Of Bicyclettes, terroir, typicité: Over on HuffPo…

Over on HuffPo, there’s a piece up about the Red Bicyclette/faux pinot saga. Jacqueline Friedrich, author of the guide The Wines of France, posted this comment as a reply. As it touches on some issues that astute readers will remember from Wine Politics, I reproduce her comment here with permission:

1) As a previous post-er said, rightly, Pinot Noir is a grape. It is not an appellation. Plant Pinot Noir anywhere – in Canarsie, in Wasilla, in Helsinki – if it bears fruit, that fruit is Pinot Noir. The Merlot that was supposedly used in the blend – the Merlot that makes, among other wines, Chateau Petrus – is not a traditional grape in the Languedoc either.

2) That thing we call Terroir: The language that you cite comes from INAO texts, the decrets by which appellations are defined. They are more hortatory than they are useful. The words “tradition” and “typicity” have done more to subvert the quality of French wine than a Gallo-Boisset partnership could accomplish in the wildest of their dreams.

IMHO terroir applies to that which is immutable: the soils, the subsoils, the elevation, the exposition, the opening of the countryside, the microclimate. While finding the right grape variety for a specific place is important, it is not the most important factor: terroir is. Plant Sauvignon Blanc in a Grand Cru vineyard of Chablis, treat it well, and you’ll have a great white wine. [In the name of typicité, such a practice is not allowed by the appellation. -Ed.]

3) As long as we encourage the production of great, terroir-specific wines, there is nothing wrong in allowing a parallel universe of beverage wines. I know that I was not born with a tastevin in my mouth. I started out with Mateus, Lambrusco Riunite and Zellerschwartzekatz (sp?) which had the added attraction of a plastic black cat attached to the neck of its bottle. We all start somewhere. There’s nothing wrong with well-made, reliably pleasant, affordable wines – so long as they don’t endanger “real wines.” In fact, they probably introduce people to wine in a non-threatening way and may lead a large percentage of those people to drink better and more authentic, site-specific wines.

4) And just for the record, I hated Mondovino. It was as simplistic and wrong-headed as this article. Nossiter, hyperventilating with a glass of Chablis on a terrace on the Place de l’Odeon with Charlotte Rampling. Spare me.

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12 Responses to “Of Bicyclettes, terroir, typicité: Over on HuffPo…”

  1. “IMHO terroir applies to that which is immutable: the soils, the subsoils, the elevation, the exposition, the opening of the countryside, the microclimate. While finding the right grape variety for a specific place is important, it is not the most important factor: terroir is. Plant Sauvignon Blanc in a Grand Cru vineyard of Chablis, treat it well, and you’ll have a great white wine. [In the name of typicité, such a practice is not allowed by the appellation. -Ed.]”

    There are various definitions of terrior, but for the sake of this discussion, I will take the parameters identified in the initial sentence quoted above. I will also make another assumption: there is nothing peculiar to terroir in France compared to terroir in Germany and in Italy.

    There is limited ability to compare different grapes in the same grand terroir in France, but it is not completely excluded. Many vineyards in Burgundy permit both Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, e.g., Musigny, Corton, Beaune, Meursault, Chassagne-Montrachet, Savigny-les-Beaune, Pernand-Vergelesses, Nuits-St-Georges, Morey-St-Denis, etc. (And even where officially one grape is permitted, e.g. Vosne-Romanée can only be Pinot Noir, but in fact there exists “white Vosne-Romanée” that is labelled “Bourgogne.” With sufficient experience, one sees why certain soils are planted in one grape and other soils in the others. Occasionally, one can even see it quite directly, as when de Montille recently stopped producing Pinot Noir in Corton and grafted the vines over to Chardonnay to make Corton-Charlemagne.

    You can also make a good comparison at Hermitage where white grapes and red grapes can be planted, and it is not the same lieux-dits at Hermitage that favor both.

    Still staying in France, in Alsace, you can compare the four noble grapes (Riesling, Pinot Gris, Gewürztraminer, and Muscat) in the same vineyard. In some cases, all four succeed well, in some cases one or more do not do as well as others and one can find “lesser terroirs” that will actually yield a better wine for that grape.

    But as stated above, in France, the comparisons are relatively limited. Not so in Germany where, depending where you are in Germany, you may find more than one of Riesling, Silvaner, Gewürztraminer, Scheurebe, Weissburgunder (Pinot Blanc), Grauburgunder (Pinot Gris) Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir), Lemberger, and perhaps other grapes grown in grand cru vineyards. They don’t all make great wines, regardless of the grape just because they are in a grand cru vineyard.

    Similarly, in Italy, the vineyards that are most famous for Barolo and Barbaresco from the Nebbiolo grape don’t necessarily make great wines from Barbera or Dolcetto or even the best examples of Barbera or Dolcetto.

    In short, I take issue with Ms. Friedrich based on the evidence cited above.

  2. In response to Claude Kolm: I don’t disagree with what you say.I was responding to a very specific article. Take a look at the piece on Huff Po. It will probably aggravate you as much as it did me.
    I think you’ll understand why my argument was so limited — or limited to what I felt were some of the more flagrant misconceptions of the author.

  3. Weber Zeller Schwarze katz (Weber Zeller Black Cat)

  4. Oops! Sorry.

    Zeller Schwarze Katz (with big K)

  5. Where did the author of the HuffPo piece claim that Pinot Noir was an appellation?

  6. That’s what I’d like to know. His reasoning, if you can call it that, seems really garbled. He starts off talking about Pinot Noir vs. Faux Pinot Noir but connects that to the fact that the sainted Pinot Noir (and heaven knows I love Pinot Noir) is planted in the Languedoc, not that the wines labeled “Pinot Noir” VdP d’Oc were made of other grape varieties — which is the basis of the fraud prosecution. Read the piece and tell me what you think.

  7. I should have looked at the HuffPo piece first. Had I known that it was written by David Downie . . . . I won’t even begin to get into a discussion here of how really off base Mr. Downie is on wine matters (he seems to be non-offensive on food), almost as though he were deliberately trying to mislead. But based on what else I’ve seen that he’s written (e.g., in the HuffPo piece, yes, Cluny was important, but no mention of the Cistercians?), his view of wine and underlying facts is more off base than anyone else I can think of (and that’s saying a lot). The discussion of terroir is totally incomprehensible.

    As to other questions above, yes, no specific mention of appellation, but how does he get from Pinot Noir to terroir? The logic (or rather, lack of it) is mind-boggling.

  8. I had never read any of Downie’s pieces before, never even heard of him. A friend recommended the column — favorably! I’m already taking medicine for high blood pressure so I may spare myself from reading other missives by M. Downie — who may, for all I know, be a very nice guy.
    That said, he should not be writing about wine.
    I could have taken that piece apart sentence by sentence, writing an essay on each mistake/misconception.
    And, Claude, I could take your last post apart sentence by sentence and write an essay in wholehearted agreement with every point you make!
    I’m still scratching my head over the garbled “logic” in Downie’s piece.

  9. Jacquline — If you are on blood pressure medicine, by no means look at Downie’s recent book Food Wine Burgundy. No producers in Volnay or Savigny-les-Beaune worth a mention of visiting. Pernand-Vergelesses is entirely omitted. A few negociants and producers in Beaune itself are mentioned, but somehow Drouhin, Jadot, Bouchard Père & Fils, and Chanson are passed over. But lots of the producers and negociants of the type you’ve always been warned against make it into the book. Maybe he’s only recommending places easy to visit? The Beaune negociants I mentioned above are very easy to visit as are several outstanding producers in Volnay and Savigny. And furthermore, he recommends Domaine Leroy, one of the most difficult appointments to make in Burgundy. Somehow, he manages to discuss Burgundy without any mention of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, Rousseau, de Vogüé, Ponsot, d’Angerville, Lafon, Ramonet, Domaine Leflaive (Olivier does get mentioned) or a myriad of other historic names. Simply amazing.

  10. Makes one wonder if he has ever set foot in a vineyard. Also,how publishers make their decisions — not to mention Huff Po. I mean, Huff Po is pretty savvy when it comes to politics. How could they be so clueless when it comes to choosing a wine blogger? (I haven’t read his food stuff.)
    Nothing. Not anything. Could convince me to read — or even to thumb through — his so-called Burgundy book.
    It saddens me to criticize someone so vehemently in a public forum. But he is out there. And I just saw some pot shots that “The Wine Doctor” — NOT to be confused with our DrVino — took at me and my Loire book. So…

  11. Did I!? I don’t think so…..oh, wait a minute, you must be referring to one of the other ‘Winedoctors’….those that came afterwards!

  12. You’re much too shy. But have no fear, you’re not alone.


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