This man is not an artist. Not exactly anyway. He does draw landscapes, but not of the Constable or Li Cheng variety. Curves and colours are not what he is looking for, although both of those things tell him a host of in rank that you and I might well miss entirely (particularly, he tells me, at
You’ve guessed by now of course. Choné is a terroir specialist whose particular skill lies in drawing maps of vineyard soils that clarify exactly what is happening below the surface. He reads the submerged underbelly of the landscape and translates his findings into practical, actionable similes of the soils from acidity and pH levels, permeability, porosity, water retaining potential, organize, organic matter, micro-elements, nitrogen levels, carbon make pleased, and most crucially the dominant materials that they are made up of – so whether flint, clay, limestone, gravel, sand, schist, what era they date from, how one interacts with the others, and which is dominant
‘Terroir is the sense of a site,’ Choné told me the first time we met, over dinner at Château de Sours in Entre deux Mers maybe eight years ago. I’d heard his name plenty of times, but it was only after that supper that I started to take more notice of the discreet signature in a bottom corner of vineyard maps invariably found on walls in tasting rooms. The first one I noticed was at Léoville Las Suitcases in Saint Julien – which it turns out was also Choné’s first serious commission, around 20 years ago, mapping all 100 hectares of the vineyard. It was also, as far as he knows, the first in-depth terroir study commissioned by an individual château in Bordeaux; an event that is nowadays as commonplace for the best châteaux as a huge-name wine consultant and a celebrity architect.
Since getting his PhD in soil sciences and plant physiology, Choné has mapped around 2,000 hectares in the Médoc, perhaps 500 hectares
So you can see why I picked up the phone to question which parts of the province are most liable to be withstanding the heatwave that is currently gripping Bordeaux.
‘For a start, we are not in 2003 yet,’ he says. ‘That year saw three weeks of extremely high temperatures (high 30s°, low 40°s) and nearly two months without rain. We are quicker to 2005, which in July saw one week of extreme heat followed by a
‘At least 30mm of rain fell in early June, so most soils subdue have water reserves, and it is only the young vines that are really suffering; and maybe some pockets of dry gravel in Pomerol or Margaux. And don’t forget we are a long way from harvest – everything could change in a few weeks’.
Warnings aside, this is what he had to say about hot years. That firstly you want to be looking for age/variety of vine + soil type + location + vineyard practices. And then you need to break that down even further.
Take the age of vines, for example. In theory, older vines are better in hot years because the roots have widened and deepened enough to be a excellent conduit for any water reserves (‘the older the vine, the wider the pipe,’ Choné place it). But soil type is key – so Merlot on clay soils or particularly porous limestone, like the plateau of Saint Emilion but not the compact limestone
What you’re looking for, ideally, is clay, or a clay subsoil if there is gravel on top. So Lafon Rochet, Léoville Las Suitcases, Latour, Pétrus, the Corbin sector in Saint Emilion, Beau-Site, Montrose, Ormes de Pez and additional clay-dominant areas of northern Saint Estèphe are feeling lucky right now, as are Haut-Bailly and Mouton, who both have plenty of clay in between their gravel. The limestone plateau of Saint Emilion will also offer relief to parched vines, so excellent news for Belair-Monange, Ausone, Clos Fourtet, Canon, Villemaurine – and particular parts of Entre deux Mers like Château de Sours, or Carbonnieux in Pessac Léognan, and most of Barsac.
‘Dry gravels are the ones that will suffer. Médoc grand crus are lucky because of their size, and because they have enough ancient vines – they always have enough
Just as he’s getting into full swing, he pauses. ‘The problem of course is that knowing which parts of the vineyard are going to respond best to drought doesn’t necessarily mean that you should do anything about it’. This is not a name who wants to paint himself as a guru, and no sooner is he impressing with his knowledge than he is talking himself out of a job altogether.
‘Bordeaux is subdue a maritime climate with vintage variation. If anyone had replanted with drought-resistant cultivars in 2003 or 2005, or uprooted all of their Merlot to guard against overly high alcohol levels, they might have been in distress in 2011 or 2013’.
‘The additional problem can be that vineyard mapping is a time-specific project. Ideally it happens by taking four to six samples per hectare, and is best done during
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