An Urban Approach to Terroir

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Château Haut-Brion, unique amongst the Bordeaux giants categorized as Premier Grand Cru Classé for its proximity to the city, has built its centuries old tradition around its urbanity.  Located smack in the middle of the commune of Talence, effectively a suburb of Bordeaux, the vineyards of Château Haut-Brion (and its second label Château le Mission Haut-Brion) cover around 50 hectares of land.

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As a consequence of its urban location, the possibilities for expansion are extremely limited, even nonexistent.  Historically, they managed to expand the vineyard through the acquisition of a neighboring estate.  They demolished the chateau, but given that the foundation had existed for centuries, the soil underneath was not desirable for planting a vineyard.  Instead, they dug up the foundation as well as a neighboring section of road (under which, apparently, the soil had been significantly less impacted), and they exchanged the soil from the two.  This type of modification must certainly have impacted the pedology of the site, as the replacement of a mansion’s foundation would alter the soil profile to a considerable depth.  Haut-Brion is, however, very conscious of their terroir, having carried out extensive pedological studies to classify the different soils present on the property.  Their goals in doing so, however, we much more in line with what is a stereotypically “new world” vision of terroir than that of many French vignerons who adopt a more “traditional” description.  Haut-Brion used the results of these studies to help decide which varietals, clones, and rootstocks to plant where, and they work each year to harvest accordingly, in ‘lots’ more or less homogenous in terms of soil type, varietal, rootstock, and vine age.  But the viticulturalist’s goal here is not to harvest lots with diffferent “goûts de terroir” {taste of place”}, which he asserts does not exist. Rather, he suggests, the terroir participates (in concert with the other elements such as the varietal and rootstock) to determine only the maturity of the grapes, and it is the differing degrees of maturity at harvest that ultimately distinguish the wines.  He maintains that at Haut-Brion they are unable to differentiate amongst their various terroirs if all of the grapes are harvested at the same level of maturity, and thus it is on the mastery of ripening that they focus their energy.

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Such an approach, cut-and-dried, “scientific” in nature, seems to reflect their urban identity.  But perhaps also a commitment to consistency in their wines, so highly valued in a product in this pricerange.  The vignerons who subscribe to the concept of “goût de terroir” are those who value a bit of surprise and mystery in their wines, something that is seen as risky rather than virtuous in a luxury wine.  But then again, there are always exceptions to such generalizations..

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