Terroir vs winemaking -- Neal Martin lays the smack down

Neal Martin is one of the best wine writers going, and his writeup of the 2015 Burgfest blind tasting is typically witty and observant. But thought people would be particularly interested in his observation on terroir vs the influence of winemaking. The Burgfest tasting offers a particularly good opportunity to do that since it is organized as a bunch of horizontals of wines from the same vineyard, same vintage.

This tasting provides so much information, so many talking points, that I could go on ad nauseum examining the performance of each and every grower. Allow me to begin by stating something perhaps controversial but irrefutable. On paper, Burgfest is an examination of terroir, since flights are organized by vineyard. The mantra is that great wine is made in the vineyard, a priori, vineyard site is the determining factor. If only that romantic idea were true. If Burgfest proves one thing, year after year, it is that winemakers’ decisions throughout the entire process, from bud-break to bottling, tend to override the sway of terroir. How you prune, whether you de-leaf, whether you farm biodynamically or with chemicals, when you decide to pick, how much you sort the fruit, add stems or de-stem, chaptalize or acidify, how much new oak you elect to use. Sorry to bust the myth, but these multiple decisions shape the wine to a greater degree than whether this vineyard has a bit more limestone than that one. The juxtaposition of these wines at Burgfest reveals so much about decisions made by the winemaker because Burgundies are more sensitive than Bordeaux. Sometimes varicolored flights suggested the wines came from different countries, let alone exactly the same vineyard. See the evidence below. These are the five Clos Saint-Jacques, same walled vineyard and same vintage, all adjacent to each other.

Check out the article if you want to see the photo of some very different colored CSJs along with with a good writeup of 2015.

With all that variety, could he still tell they were all Clos Saint-Jacques?

Apparently the Burgfest flights are not blinded as to vineyard so he would have been told they were all CSJ. But I think reading between the lines of what he wrote he is saying that it is extremely unlikely you could have told they were all CSJ if you didn’t already know.

I want to hug that guy.

Alert the authorities. There’s a turd in the punch bowl.

“On paper, Burgfest is an examination of terroir, since flights are organized by vineyard.”

I disagree with Neal’s premise here. In fact, it would seem the way the Burgfest tasting is set up is designed to largely ELIMINATE terroir as a variable, so that you can isolate and compare winemaker/viticulture influence. If you wanted to examine terroir, you’d organize the tasting by producer, comparing a single producer’s Mazis-Chambertin, Latricières-Chambertin, and Chambertin-Clos de Beze to each other.

It would seem the Burgfest tasting is designed to highlight precisely the winemaker influences he’s complaining it’s being overwhelmed by. Although I might agree with his conclusion that winemaking signatures overwhelm terroir signatures, I think he misunderstands the purpose of the format of the tasting.

Exactly right, Scott

and it is me who organises the event… (which originated as an extension of Clive Coates’ Bordeaux blind tasting sessions)

Aha. Here is the elephant in the room I had always wanted to address, yet was in fear of doing so out of my presumable ignorance or inexperience. And here is my question: are the famous Côte d’Or climats worth the premium you pay on them?

I am thinking of two tastings I’ve done over the past year. Both were of wines I enjoyed: a horizontal by a small Lisbon based producer, and a comparative tasting of different Dão producers’ top wines. After the former tasting a member of the audience asked the producer about prices. They were astronomical - some might say Burgundian, I suppose. But as in Burgundy, he was operating with small plots of land and production numbers, with a quality based approach.

In the Dão tasting, I singled out two wines for opposing reasons. One was fresh, quirky, provocative. The other, though balanced and competently made, was boring for my taste - too consensual. It wasn’t until the magazine came out that I realized the wine I had prefered was half the price of the other one.

Am I really better off buying whites from Puligny-Chassagne-Meursault rather than the Mâconnais, Chablis or Côte Chalonnaise? And particularly when it’s the same producer working in all those places at very different price ranges? Is it such a bad deal to buy reds from Volnay and Pommard rather than the more prestigious climats of the Côte de Nuits? Is the difference I’m paying ever a terroir based quality differentiator, or rather the result of high demand VS. low supply, which is itself fueled by the weight of tradition and by premium pricing? Does the Emperor have any clothes?

Don’t we always say the three most important things in burgundy are producer producer producer?

This reminds me of an event organized by the IPNC people back in the late 80s/early 90s.
Three groups of three winemakers got grapes from the same vineyard–more or less-- and we all tasted the results.

The ‘it’s the winemaker’ crowd pointed to the differences and the terroiristes pointed to the similarities.
My conclusion: this argument will go on forever.

As C Fu points out, when it comes to buying decisions people go for the producer. Rousseau, Roumier, Coche…

I’m “young” and relatively inexperienced by the standards of this board, too. Even as someone who’s pretty Burgundy-obsessed, I can count the number of top-flight 1er and Grand Cru Burgundies I have had from great producers on one hand.

I will tell you that the 2002 Jadot Clos St. Jacques I had last year was definitely one of the top 3 wines I have had in my life. I also had the opportunity to drink a bottle of 1983 Leroy Gevrey lieux-dit thanks to the outrageous generosity of an old coworker; it holds one of the other top 3 spots.

I buy a lot of stuff from the non-CdN places you mentioned, but like a lot of people here have said: I would rather buy a great producer working in the Côte de Beaune - or even the Chalonnaise/Macon - than pay a premium for a mediocre producer in the Côte de Nuits.

Whether it’s worth it is entirely up to you. You can probably get most of the pleasure without having to pay for the absolute pinnacle. But that extra 10-20% that makes a wine totally sublime will be tough to replicate outside of the best producers in the most exalted climats, and it will also have the added deleterious effect of making you more willing to spend money to chase the dragon. The best winemakers make good wine everywhere, and they also make the best wine from the best places.

I really enjoy that Neal is taking a stand on this even if I don’t entirely agree as Jasper and Scott point out. Yes, there are clearly producer signatures that distort terroir. However, when you look at the list of Neal’s tasting notes, the top end is dominated by grand crus and highly rated premier crus. That stood out to me more than a few producers dominating his rankings. I am also not sure that the balance between producer vs. terroir influence is fixed - it changes and I would suggest that it swings towards terroir over time as things like oak integrate into the wine.

VERY GOOD QUESTION! The thing that makes me wonder about this though is the failure of other geographic regions to produce Burgundy-quality wines. The best Chardonnay from the entire nation of New Zealand (assuming that is Kumeu River) costs like 50-60% of what a generic village Meursalt or Chassagne-Montrachet does from a good Burgundy producer. Respected Burgundy producers growing in Oregon cannot get Burgundy pricing. Is this all just label mania, or are there that many price insensitive consumers? Speaking from my own limited experience, I have really never had a non-Burgundy pinot that replicates what you get from Burgundy, even though there are obviously cases where they are a better value in a different style. I can really see the argument that the “emperor has no clothes” when it comes to differences between nearby areas in Burgundy that are a couple of miles apart. But it is much harder to sustain when you compare entirely different winegrowing regions.

One thing I suspect is that people underrate weather and climate in “terroir” as compared to soil types. Weather goes way beyond temperatures obviously, it’s humidity, the type of sun exposure, variation in temperatures over days and weeks and months, etc. Differences in wine styles across big geographic areas seem to point to weather as a major factor. Of course, in the era of climate change weather is not a constant…

Re the bolded observation, I wonder if it could be different for any commercial critic. The entire economics of wine is centered on branding and in Burgundy the grand cru and top premier crus are a huge part of that. Everyone in the sales and value chain has to support the branding and paid critics are part of the sales and value chain. Could a critic expect to hold a job if he or she went around writing reviews that consistently implied “this vineyard designation that drives like 50% of your pricing is meaningless”?

Of course the same economics work on the producers who have every incentive to make the wines from their more highly designated areas “better”, however that works out stylistically given that current Burgundy prices and resources would absolutely make it possible to do peak-level winemaking from every single designated vineyard down to the village level.

The clothes are our own :slight_smile:

One of my favorite dialogues on this came from the Chocolate World, and the Mast Brothers. As their chocolate reputation grew, their ‘brand’ of terroir and specificity and uniqueness was exposed for being, shall we say, much less unique than they claimed (possibly mostly invented, at least at first).

And yet their chocolate had dedicated fans, and to this day has many dedicated fans as they continue success. If you loved their chocolate, that should be just cool on its own, right? But what if someone reveals to you that what you love isn’t due to a ‘unique, totally original’ engineering process, but rather a blend of the same tricks/processes everyone already uses?

Developing an authentic palate with ‘consistency’ is a part of the human endeavor. Personally, some of my favorite stories to tell regarding my own wine palate/experience/knowledge are when I was genuinely surprised by a wine, positively or negatively, i.e. a wine which doesn’t normally tick my boxes of preference really spoke to me (or I appreciated its differences in a powerful manner) or a wine which was ‘supposed’ to tick my boxes of preferences was entirely underwhelming (and, in theory, not because of bottle flaws).

These dialogues can start open-ended and full of discovery and then evolve into more as we become sensitive, ashamed, or worried about being ‘exposed’…

My own conclusion (shared by many, I am sure) is simply always, always push to better understand one’s own palate. In art, music, food, wine, whatever.

In the Art World (where I have much less training, and much less ‘special knowledge/experience’) one of my favorite things to do is really sit, in person, with an acclaimed great work of art or collection of art from an acclaimed Master and see what happens in my own mind, i.e. sans pressure.

Ideally, we should be so fortunate with our wines.

I think that refers mainly to overall quality, particularly in lesser vintages. I don’t think that was meant to deny the role of terroir/site.

it’s also to note to pick producer over the vineyard. Cause that’s one of the first mistakes new burgundy purchasers have. “But i bought these grand cru!? shouldn’t they be awesome!?”

i.e. “Should I buy this village gevrey Rousseau? or negotiant 1er Gevrey?”

Exactly, producer over vineyard or vintage if you simply want the best guide to a good wine.

Speaking as a musician, I have previously made the parallel with antique violins (on the Rudy Kurniawan thread) and how well or not so well they did in blind hearings compared to modern instruments. The most extraordinary instruments I’ve heard were those great antiques, but I fully believe Christian Tetzlaff when he claims his modern violin by Peter Greiner is just as good. Ning Feng’s Greiner was mistaken for a Stradivarius when some of my colleagues heard him perform in Lisbon.

Speaking as a wine lover, and not a very worldly one, I had an experience where I doubted my palate. It was on New Year’s, and the restaurant’s sommelier brought out a bottle which, so far, I have to consider one of the wines of my life (I’ll give the stereotypical hipster statement - you’ve probably never heard of it). My first impression was of being overwhelmed, as if I had reached Nirvana. On the second glass I made an effort to be more analytical, yet the only conclusion I could reach was that the wine was perfect: delicious, complex, with no rough edges or shortcomings. It wasn’t just the festive spirit animating my senses.

I doubted my own judgment afterwards. Not because my enjoyment wasn’t valid, but because I’m not experienced enough to have tasted any of the wines that truly warrant a legendary status around the world, and so my standards must have been born out of inexperience. This made me think of all the terrific stuff which I’m missing and will likely never taste. Just like that, a positive experience gained a negative undertone.

Finally, some weeks later I started following an Instagram page of a Brazilian Berserker style wine lover who only reviews old (over 15 years old) wines. I don’t know the guy’s palate, but there, in the middle of great old champagne, Bordeaux and super toscans, was the wine I had had that New Year’s Eve - and judging by his TN, he was just as overwhelmed by it as I was. I grinned!

Leaving aside whether Martin mischaracterized the point of the tasting (see Jasper Morris’s post), it’s a mistake to say it’s one or the other.

Think of it like a textured surface, where an artist (read: winemaker) picks a color to apply to a given surface, which determines the texture (read: terroir). Someone who says the final surface is all the work of the artist is just as mistaken as someone who says it’s the given material. In fact, you can see both in the final product. And you can focus on the similarities of the artist’s color on different textures, or how the texture is expressed through different artists’ colors.