Is 'noble wine' a valid concept?
A discussion by the members of the Academie Internationale du Vin (AIV)

London, 12 June 2012

Some of the panel members: Michael Schuster, Jose Vouillamoz, Raymond Paccot, Claude Bourguignon 

On a Tuesday in June, in London, an illustrious group of the great and the good of the wine world were gathered to discuss whether or not ‘noble wine’ was a valid concept. Some journalists, like me, were also invited. The meeting was organized by the AIV, and, remarkably for a group with the term ‘international’ in their title, this was the first every meeting they’d held that wasn’t conducted entirely in French.

The meeting was full of interest, but there was one major fail: we were supposed to be discussing whether or not the term ‘noble’ is a valid one when applied to wine, but no one actually defined it. Of course, all the members of the AIV are familiar with the term, because the founder of the AIV, Constant Bourquin, spent a long time discussing and defining it back in the 1970s. Perhaps wrongly, the AIV assumed that everyone would be familiar with Bourquin’s definition, and the centrality of this concept to the AIV itself.

In his closing remarks, Michael Schuster admitted this shortcoming. He’d actually instructed each of the speakers to talk about what they thought the term ‘noble’ referred to when applied to wine. No one did. Still, there were some very interesting presentations, made by a star-studded cast of speakers. So here’s my summary.

Bruno Prats - nobility and history

Prats began by saying that it was ironic that the concept of noble wine should be invented by the founder of the AIV who was Swiss, and the Swiss got rid of their nobility several centuries ago, while the Brits seem to have more of a problem with the term ‘noble wine’, even though we kept our nobility.

He described how the classified growths of the Médoc in Bordeaux were created by nobility: members of the parliament of Bordeaux, who he described as ‘an enlightened and enterprising nobility.’ In France, noble status prohibited one from being involved in trade and industry, but not agriculture.

The creation of Haut Brion as a wine estate in 1533 was the first sign of a new move in viticulture: the creation of estate wines. Of course, Burgundy had already designated wines on the basis of terroir, but Bordeaux named the producer.

The cru classés were owned by nobles, who built Châteaux, with Prats remarking that the French have a bit of an obsession with Châteaux. He pointed out, however, that in the 1855 classification of the Médoc, only 5 of the classed growths were called ‘Château’. This term was awarded as a sign of the nobility of wines, but has become abused, and even applied to Cru Bourgeois, ‘the opposite of nobility’.

Noble wines can grant nobility to those who own them, says Prats. Today, there is a constant search for extreme quality without consideration for cost, and in this the classed growths of the Médoc are the archetype of noble wines. He added that it is much more in the spirit of the foundations of the classed growths for them to be in the hands of families, and the real spirit is for them to be owned by a single person. 

My comment? I didn’t really see what point Prats was trying to make, other than that the aristocracy of France, noble by birth, established the leading Bordeaux classed growths. Is he suggesting that nobility is somehow conferred on wines by their historical association with the aristocracy? Does he believe that some people are more noble than others because of their birth right and that this is conferred to the products of any vineyards they own?

Josh Jensen, Paul Draper and Bruno Prats

Michel Bettane – the nobility of French terroirs

‘I will try to avoid any arrogance while discussing this topic,’ began Michel Bettane, one of the smartest of all wine journalists, but not widely celebrated for his humility. ‘Terroir is a French word used almost everywhere without a precise idea,’ he stated. ‘In France, its meaning for a long time was not particularly positive.’ He explained how a terroir taste referred to an earthy flavour associated with second-rate origins. Likeable but not fine. ‘Wine with a terroir taste is supposed to be born in a second-rate vineyard.’

Great Bordeaux wines were described not by their taste but by their behaviour, with metaphors used to liken them to fine human beings. In Burgundy it was just the slightly second-rate appellations, such as Pommard, that were described as earthy. If Champagnes weren’t good, they could be identified by their soils.

Bettane seemed to be against the idea that the nobility of wines lies just in the soil that they come from. It is knowledge and ability that give nobility to wine. The work of humans brings many changes to the original soil by cultivation.

If by terroir we mean places where viticulture is undertaken, then the French are lucky enough to have the widest diversity of terroirs, asserts Bettane. But do they deserve it? He says that in the second half of the 19th century the level of soil cultivation in the most famous French vineyards was the highest in the world. France was the most visited country by rich foreigners, and wine was part of the appeal. Many generations of sophisticated upper class people created the renown for the best French wines that laid the foundations of wine civilization.

But then came phylloxera, and the difficult years of the early 20th century, which created many changes of ownership of the vineyards. The new owners didn’t always appreciate what they had. Grapes became of lesser quality because of bad farming, necessitating the adoption of winemaking technology to make up for this.

As a consequence, the new wines of the new world were often better than the French wines. This was shown in blind tastings such as the judgment of Paris. France was no longer the number one wine country.

However, for the last 15 years a lot of work has restored France to pole position, as the number one wine producing country in the world. ‘I am deeply convinced that France is back in its prime position because France has its natural priveleges,’ says Bettane. ‘There has never been such a wide choice of wines in France. This is difficult to find anywhere else in the world.’

My comment? Michel’s talk was of real interest, but I couldn’t help feeling that he’s just a little too Francocentric. France makes some great wines, but so does Italy. So does Spain, so does Portugal – I could go on. There are many great terroirs worldwide, and many of these have only fairly recently been discovered. Winemaking developments have enabled winegrowers to unlock terroirs that were previously obscured by bad winemaking. The economic returns on fine wines—and the fact that the fine wine world is no longer stuck in a Francocentric rut—now makes it possible for people to invest in making great wines from great terroirs that weren’t made in the past. Interestingly, in the question session that followed his talk, Michel commented that it was ‘the human factor that creates nobility’ in wine. He stated that Grand Cru is in the heads of the drinkers, suggesting that what is regarded as a great wine is in part a human construct. This could lead to a very interesting discussion of aesthetics. What makes a wine great? It’s certainly a partnership between the terroir, the wine grower, and the aesthetic system of wine appraisal.

Victor de la Serna 

Victor de la Serna - noble wine and terroir in Spain, not always eye to eye

Because there was a delay loading his powerpoint presentation, Victor de la Serna had time at the beginning to go off-piste and actually explain a little about the original AIV definition of a noble wine. It’s a wine that is naturally made, from good terroirs, with the ability to age well. This brief stab at a definition was the only one made by any of the speakers.

Victor is one of Spain’s top wine journalists, and also has a day job as a proper journalist, as well as making some very smart wines from his own vineyard. Victor explained how Spain is blessed with great terroirs. It has the largest surface area of limestone-based vineyards in the world (this was disputed later by Claude Boruguignon and Michel Bettane, but I fear Victor may be right), frequently at altitude, and also has lots of old vineyards. The amazing longevity of the greatest Rioja wines—sometimes even more than great Bordeaux—is proof that they come from great terroirs, he asserts.

Victor’s talk focused on the only two Spanish regions with centuries of tradition of fine wine: Jerez and Rioja. Vines arrived in the south of Spain in 1100 BC with the Phoenicians, and later Columella spotted the good (albariza) and bad (sandy) terroirs in Jerez. However, the Jerez terroir concept has been severely diminished over the last 40 years because of the collapse in sherry production. This has led to the widespread adoption of technology to bring costs down, which has diminished the terroir effect.

Most firms should follow the lead of Valdespino, says de la Serna, who have their own vineyards and vinify in oak casks, without using selected yeasts.

He cites Lopez de Heredia as showing an example of how Rioja should go. They source all their wines from their portfolio of four vineyards, including the 100 hectare Viña Tondonia vineyard. There are also small artisinal producers who are making wines from proscribed vineyards. The Rioja appellation has long resisted the classification of vineyards, and many top wines are sourced from varying sources depending on the vintage.

Telmo Rodriguez’ Remelluri estate in Rioja has started making wines with the location of the vineyard sources on the label: La Bastida and San Vicente de la Sonsierra. He has had a hard time encouraging authorities to consider the village concept, and although he is allowed to identify the village names on the labels, this is not a legal statement in that he doesn’t have to have a correspondence between what is on the label and where the grapes came from. Real vineyard or simple brand? You need to trust the producer.

De la Serna then went on to describe how Priorat now has Spain’s first Burgundy-style village appellation.

Victor finished by saying that it is a tragedy that the two greatest winemaking regions of Spain are known mostly for their winemaking practices. Winemakers his age (he’s in his mid 60s) love technical paraphernalia, but winemakers in their 30s know about technology yet are going back to the vineyard.

My comment: I thought Victor did a really good job in describing the tension between the genuine terroir wines of Spain, and the perhaps more celebrated wines that have a greater imprint of the winemaking process. For me, he is one of the Spanish critics I listen to most closely.

Paul Draper of Ridge, one of California's most respected wineries 

Paul Draper –noble wine: a California perspective

Paul Draper began by stating that he preferred to use ‘wines of place’ to the term ‘noble wines.’ So what does this mean? The first duty of wine is to give pleasure. For some wines, it is justified to give the grapes a lot of help in the cellar. Over 90% of the world’s wines are industrial, and it is necessary to create these wines in the cellar. But such intrusive processing isn’t appropriate for wines being sold for a lot of money.

In the vineyard, whether you work organically, biodynamically, or conventionally, you have a box within which you work. In the cellar there are no such limitations. Most winemakers are unwilling to discuss where they stand on the slippery slope of industrial winemaking.

California has a fairly benign climate where there isn’t much rain from May to harvest. So in the vineyards there is a much better chance of using organic or sustainable techniques. An exception would be the 2011 vintage which was the most disastrous in 50 years in some places.

In the cellar in California it is a very different story. The term ‘winemaker’ convinces people that it is their job to create the style of wines. There are concentrates, reverse osmosis and other tools to create style. In recent years California has seen a lot of consensus winemaking: people look at what their successful colleagues are making and then try to make their wines in the same style. It is hard to tell the wines apart.

‘I hope we move away from fruit bombs,’ says Draper. ‘In the late 19th century and the first half of the 20th, people were much closer to the vineyard and took much more natural approaches in the cellar than they do today.’

He added that a fine wine of place needed to be true, which necessitates the use of at least the minimum dose of sulfur dioxide. Too little, and the wine won’t show a sense of place and won’t age.

Most winemakers are still taught that a chemical toolkit is needed and processing is essential for making wine. But there are now a number of producers who are deliberately allowing the sense of place to show.    

My comment: I thought Draper was spot on. The exciting bit of California’s wine scene seems to be moving in a direction of working more naturally, expressing terroirs more clearly, and backing off from over-ripeness and too much intervention. Interestingly, he described later how his grounding in wine included tasting many great old bottles of Bordeaux. He was thrilled by the fact that he could recognize the characters of specific terroirs and Châteaux and properties in the wine. This is now getting quite difficult. Bordeaux seems to have been moving in the opposite direction to California, with increasing ripeness and more intervention. It is perhaps less interesting and noble now than it used to be, even though the wines are now fetching higher prices.

Josh Jensen, watched by Draper, Prats, Bettane and Spurrier 

Josh Jensen – terroirs new and old

Josh Jensen began by saying how there’s next to no limestone in California: he knows, because before planting Calera Vineyard he spent two and a quarter years looking for it. The other Californian growers who have limestone are Ridge, Tablas Creek and Chalone. ‘The wonderful concept of terroir should be an inspiration to all grape growers and wine lovers,’ he stated.

In addition to the usual influences of terroir he pointed out that California has its own aromatic inputs from native bushes such as wild lilac and California buck eye, as well as introduced species such as eucalypts and lavender. The aromatic oils can flavour the wine.

Jensen also added that a discussion on terroir is not complete without including the indigenous yeast in the vineyard. The almost standard practice of killing wild yeast by adding SO2 to grapes at reception is a bad idea.

Every site is a terroir. Many continental and Mediterranean European terroirs date to antiquity. Classifications have been proposed and codified. Now many of these sites are considered legendary. What about new sites planted 50 years ago? ‘My first three vineyards were planted 37 years ago,’ says Josh. ‘Each of these vineyards was planted in land never previously farmed. It is undeniably a unique terroir.’ But can such young terroirs be considered great? Or very good? Or even merely good? It is probably too early to make a judgement. New Zealand and Chile have a preponderance of vineyards planted since, say, 1950. ‘Each person gets to make up their own mind,’ concludes Josh.

My comment: Josh is really smart, and the way he fielded a question by Anthony Rose demonstrated this. Anthony suggested that the fact that Eduardo Chadwick’s Seña wine recently beat some stellar first growth Bordeaux in a blind tasting proves that Seña is a noble wine. Josh straight batted the question, suggesting that this is not a logical conclusion in the most diplomatic way possible.  

Jose Vouillamoz, viticulture researcher 

José Vouillamoz - the concept of the noble grape variety

In his talk, José Vouillamoz addressed the concept of noble and common (or vulgar) grape varieties, and whether such a notion makes any sense.

Each grape variety starts off as a seed, but to keep the interesting features of the variety it must be propagated vegetatively, by taking cuttings. If this is done for 1000–2000 years, there is an accumulation of mutations. Some of these have no visual effect, while others are spectacular, such as a change of colour. Each time we identify a difference and propogate from that plant, we have a clone.

Interestingly, while Pinot Noir, Gris and Blanc are regarded as separate varieties, they aren’t. They are technically clones of the same variety, which has had some accidents along the way.

José showed some examples of classifications of noble and common varieties. They are all very European-centric, with no reference, for example, to Georgian varieties. And the same varieties are frequently classified differently.

The concept of noble varieties is a bit silly. In 1997 the parentage of Cabernet Sauvignon was discovered to be Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc, which clearly wasn’t a deliberate crossing. A lot of grape varieties are linked together. Carmenere’s parents are Cabernet Franc and Gros Cabernet. And Gouais Blanc, which has been grown all over Europe, has produced many ‘noble’ varieties, acting as a parent to Chardonnay, Riesling, Furmint and Blaufrankisch, among others. Yet Gouais is considered to be a low quality grape; a weed. People used to plant it around the perimeters of their vineyards to deter grape thieves.

It has been said that noble varieties keep their character when they move. But Sangiovese, Tempranillo, Furmint and Nebbiolo don’t travel well. It has also been said that noble varieties have low yields, but this isn’t true: Syrah, for example, has some high-yielding clones.   

My comment: José's presentation was brilliantly done, and was perhaps the best received of the whole session. The strength of it was that it was data-focused. Here was something concrete to discuss, rather than just vague notions. It was also nice to get a very quick peep at the forthcoming grape variety book, authored by Vouillamoz, Harding and Robinson, which looks set to be quite a publication.

Raymond Paccot - biodynamics and noble wines

Raymond Paccot introduced the subject of biodynamics before handing over to Claude Bourguignon. He described this way of farming and noted that the 20th century saw the arrival of new cultivation methods, some good, some bad. Both terroir and vineyard suffered damage from herbicides and water-soluble fertilizers. ‘Polluted soils can’t breathe any more,’ says Paccot. ‘Soils like this can’t produce the best grapes.’ The result of biodynamics, he claims, is noble wine, reflecting the personality of the place where the grapes grow.

Claude Bourguignon, soil expert 

Claude Bourguignon – biodynamics and noble wines

‘It is the scientists job not to make judgements, but to observe and make measurements,’ began Claude Bourguignon, neatly sidestepping any need to comment on the mechanistic assertions of biodynamics, which are problematic for scientists.

His interest is in the soil, and the life it contains. Interestingly, Bourguignon pointed out that he sometimes sees more biological life in the top soil of conventionally managed vineyards than biodynamic ones, where the conventional growers have been using organic matter to improve the soil. But the differences lie further down.

We always see deeper roots with biodynamics, says Bourguignon. He sees more micronutrients available in the deep soil, and more microbiological activity. All the compounds produced in a living system are produced by enzymes, he points out. And these enzymes have metallic co-factors, such as magnesium in chlorophyll. Micronutrients such as this all come from the soil.

He adds that we still don’t know all the enzyme pathways involved in the synthesis of aroma compounds or their precursors. Hydroponically produced fruits have no taste, he says. If there are no soil microbes there are no micronutrients and thus no aroma, because enzymes need these micronutrients as cofactors.

He gave examples of Morgon, which is grown on soils rich in manganese, and Brouilly, grown in soils rich in zinc. These levels are elevated in the grapes, and can result in differences in the wines.

Vine root growth reduced from 3.5 m to 0.5 m in one century, asserts Bourguignon. But this can be reversed by the use of biodynamics. When you stop using herbicides, life reacts quickly, and root growth of 20 cm can be seen in a year. Herbicides reduce the fauna because the fauna has nothing to eat.

My comment: Bourguignon makes some brave statements that can be forged into a testable hypothesis. He is suggesting that the limiting factor in the aromatic expression of many wines is trace elements that act as enzyme co-factors in aroma (or aroma precursor – because most aromas are formed by yeasts during fermentation) synthesis. This is testable, but I think he presents too simplistic a picture. Co-factors are needed not only for enzymes involved in aroma precursor and aroma synthesis, but also for the growth of the vine. Their absence or deficiency would impact on vine growth quite significantly.

Microbes in the soil interact with the vine in many and complex ways. It would be interesting to compare the benefit of avoiding herbicide use altogether in conventional viticulture with using herbicides just under the row, with various cover crop regimes, and seeing whether biodynamics delivers efficacy beyond organics plus composting, or conventional viticulture minus herbicides plus composting, and so on. There are just so many permutations.


Angelo Gaja – the wine artisans

Angelo Gaja finished off the session with an entertaining, impassioned and broadly focused talk about what it means to be an artisan winegrower.

Family is important to Angelo. He describes it as the cradle for transferring knowledge and experience across generations.

He thinks terroir is used too much: do we need a new word to explain this concept? ‘I always hesitate before using the term terroir,’ he says. ‘I think it belongs strictly to Burgundy. It doesn’t belong to us in the same way.’

He spoke about the people of Langhe. They had a predisposition to gambling, which after the second world war they transferred to viticulture, and the gamble of making wine.

He also touched on the notion of perfection in wine. ‘Artisans never have in mind producing perfect wines,’ he says. ‘In our region it is possible to produce wines with a little bit of imperfection—too much tannin or acidity. Remember that nature is not perfect.’ I like this idea that great wines often have to have a little imperfection to act as the personality that reveals the greatness. He continues, ‘nature is not a socialist. There are pieces of land that can make great wines that others can’t. Artisans understand this. We want to choose consumers who can appreciate wines with a little imperfection. The imperfection can become the signature of the wine.’  


Overall conclusion: It was an interesting discussion, but overall the final message was no more than the sum of its parts. I didn’t feel there was much synergy among the presentations and no clear intellectual thread. This is a shame, because the calibre of the participants was such that we could have had a really interesting discussion. It would have been great to see the panel members challenge each other a bit. Still, we were left with some nuggets to take away.

As for the question as to whether noble wine is a valid concept, we were all asked to vote at the end. I voted no, but was in a minority, albeit a sizeable one. My justification?

First, I think noble is an unhelpful word in English. For a wine to be described as noble suggests it is getting special treatment that it hasn’t earned. These days, most of us are resistant to the idea of noble birth among humans: we believe that everyone deserves the same opportunity, whatever their background. We therefore bristle against a self-chosen wine elite forming a club and excluding those who just aren’t the right type.

Second, and more significantly, at no stage in this discussion was ‘noble’ defined. So how could we decide this was a valid concept or not?

Are some terroirs better than others? Clearly. Some patches of ground are privileged sites for wine production. Others aren’t suitable for growing wine grapes at all. This is stating the obvious. Are some wines better than others? This is a more interesting discussion that brings in the area of aesthetics. Fine wine is an aesthetic system, and we could have a good debate about why some wines are in, and some are out, and whether, for example, natural wines belong to the fine wine category. Some fine wines are clearly over-rated. Just because a rich family with a large castle has made wine for generations on their property, it doesn’t mean that the wine they make is particularly special. Not all wine made by artisans is great.

The AIV are an interesting organization, and it seems they are thinking about their future by holding this discussion, the first in their history where they have used English rather than French. In today’s wine world, if they wish to become relevant as an international organization, they are going to have to ditch French, or at the very least have simultaneous translation at their meetings. Otherwise they risk isolation, charting an overly Franco-centric course, in a wine world that has changed a lot since Constant Bourquin first came up with his definition of noble wine.   

See also:

The philosophy of wine, a series

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