In the mid 1930s, when the rules for appellations or origin were being drawn up, each French wine-growing region chose what would be the determining factor in naming their wines. This was indeed an historical moment. In Bordeaux it was the domaine; in Champagne it was the brand name; in Alsace it was grape variety; and in Bourgogne it was terroir-native soil.
Clearly it is terroir which gave to each appellation from Bourgogne its historic and tangible identity.
The idea of terroir – the patch of native soil from which a given product springs – is given precision and definition by the notion of “climat” – that is a parcel of ground, delimited and named, with identifiable characteristics going back centuries which lend a unique character to whatever is grown on it.
Thus broader geographical areas give the wine its appellation but each distinct plot within a given appellation – each climat – produces its own distinct wine.
A climat may be a “monopole” holding, that is, the property of a single owner. But in Bourgogne ‘climats are frequently shared among a number of owners. The division of Bourgogne into separate wine-growing districts and the subdivision of wine growing land within each district go far to explain the large number of Bourgogne appellations.
This fragmentation is not arbitrary. It is due to physical variations between one plot and another. And these variations, in turn, are largely explained by geology.
Climate, aspect, exposure to sun and wind, susceptibility to frost, and the system of cultivation in force all have their influence on terroir. But behind these lie the hard facts of geology: landform, rock and soil.
The hill-slopes which form the “Côte” were formed by the same earth-movement that brought the Alps into being some 30 million years ago in the middle of the Tertiary Era.
The particles of iron which are found in the soil and which are of value to the vines are older (about 50 million years). The rocks of which the Côte is composed are older still.
They date mostly from the Cretaceous and Jurassic periods of the Secondary or Mesozoic era, which started some 200 million years ago and lasted over 100 million years.
Does Burgundy have a monopoly on the notion, the concept of terroir? No. Consider the Piemonte area in northern Italy, the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer and the other great wines growing regions of Germany…for example. I have always thought of Barolo and Barbaresco as ‘Italian Red Burgundy’ for these reasons and more. Nebbiolo has the age-ability of Pinot in great years and is in some ways as transparent a grape as Pinot Noir (and Riesling) …showing the true nature of the soil/climate and vineyard care. If you have ever had a 1947 or 1950’s Barolo or Barbaresco you will know this to be true.
Thanks for listening!