The Washington Post

By tak­ing ter­roir, and tech­nol­ogy, into ac­count, vint­ners can pre­cisely shape their blends.

- DAVE MCIN­TYRE food@wash­post.com McIn­tyre blogs at dmwine­line.com. On Twit­ter: @dmwine. Alcoholic Drinks · Wine · Palace of Versailllles · Washington · France · Portugal · Australia · Pauillac · Bordeaux

Ter­roir is a word with al­most mys­ti­cal charm for wine lovers. And no won­der: It’s French, and there­fore ro­man­tic. It al­lows us to stretch out the sec­ond syl­la­ble with that raspy, gut­tural sound – “ter-HWAHH” — that speaks of so­phis­ti­ca­tion and savoir faire. And it has no real def­i­ni­tion, so we can use it any way we want with­out fear of con­tra­dic­tion. Ter­roir is what we want it to be.

Ter­roir may lack def­i­ni­tion, but it has mean­ing. When most wine lovers bandy the word about, we mean “a sense of place.” That is to say, a wine shows ter­roir if it tastes like it came from some­where. See what I mean? It makes sense.

Many wines taste as if they could have come from any­where, prod­ucts of mod­ern tech­nol­ogy that strips wine of not only any faults but also its char­ac­ter. Ter­roir is part of a ro­man­tic, anti-modernist, anti-tech­nol­ogy vi­sion of a lonely ar­ti­san wine­maker toiling in her vine­yard to pro­duce a wine that could only have been grown there — not half­way around the world, not even on the next hill­side.

Bordeaux wine­mak­ers de­fine ter­roir not with ro­mance, but with pre­ci­sion. In the Mé­doc, along the left bank of the Gironde River, the top of a “slope” might only be a few me­ters above sea level, yet that de­tail might de­ter­mine whether a vine’s grapes go into a chateau’s pre­mier wine or a sec­ond la­bel.

At Château Pi­chon Baron, a re­newed mi­cro-fo­cus on ter­roir has in­flu­enced grad­ual changes in style of the wine, says Jean-René Matignon, Pi­chon Baron’s tech­ni­cal direc­tor and wine­maker.

“We are more fo­cused on the best ter­roirs of our chateau and try­ing to be very pre­cise in our se­lec­tion of grapes,” Matignon said dur­ing a re­cent visit to Wash­ing­ton. “It’s very im­por­tant for our blend.”

Pi­chon Baron is a his­toric es­tate, a “sec­ond growth” in the fa­mous 1855 clas­si­fi­ca­tion of Bordeaux chateaux. Since 1987 it has been part of AXA Mil­lésimes, a com­pany that owns sev­eral winer­ies in France and Por­tu­gal. Un­der AXA’s stew­ard­ship, the vine­yards have been im­proved and a mod­ern win­ery built. The ef­forts have borne fruit, as crit­ics have cited im­prove­ment in Pi­chon Baron’s wines over the past 15 years.

Un­til 2012, the win­ery was known as Pi­chon-Longuevill­e au Baron de Pi­chon-Longuevill­e. Sim­pli­fi­ca­tion of the win­ery’s name sig­nals per­haps the com­ple­tion of this trans­for­ma­tion. (I’d rather have a mouth­ful of the wine than a mouth­ful of a name.)

As Matignon and his team have stud­ied their ter­roir, the blend has in­creas­ingly em­pha­sized caber­net sau­vi­gnon. That might not seem like much; Pi­chon Baron is in Pauil­lac, prime caber­net coun­try. And cab has al­ways dom­i­nated, form­ing about 65 to 70 per­cent of the blend depend­ing on the year, with the rest usu­ally mer­lot and caber­net franc. With the 2010 vin­tage, though, caber­net sau­vi­gnon be­came nearly 80 per­cent of the blend.

Matignon was in Wash­ing­ton to present sev­eral vin­tages of Pi­chon Baron at a din­ner for Bordeaux lovers or­ga­nized by Panos Kakavi­atos, a Bordeaux fiend and con­trib­u­tor to De­canter mag­a­zine. As we tasted wines from 2000 to 2010, with 1989 and 1990 thrown in to show how the wines age, Matignon ex­plained how two fac­tors have con­trib­uted to changes at Pi­chon Baron. The first was the mar­ket: The decline of the tra­di­tional Bordeaux ne­go­ciants mar­ket over the past 30 years shifted power away from bro­kers and back to the chateaux, “giv­ing us flex­i­bil­ity to make wines the way we want to,” he said.

And the sec­ond fac­tor? Tech­nol­ogy. Pi­chon Baron’s new wine­mak­ing fa­cil­ity, com­pleted in 2006, al­lows Matignon to use smaller fer­men­ta­tion tanks to iso­late wines from var­i­ous parts of the vine­yard, in turn al­low­ing him to choose only the best parcels for the fi­nal blend. Matignon even refers to this as “in­ter-par­cel se­lec­tion.” If you throw all the grapes into one big vat, such dis­tinc­tions are lost.

Matignon also in­vested in the fa­vorite toy of wine­mak­ers ev­ery­where, an op­ti­cal sorting ta­ble. This de­vice scans newly har­vested grapes be­fore they go into the fer­menters and iden­ti­fies and re­moves any that are not fully ripe. It is faster and more re­li­able than a team of trained hu­mans.

“Tech­nol­ogy helps us be more pre­cise in our se­lec­tion of grapes and in blend­ing our wines,” he said. “It gives us more con­trol.”

In the hands of a skilled wine­maker, tech­nol­ogy is not the en­emy of ter­roir but the in­stru­ment of its finer ex­pres­sion.

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