It’s hard to talk about terroir without getting people hot under the collar. Whether believers or non-believers the debate invariably sinks to the comfort-zones of entrenched positions, but let me put it like this:
Just like people, vines also have their own comfort-zones; defined by altitude, moisture, hours of sunlight per day, average temperature and so forth. These vine comfort-zones are specific for the different varieties, so it should come as no surprise to anyone that certain varieties grow better in some regions than in others. This, if you like, is terroir at its most basic – a place where you can survive.
The Next Level
It is, perhaps, misleading to talk of vine comfort zones when the best raw materials come from vines stressed by their environment. For stress you could include variables such as competition for scarce resources e.g. water, or nutrients due to limited root-space, you could also include borderline climates; heat, cool or sunlight. The natural undulations of the landscape provide for disparities of soil, drainage and orientation to the sun, hence, even in latitudes that have the necessary basic terroir, there is a considerable variance of expression possible for each particular plot of land. This is the next level of terroir.
I guess that to most people the preceding text is as much axiomatic as common sense. We have, however, reached the point at which opinions will start to divert:
The Burgundy region is the high temple of ‘top-level’ terroir; i.e. that ‘somewhere-ness’ that bestows certain characteristics to the wines of certain places. Earthy notes in Savigny, perfumed red fruit in Volnay and Chambolle – though both are different – I could go on… Pertinent to this discussion is the fact that the parcelling of the land into smaller lots (crus, lieu-dits or whatever you prefer to call them) was nothing to do with the wine market or any type of marketing for that matter, this was done by scholarly monks who controlled the vineyards for 500 years or longer and believed they could characterise the differences – though of course, there were roads and pathways too. This characterisation led directly to the segmentation that we see today with some sites classed as Grand Cru, others Premier Cru and Villages.
Anyone tasting in a number of producers cellars will be struck by the consistency with which the Premier Crus are more concentrated and interesting than the Villages wines and will experience the similar jump from Premier Cru to Grand Cru. It’s the occasional exceptions standing out which for me reinforce the established hierarchy of the crus, the hierarchy that forms the basis of what you pay.