I’ve spent a few days in Bordeaux, during which I’ve had a chance to speak to a few knowledgeable people and also to walk through quite a few vineyards. (And run through some, too.) Harvest is a few weeks off, so it’s interesting to see the marked differences among the various sites. Even within small distances, the soils can vary quite a bit, and with it the way the vines grow and the sort of crop they carry varies too.
Bordeaux makes some of the world’s most collectable, expensive red wines, as well as some very ordinary ones. This is true even within the Médoc. Clearly, everyone would love to make great wines, but not everyone can. If they could, they would: there’s proper money to be made at the very top end.
In Bordeaux, whether or not you can make great wines depends on several factors, but the upper limit for quality is set by the vineyard soils. However good your vineyards and viticulture, you can’t make a great wine unless you have a great terroir. [Of course, it is possible to make a bad wine from a great terroir.]
What is a good terroir in the Médoc? The key here, and putting it in simple terms, is quartz rich river gravels/pebbles. Some bits of the Médoc are basically swamp still, and no one plants vineyards there. But of the portion where vineyards are planted, the more gravel and the less soil you have the better. There are of course other factors, such as the presence of sand and clay. But it’s the freer draining, less fertile, gravel-rich soils that deliver the best quality wine.
A relaxed wander around the Margaux vineyards near where I was staying illustrated the variation in soils over even quite short distances. Lower vigour, gravelly soils are mostly planted with Cabernet Sauvignon, and the grapes looked really good, with nice thick skins, open bunches, relatively low yields and balanced canopies. Then, a few feet away, there are blocks with much less gravel and a richer, loamy soil. These are typically planted with Merlot. The trunks on the vines are typically thicker (where the vines are of a similar age), the canopies much more dense, and the yields often higher. But the grape bunches showed a bit of uneven ripeness, and didn’t look as promising.
I couldn’t tell what was happening below the surface. A vineyard that is just gravels isn’t ideal because the vines will experience too much stress later in the growing season. But a gravelly soil with a bit of clay (and the right sort), can deliver just enough stress at the right time, but not too much.
This weekend I spent some time at Château Pichon-Longueville. I asked Christian Seely whether the vineyards at Pichon had terroirs as good as the neighbouring first growths. His answer was that bits of the vineyard were as good (I hope I’m not embarrassing him here; I appreciate his honesty). Over the last few years the team at Pichon has been reducing the amount of Grand Vin produced so that they can work with their best terroirs.
But then I had a thought. What if Pichon were to be producing wines that were qualitative equals of the Pauillac first growths? I am not saying that they are or that they aren’t: I will leave that to others with more experience in Bordeaux to decide, although I’d add that Pichon is making superb wine at the moment. How long would it take journalists, who always taste these caliber of wines sighted (the first growths insist that you come to them to taste in primeurs week), to recognize this? I reckon a generation.