October 19th, 2022/ BY Barbara Philip MW & Michael Apstein

The Debaters: Bordeaux – Terroir vs. Château-style

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2021/2022 print issue of Quench Magazine.

The question of whether terroir or house-style is more responsible for the character of a wine is an age old debate. In an historic region such as Bordeaux, that question takes on added dimension due to the attention attracted and prices commanded by the region’s top wines. Quench approached two of the globe’s esteemed wine experts to consider the question. In traditional debate style, we assigned each of them the side they would argue in favour of – so, not necessarily a reflection of their personal opinion or point of view.


As there can be and generally is a significant amount of crossover between nature vs human influence, for the purposes of the debate, terroir refers to wines that reflect the sites in which they are grown. The primary factors being soil, climate, aspect, sun intensity and vintage.

And now to introduce the debaters:

Barbara Philip MW was the first Western Canadian to achieve the Master of Wine designation in 2007. She is currently a Category Manager for BC Liquor Stores where she is responsible for the European selections as well as all the sparkling and fortified wines. Through Barbariain Wine Consulting, Barb works as a presenter, journalist and judge. Barb has been recognized for her work in European wine by some of the world’s most prestigious wine organizations and is a member of the Confrérie des Gentilshommes de Fronsac, the Confraria do Vinho do Porto, the Commanderie des Grands Vins d’Amboise and the Confrèrie des Chevaliers du Tastevin in Burgundy.

Barb will argue in the affirmative support-ing the resolution that the wines of Bordeaux are influenced predominantly by terroir.

Michael Apstein MD has written about wine for over three decades. He received a James Beard Foundation Journalism Award in 2000 and was nominated again in 2004 and 2006. In 2008, he won the Les Grands Jours de Bourgogne Press Trophy and in 2010, he was nominated for the prestigious Cordon Bleu World Food Media Awards. Dr. Apstein is an Assistant Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School and a member of the Division of Gastroenterology at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. He lectures and writes frequently about wine and health and regularly judges at international and national wine competitions.
Michael will oppose the resolution and ar-gue that the wines of Bordeaux are influenced predominantly by château style.

Each of our debaters will have 1200 words to present their argument. There will be no rebuttal because this is print and we’re just having fun.

Quench readers will judge the quality of the evidence and arguments. Let us know who you think makes the best argument.

The wines of Bordeaux are influenced predominantly
by terroir

By Barbara Philip MW

As wine professionals and collectors we tend to focus on a tiny percentage of Bordeaux châteaux, learning the intricacies of their businesses and memorizing their house styles so we can ‘blind’ taste them over and over.

The more often we can correctly identify a particular château from this small subset, the more we convince ourselves that it is house style that really makes the wine. In reality, styles of these great estates change dramatically over time, sometimes as a result of fashion but always within the boundaries set by the natural factors in the vineyards. Meanwhile, there are thousands of other “lesser” Bordeaux whose château styles are not recognizable in a blind tasting. We wouldn’t even try.

An experienced taster, however, would be able to identify their region and quality level based on markers left by the distinctive Bordeaux terroir. The dominant maritime climate gives even a humble Bordeaux AOC identifiable characteristics, while varying mesoclimates, soil types and slopes carve out more specific appellations and lay down the potential for quality. Most wine professionals would agree there is a notable difference between a wine from the left bank vs one from the right, and that wines from Pauillac tend to have more power than their more delicate counter-parts from Margaux.
At the very top end, châteaux are associated with their particular site characteristics like the stony terraces of Ausone or the precious blue clay button of Pétrus. These latter are great terroirs and, with-out them, no amount of skilled winemaking could produce wines as magnificent as they are. Terroir determines the parameters for winemaking style, is reflected in vintage variation and is the true point of difference for the wines of Bordeaux.

Bordeaux winemaking is technologically advanced with lots of sophisticated tools available to aid in the production of fine wine. It is also a culture of consultants, whom producers contract to help them perfect their house style. However, winemakers and consultants can only work with what they are given.

Skilled though they may be, their choices are limited by the natural elements of their site. A low lying, water retentive vineyard on the right bank is not going to yield ripe Cabernet Sauvignon and, particularly in a wet year, the quality of Merlot in the Médoc will suffer. Picking times, vinification and aging (notably oak use) will, of course, affect the final wine but only after terroir has already left its mark.
In the 2000s, the search for balance and finesse in Bordeaux has placed greater emphasis on terroir than ever. It has meant re-thinking new oak percentages, for example, and moving away from techniques popularized in the 1990s that valued concentration above all else. The trend is to be more sensitive to the raw material, recognizing that powerful Cabernet Sauvignon-based wines from the gravelly Haut-Médoc may benefit from a high percentage of new oak while softer Merlot-based wines may not.

Respecting terroir is not just important for the red wines and applies to dry whites and Sauternes as well. Certainly the luscious dessert wines of Sauternes are associated with layers of flavour that include a toasty oak element. But the depth and concentration from botrytis infection (a direct result of terroir) is needed to balance the oaky flavours.

Vintage is an aspect of terroir that affects not only quantity and quality but influences pricing and sales as well. Because of Bordeaux’s changeable annual weather conditions, châteaux have to adapt their winemaking practices to what nature gives them and, especially in challenging years, house style takes a back seat. Difficult vintages like 2013 and 2017 meant reduced yields and lighter bodied wines for many producers while some of the petits châteaux were not able to make wine at all.

If château style were able to override terroir, there wouldn’t be a need to taste the wines every vintage. Journalists could just issue one score per estate. Yet the annual Union des Grands Crus barrel tastings garner a lot of global attention. En Primeur draws thousands of importers, merchants and journalists to Bordeaux each spring to evaluate the wines.

In the weeks following the tastings, châteaux release their prices based on perceived demand and point scores. Price fluctuation according to vintage is notable for the Classed Growths where the market can see a release price drop by 17% between 2016 and 2017, then rise 17% for 2018, as was the case for Château Margaux.

One of the reasons there is less talk about terroir in Bordeaux than there is in, say, Burgundy, is the effect of the various classification systems. Because they rate estates, classifications draw focus to the individual châteaux and away from the land itself. In most systems, a château can expand or contract its vineyard holdings and retain its classification, seemingly flouting the idea of terroir.

It can’t, however, increase its vineyard area beyond the appellation boundaries and retain the AOC designation. The communal terroir must be respected. At first glance, the 1855 Classification of the Médoc does not seem to have placed much value on terroir, ranking the châteaux based on their historical selling prices. In reality, it is a ranking of terroir as the better sites had enabled the producers to make good wine on a consistent basis for the century leading up to the classification.
On the right bank, it is interesting to note that both Ausone and Cheval Blanc have seceded from the soon-to-be-reviewed St. Émilion classification believing terroir should carry more weight on the scoresheet. Their move is indicative of the current thinking in Bordeaux where the châteaux are talking more and more about their vineyards and what makes them stand apart.

“Sense of place” or terroir is what makes wine wine. It is the point of difference between wine and other beverages and between wines themselves. When AOC law was created to promote the natural, uncopiable aspects of regions and their vineyards, Bordeaux terroir was immediately recognized and encoded. The law also acknowledged the historical ability of particular communes to produce superior wines reflective of their unique origins.

One of the hallmarks of a Bordeaux, and any great wine, is an identifiable manifestation of terroir in the glass. It is what merchants, collectors, journalists and sommeliers look for when tasting and how they can confidently recognize a St. Émilion over a St. Estèphe. Regions around the world can implement Bordeaux’s techniques and import its expertise but climate, soil and vintage variation cannot be transferred. Though there are many interesting Bordeaux style wines from Napa Valley to Mendoza to Shandong, they reflect their own terroirs. They are not Bordeaux.

As much as a Bordeaux château might try to define itself by its style, the place where the grapes are grown will always set the parameters within which the producer must work. In fact, châteaux throughout the quality hierarchy in Bordeaux are demonstrating an increasing sensitivity to terroir as they adapt to each vintage and combine stylistic choices with raw material to create their signatures.

Bordeaux: It’s all about the Château

by Michael Apstein, MD

The Bordelais talk about the importance of
terroir—and there’s no doubt that it’s important— but the real focus is, and always has been, on the individual property.

Just look at the famed Médoc Classification of 1855 established because Emperor Napoleon III wanted to highlight Bordeaux’s best wines for visitors to the 1855 Exposition Universelle de Paris. That classification ranked properties—the châteaux themselves—not the terroir. In contrast, in Burgundy, which is the ultimate expression of terroir, the wine authorities ranked the vineyards, not individual estates, because terroir drove that classification. That terroir-driven classification is what led the Burgundy lieux-dits to be recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site. (Bordeaux is also a UNESCO World Heritage site recognized for the city itself, not the vineyards.

The regulations of the Médoc Classification of 1855 allow the classified properties to add vineyards, either by purchasing or leasing them, from unclassified parts of the appellation and still include grapes from those vineyards in their Grand Vin without losing, or even diminishing, its ranking. So, for example, in 2012 when Château Prieuré-Lichine acquired unclassified Château Pontet Chappaz, those vineyards automatically were promoted to Prieuré Lichine’s Fourth Growth status. In essence, the terroir changed, but the estate’s brand and label remains unchanged. And why? Because the focus has always been on the châteaux, not the land.
Although the classification system in St. Emilion eliminated the loophole that allowed the automatic elevation of non-classified land, its criteria emphasizes the brand as well. From 20 to 35% of the criteria for inclusion into St. Emilion Grand Cru Classé or Premier Grand Cru Classé levels, respectively, involves marketing the wine. Indeed, it was the focus away from terroir and towards marketing criteria that led Château Cheval Blanc and Château Ausone to withdraw from the St. Emilion classification system due for renewal in 2022.

Of course, this being France, there are always “les petites déro-gations” (little exemptions). Château Lafite-Rothschild has 4.5 ha (11.4 acres) of vineyards in St. Éstephe, outside of its Pauillac appellation. The grapes from these vineyards consistently represent about ten percent of the Grand Vin, according to Jane Anson’s authoritative book, Inside Bordeaux. The wine regulations allow Lafite to include these grapes and still carry the Pauillac appellation. The focus clearly then is on the name Lafite-Rothschild, not the terroir or even the appellation. Similarly, Château Beaucaillou has vines in Cussac, which lies outside of the St. Julien appellation, but those grapes can be included in their St. Julien Grand Vin. Again, the focus is the Beaucaillou name, renown, and reputation, not the origin of the grapes.

Another example is the change in character of the wines from Château Gruaud Larose and from Château Lagrange. The wines from Château Lagrange were rustic and angular until Marcel Ducasse took charge in 1983 and transformed them into refined and polished ones over the next decades. At Gruaud Larose, Georg-es Pauli beefed up the wines using a “more is better” approach after he took over in 1970. The winemaking philosophies redefined the wines from these châteaux, while the terroir remained constant.

The transformation of an estate’s wines based on winemaking is not limited to the Médoc. One only needs to look at other estates whose ownership changed, such as Château Pape Clément in Pessac-Léognan or Château Pavie in St. Emilion, to recognize the importance of the estate over the terroir. The terroir of these properties did not change, but the wines, which became super-charged, certainly did. And speaking of St. Emilion, the focus of so-called garagistse who embraced super-ripe grapes, maximum extraction and other techniques to produce muscular wines was, and still is, on their particular estate, not the terroir.

The location of the vineyards of Château Gloria in St. Julien, which Henri Martin created from scratch, shows how estate trumps terroir. Starting in 1939, the well-connected Martin convinced friends who owned classified properties in St. Julien to sell him parcels of their vineyards. As a result, Gloria’s vineyards are dispersed in three disparate sections of St. Julien all with different terroirs, according to Anson’s Inside Bordeaux. One could argue that, by happenstance, Gloria represents a St. Julien blend, but in reality, the character of Château Gloria’s wine comes from what happens in the winery. Indeed, it is marketed as Château Gloria, a brand, not as a quintessential St. Julien blend.

Another sterling example of the importance of estate over terroir was the transformation of the wines of Château Margaux after André Mentzelopoulos purchased it in 1977. Chateau Margaux went from making a series of unexciting wines in the early 1970s that in no sense lived up to their classification—the very definition of “underachievers”—to a wonderful 1978 and magnificent 1982s and 1983s. Even the 1981 Margaux was an order of magnitude better than anything produced in the 1970s. The terroir did not change. The philosophy of the estate did. Though Paul Pontallier was not in charge at that time (he joined in 1983 and became general manager in 1990), he once told me that the secret to making better wine quickly was selection, selection, selection. What he meant was selecting only the best grapes from the Grand Vin, relegating the others to a second or third wine or even selling some off in bulk. So, while the terroir at Margaux is superb by all reports—it is one of the few Bordeaux classified estates whose size has remained relatively constant—the leap in quality came about because of the stellar new management team. And that’s why Château Margaux is revered today.

Peter M. F. Sichel, who has been involved in the Bordeaux wine business for a lifetime and has forgotten more about Bordeaux than most people will ever know, agrees that “it’s the winemaking that makes all the difference, in addition to the composition of the grapes, rather than soil.” He continues with other examples to make his point: Rauzan Segla, highly ranked in the original classification, “became far from good under the ownership of British brewers and now has regained its status under the present owners, who have spared nothing to make it great again.” He also lists Palmer, where he personally watched the transformation, Beychevelle in St. Julien, the right-bank properties of von Neiperg and Château Figeac, and any property of the Lurton family.

My final compelling argument showing the importance of brand over terroir is the emergence of second and even third wines. With increasing parcellation in the vineyard and more precision in the cellar, producers have upped their game with the Grand Vin, relegating more and more production to their second and third wines. The individual châteaux have an opportunity like never before to fine-tune their styles, enhancing the quality of their wines. With these second wines, they have created what is in effect another brand accompanied by enormous economic success. The second wines of the 1st growths now sell for what the Grand Vin sold for a decade or so ago. With rare exceptions, the second wines are primarily a selection in the winery. Yes, some vineyard plots always wind up in the second wine, but essentially the second wines and certainly the third wines are crafted in the winery, not in the vineyard. Like the Grand Vins, they have become “brands,” com-manding prices based on the reputation of the individual château, not the appellation or the terroir.

The Médoc Classification of 1855 highlighted the top properties in Bordeaux, without mentioning about terroir or appellations. One hundred-sixty-six years later, nothing has changed.

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