Our latest winery visit took us to Chateau Villemaurine, located in the small town of St. Emilion in southern France. This was our first exposure to Bordeaux-style winemaking and its various techniques and aging strategies. The winemaking process here is similar to, yet different from, the one employed at, say, the first winery we visited — the López de Heredia Viña Tondonia Winery in Haro, Spain. One immediate, obvious variation is the big vats used for the first stage of fermentation. Stainless steel vats are employed at Chateaux Villemaurine, while wooden ones are used at the Tondonia Winery (which, admittedly, is a much more traditional winery).
Another difference is aging. At the Chateau, most of their wines are ready for the bottle after 24 months. But at Tondonia, the wines-to-be are just getting started after two years and are left to mellow for many more. Still, the core process of turning grapes into excellent wine is pretty much the same (though I wonder if the vintners might throw up their hands in dismay at that simplistic statement).
But this, perhaps, is the most essential bit of information I gleaned from my first exposure to French winemaking. In France, it’s more important to know where the grapes were grown than what type of grape comprises a particular bottle of wine. In North America we sometimes obsess over Merlot vs. Cabernet Sauvignon vs. Pinot vs. whatever. In France, terroir is all-important.
Terroir comes from the French “terre” — the land. But it relates to much more than the soil in which the grapes are grown. Terroir refers to the complete environment in which a particular wine is produced, including the soil, topography, geology, geography, and climate. The idea is that the land where the fruit is cultivated imparts a unique quality to the grapes (and hence the wine) that is specific to that growing site. And, I’ve been told, terroir is possibly the reason I can’t drink North American reds, but that’s another story.
After seeing field upon field of vines (sometimes stretching off to the horizon) in both Spain and France, and after trying to absorb a wealth of detail about grapes, winemaking, and wine, I have come to a very simple conclusion. It’s complicated. Or, to quote Justin Onclin, the owner of Chateau Villemaurine, “The difference between a good wine and a great wine is complexity.”
Written by: Paul Deans – TQ Editor