What does it mean to be a Burgundy Wine?
The concept of terroir is the most essential component when it comes to understanding what’s special about a Burgundy wine. So, what is terroir? (Pronounced tehr-waa) It can be defined as the micro-conditions provided by the environment in which the grapes are grown, that contribute to the distinguishing characteristics of the wine produced. It is specifically the contributions of the soil, the climate, and the expertise of the vigneron, that come together to create the terroir of a wine. As we continued exploring France and French agricultural products, this became a critical reoccurring concept to understand, as we found out that terroir plays a role in both wine and cheesemaking, and there are regulations set into place to protect the name of products that are deeply rooted within a specific region of France.
For our first official wine tasting, Dr. Healey and Dr. Haggblom took us to Le Cellier de L’Abbaye, where we met wine experts, Alice and Sonia. They taught us “The Five S’s of Wine-Tasting”: see, swirl, sniff, sip, savor. This means that after pouring, look at the color, swirl the glass to aerate it, smell it, and taste. When you taste the wine, you can notice the areas of the tongue that are stimulated. The sides of the tongue indicate acidity, the middle is sweetness, the tip is saltiness, and in the back, bitterness. We had a kit in our classroom to help us identify the various smells and tastes, but, Sonia mentioned that this ability is a skill that is acquired at a young age and is very hard to develop as an adult.
After learning about wine tasting and discussing winemaking in lecture, we were ready for our first trip to a vineyard. Our first excursion was to Sonia’s husband’s vineyards and winery, Domaine Perraud. As we were walking up to the vineyards, the professors were pointing out the all different aspects that factor into viticulture; the landscape and geography, the layout of the plots, the machines trimming or spraying the plants, and of course, the terroir. When we made it down to the bottom of a plot where three meters of soil was exposed, Dr. Healey proudly declared, “This is the terroir!” And you may be wondering, what exactly makes the terroir in France so special? Well, we learned that the geography and poorer soils here are perfect for drainage and for encouraging the vines to dig deeper looking for nutrients. And the older and deeper the vine, the more distinguishing the terroir! Afterwards, we carried on into the vineyards, where we looked up close and discussed the parts of the grape plant, Vitis vinifera, along with all the different aspects of maintaining and harvesting them.
Inside the winery, we got to see all of the machinery used to turn grapes into wine. We discussed the entire process: initial grape processing (de-stemming and pressing to grape juice), ethanolic fermentation (where glucose is converted to ethanol by Saccharomyces cerevisiae) and malolactic fermentation (malic acid is converted to lactic acid, an optional step which makes wines less acidic). Here, they use yeast naturally present in the grapes micro-biota to carry out the fermentation, and this is another aspect which adds to the terroir. During the wine tasting, Sonia allowed us to sample barrels of the same wine, from different years, as well as two different barrels from the same year. It was really interesting to taste the similarities but slight differences between the barrels and to follow the development of complex flavors. I noticed that as the wine aged, we were able to detect a butter-like taste. Overall, this was a great day and I learned so much about terroir and viticulture. After visiting other vineyards, the takeaway message the professors wanted us to understand was that although vignerons may be restricted by regulations within the field, they are still able to be creative during the vinification process, and this gives their product unique characteristics.