, those properties closest to the water, Château Ducru-Beaucaillou and the Léovilles (Poyferré, Las Cases, and Barton), to name a few, make wines that are generally more elegant than ones located further to the west, the inland St. Julien, such as Château Gruaud Larose, Château Talbot, or Château Lagrange.  So, is it the winemaking or the location, i.e., “the hand or the land,” that is responsible?  With an exceptional and unique tasting, Bruno Borie gave us the answer by showing three wines from the 2015 vintage made by the same team.

A little history puts this tasting into perspective.  The Borie family, who have had a presence in the Médoc since 1870, have been making wine at Ducru-Beaucaillou since Bruno’s grandfather started leasing the vineyards in 1941–what a time to embark on a new project in France!  Bruno’s father, Jean-Eugène, eventually purchased the property in the 1960s and ran it until Bruno took the reins in 2003.  Bruno recounts how in 1970, his father lamented after church services to the patriarch of the Cendoya family, the owner of Château Lagrange at the time, that he (Borie) was surprised by the recent sale of a piece of Lagrange, hinting that he would have been interested in purchasing it.  Cendoya responded by saying that they had more to sell.  Bingo!  Quickly thereafter, Jean-Eugène had purchased what is now Château Lalande-Borie, located in the western part of the commune, quite a distance from the Gironde, relatively speaking.  Then in 1995, as part of his upgrading of Ducru, Jean-Eugène introduced a “second” wine, La Croix Beaucaillou, which since 2005 has been a separate wine made from a separate vineyard that lies half-way between Lalande-Borie and Ducru-Beaucaillou itself.  La Croix is still technically a second wine because some of the lesser lots from Ducru find their way into La Croix, but Bruno emphasizes that 90 percent of La Croix comes from its own discrete vineyard.

We had in front of us the three wines from three different areas of St. Julien.  Going from west to east–inland to the estuary–was Château Lalande-Borie, La Croix Beaucaillou, and Ducru-Beaucaillou from the 2015 vintage.  Although the blends of the three wines were slightly different, with more Merlot and less Cabernet Sauvignon in Château Lalande-Borie (60% Merlot, 40% Cabernet Sauvignon) compared to 60% Cabernet Sauvignon in La Croix and 90% in Ducru, the fundamental difference among the wines was elegance.  The texture of the wines became finer and finer moving from the west towards the river.  It was like the difference between wool, lambswool and cashmere.  Moreover, there was less apparent fruitiness and more savory and mineral-like flavors moving from west to east.

Borie explained that “the ecosystem”–he avoided the term, terroir–of each vineyard determined the character and finesse of the wine.  Near the estuary lies a collection of stones and gravel that came originally from both the center of France and the Pyrenees Mountains.  He insists it’s this mix of deposits combined with perfect exposure and drainage that provides the elegance and mineral-like component of Ducru.  He explains that in the middle of St. Julien, there are little streams that cut through the Médoc, which dictate the climate.  The soil contains a bit more clay which imparts more body–at the expense of elegance–to the wines.  In the inland or western part of the appellation, the soil is newer, geologically speaking, with more sand, which for him explains why the wines have less complexity.

The message was clear to me.  The conventional wisdom is true:  The finest wines from St. Julien come from vines that can see the estuary.  A large thank you to Bruno Borie for the chance to learn this for myself.

My advice for consumers is to buy as much of these 2015s as your budget will allow. The Ducru-Beaucaillou (97, $200) showed its Cru Classé stature with its extraordinary silky texture and a broad palate of flavors without a trace of heaviness. I’d leave this beauty in the cellar for another decade to let it develop as I know the wines of Ducru-Beaucaillou do.  The Lalande-Borie (91, $38) is enjoyable now, but I suspect it will continue to evolve over the next decade.  I’d give the La Croix Beaucaillou (93, $60), another five years before pulling the cork.

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Email me your thoughts about terroir or Ducru-Beaucaillou at [email protected] and follow me on Twitter @MichaelApstein

May 22, 2019