It is terroir week; a week for industry professionals to join us in the classroom for an intensive module on the concept of terroir-winemaking: the interactions of the vine with climate, soil, water, nitrogen, rootstocks, etc. and their impact on our ability to make good wine.

I took this sole picture of Green Park in London, and felt it summed up enough.

I took one picture of Green Park, and felt it summed up London terroir fairly well.

I, holy terroir of a student that I am, decide to take off to the UK for a day to participate in the Davy‘s portfolio tastings. Davy’s Wine Merchants are a family-owned, fifth generation, importer/distributor/wine bar and wine shop group based in London. I’ve mentioned them briefly before: I’m connected through a good friend who works there (also responsible for my initial introduction to the Becker wines from the last post), and have had the opportunity to meet with several of the producers in Europe with whom they work. As I’m busy pouring wines (mostly for other people, even!), I somehow manage to pass the entire day without taking a single photo of the event. Instead, I’ll take this opportunity to dig up stories and tasting memories about the wines in their native habitats; isn’t that the essence of terroir, after all?

There are a few familiar faces: Domaine Jean Becker, who I visited a few days before in Alsace, is represented on the table next to mine, so it’s a great opportunity to catch up and make plans for summer. At the table behind me, Quinta da Silveira from the Douro Valley is showing off their range of wines and ports. Known for their white and tawny ports, they’re here to launch their new ruby reserve, as well as to showcase a limited edition and very special old white port. It’s wonderful stuff, but I’m not completely sure the port has opened up enough yet.  Better keep taste testing…..

Tales from the Douro: the oldest (and most magical... technical term there) white port at Quinta da Silveira is this 1803. Vineyard of Touriga Nacional (Portuguese red grape) just before flowering in May last year. The Authentic Wines/Quinta da Silveira team brings a secret bottle of slightly younger (but still very old) white port to the Davy's tasting... maybe from this barrel? The reunion in London has most of the same players, but is a tad colder and wetter than our first meeting during springtime in the Douro Valley.

Tales from the Douro: the oldest (and most magical… technical term there) white port at Quinta da Silveira is this 1803. Vineyard of Touriga Nacional (Portuguese red grape) just before flowering in May last year. The Authentic Wines/Quinta da Silveira team brings a secret bottle of slightly younger (but still very old) white port to the Davy’s tasting… maybe from this barrel? The reunion in London has most of the same players, but is a tad colder and wetter than our first meeting during springtime in the Douro Valley.

At the other end of the room we have the Spanish contingent, including the Valserrano wines which I had an opportunity to sample while I was on the camino. (Right around the time my feet conveniently swelled up near Logrono, and I had to stop for new shoes and a breather.) There’s a Gran Reserva Viura (typical Riojan white grape, aged 5 years) that I’ve been hearing about ever since that visit last April, and I finally get to try it in London.

Top: View of La Rioja, inaugural Coravin sampling at the Hotel Viura in Villabuena, and underground tasting in La Guardia. Bottom: Barrels at the Bodegas de la Marquesa - Valserrano, which age in underground tunnels, and readying a package to be hand-delivered outside the main bodega in Villabuena.

Top: View of La Rioja from the Valserrano vineyards, inaugural Coravin sampling at the Hotel Viura in Villabuena, and cellar tasting in La Guardia. Bottom: Barrels at the Bodegas de la Marquesa – Valserrano, which age in old underground tunnels. Readying a package to be hand-delivered from the main bodega in Villabuena.

Continuing around the room, there are opportunities to visit with Domaine Font de Michelle from the Rhône, which I’ve written about before and plan to visit before school finishes, and Caronne Ste-Gemme in the Médoc, which I’ve also mentioned before. It’s good to sample them again, especially to see if the memory of my last taste holds up well, and even to compare vintages to see how time and weather can impact the range of the same wine. Though rumours swirl of a Hugh Johnson appearance, Britain’s best-selling wine writer does not make an appearance, which leaves more wine for the rest of us.

Medoc terroir

hmm… I’m not sure I know the recipe for this sort of rump.

With the practical application fresh in my senses, I rejoin the class in Bordeaux, ready to focus on the technical applications. The next lesson is about the different soils in Bordeaux. Each type of soil has different properties, particularly key is its ability to hold water versus allowing water to flow easily into the vines. (Soil types are just different particle sizes: sand, for example is very fine but allows water to flow through it easily, while clay is made up of larger particles and holds water very tightly.) Then we’re off to visit Château La Tour Carnet in the Haut-Médoc to look at four soil pits (aka. holes in the ground), each displaying different soil characteristics. It’s good to look at the ground up close, while discussing the impacts on rootstock choices and what varietals are best to plant.

Château La Tour Carnet has a wide range of hidden delights. Two soil pits, dark organic matter with gravel at the top of both, but below, the beige layer on the left points to clay, and the layers of grey on the right suggest limestone. The famous black swans of Carnet, and a tour of the château reveals a knight in shining armour and richly adorned bedrooms while Edward checks out the chapel.

Château La Tour Carnet offers a wide range of hidden delights. Two soil pits, dark organic matter with gravel at the top of both, but below, the beige layer on the left points to clay, and the layers of grey on the right suggest layers of different limestones. The famous black swans of Carnet, and a tour of the château reveals a knight in shining armour and richly adorned bedrooms while Edward checks out the chapel.

La Tour Carnet is unusual compared to the average Haut-Médoc wine as more of their soils are better suited for Merlot than Cabernet Sauvignon. As Cabernet Sauvignon is a late ripening varietal, the best sites (warmest, available water, etc.) are dedicated to these grapes so they ripen on time. Merlot is an early ripening varietal, so this estate can afford to put those grapes on cooler soils with less water availability. Each layer has something different in the way of water and nutrient availability to offer, so the combination of varietal and rootstock (grapevines don’t grow from seeds, they grow from grafts on pre-existing roots), needs to be finely tuned to the soil in each parcel of the vineyard.

It’s the last day of the week, and we spend the morning looking at grape ripening dynamics and the vineyard technologies to manage them. In the afternoon we take off to Château Haut Bailly to get one more look at local terroir. The rain prevents us from spending much time outdoors in the vines, but you may remember a few photos from my previous visit about a month ago.

Terroir - Haut Bailly

Greg (program director and professor) takes us through the range of water availability in a vineyard based on soils. The rains prove a good incentive to look at the vines from afar while getting the technical overview inside.

At Haut-Bailly, we’re particularly curious about the plot of old vines, some of which are over 100 years old! It’s located on the best parcel on the whole property – rich soils on the top of a small hill, presumably with layers of interesting soils beneath – with mixed varietals: Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet France, Petit Verdot, Carmenere, and Malbec. Though this seems to break all the rules of terroir that we’ve just spent the week studying, this plot consistently produces the best grapes, which go into the first label at this château.

It just goes to show that even with all of the technical knowledge we have about wine-making, it’s nice to know that there are still some mysteries left.

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