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Finding a Sense of Place (September 25, 2014)

If you're a Burgundian Pinot Noir nut you've probably already done this: driven the 60-kilometre Route des Grands Crus from Santenay to Dijon. If you have, you'll have navigated the world's greatest wine list.

The route takes you through the vineyards of the Côte de Nuits and the Côte de Beaune (collectively known as the Côte d'Or – the world's most expensive agricultural real estate), as well as the lesser-known and less costly Hautes-Côtes in the hills above Route Nationale 74.

In the twelfth century Cistercian monks worked the land around Citeaux Abbey, now the spiritual home of Burgundy's wines. Their vineyard, within the walls of the monastery's 125-acre property, became Clos de Vougeot, the largest single vineyard in the Côte de Nuits. Over the generations the monks and local landowners found that certain sites produced better wines than others and they began to isolate these parcels.

In 1855, the same year that Bordeaux wines were classified into five growths on the basis of quality and price, Dr. Jules Lavalle published a topographical map of Burgundy's Côte d'Or. He detailed every vineyard from Santenay to Dijon and rated them in quality terms as Hors ligne, Tête de Cuvée, Première, Deuxième and even Troisième Cuvée.

This system, simplified and formalised by the Beaune Committee of Agriculture in 1861, became the appellation contrôlée system for the Côte d'Or that was given the stamp of law in 1936. Today, every vineyard in Burgundy is stratified in a pyramid of quality from grand cru at the top descending through premier cru, to village wine, down to generic Bourgogne.

And what makes one vineyard better than another and worthy of being a grand cru rather than a premier cru? The French have a word for it – terroir. Terroir is the sum of three things: what happens to a vine above the ground, what happens to it below the ground and the way it is tended. This quasi-mystical concept involves the nature of the soil, the drainage, the vine's exposure to sunlight, how it is trellised and pruned and what happens to the grapes once they enter the cellar. In a word, terroir is "a sense of place."

Terroir, as every Burgundy aficionado knows, can make wines from neighbouring plots taste discernibly different. Think Volnay and Pommard, the elegance of the former and the power of the latter, and yet they are neighbouring villages.

The winemaker in Ontario who best exemplifies the exploitation terroir is Thomas Bachelder. Bachelder made wine in Burgundy and Oregon before settling in Ontario to make Chardonnay and Pinot Noir for Le Clos Jordanne. At Le Clos he produced a series of single vineyard wines that were a true expression of the soil in which they were grown. He now makes wine under the Bachelder label in all three regions as well as overseeing the cellar at a new Niagara winery called Domaine Queylus. A Pinot Noir specialist, Bachelder says, "Pinot Noir is one of the best grapes for expressing terroir. Chardonnay does it well, Riesling does it well but Pinot Noir is more transparent, the terroir shines through it."

If you want an object lesson in the effects of terroir in Ontario, taste side by side two Pinot Noir wines from Coyote's Run in Niagara-on-the-Lake: Red Paw and Black Paw are two contiguous vineyards. The age of vines is the same; the mix of clones is the same; the wines are made in the same fashion; but the flavour profiles are totally different. I asked the winery's owner Jeff Aubrey what accounted for the distinctive taste profiles. "In a word," he said, "soils. Red Paw is iron rich, hard and stoney, well drained with low organic content. Technically, it's called the Trafalgar series of silty clay, which is quite red because of the iron. Black Paw (which abuts Red Paw) is Toledo series of silty clay loams, formed from the muck on the lake bed of the former Lake Iroquois that covered most of southern Ontario millions of years ago. The soil is remarkably dense, heavy blue clay. There's lots of organic matter, which holds moisture. Black Paw delivers darker fruit flavours because the heat capacity causes the soil to stay warmer longer into the fall period. This makes for riper grapes, even though the Brix levels (sugar readings) and acids are the same as Red Paw. Red Paw, on the other hand, has an amazing perfume year after year. One wine is feminine, the other is masculine."'

In April twelve Ontario family-owned wineries came together under the banner of "Somewhereness" for an impressive tasting of wines inspired by a sense of place. The stimulus for this initiative came from a term coined by American wine writer Matt Kramer in his book Making Sense of Wine. He used the word "somewhereness" to translate the French term terroir. In spite of its Over-the-Rainbow sense of questing optimism, "somewhereness" has taken root and now winemakers who care about their craft want to express location, location, location – whether they're in Burgundy, Oregon, Ontario or around the world.

 

 

 

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