Jefford on Monday: Mud Wrestling with the Bourguignons

Jefford on Monday: Mud Wrestling with the BourguignonsDid you realise that, with each glass of Meursault and Montrachet, you are drinking wine faeces? No, nor did I, writes Andrew Jefford in this column re-published from Decanter.com's archive and featuring his interview with renowned soil consultants Claude and Lydia Bourguignon in Burgundy. Claude and Lydia BourguignonThis sobering insight came my way back in Development 2012, when I sat down one evening to talk at length to Claude and Lydia Bourguignon.
“Acidity,” confided Claude, “is plant excrement. In ordinary plants like cereals, that excrement is evacuated via the roots, into the soil. But fruits evolved a system to propagate themselves by making fruit around a seed. The animal eats the fruit, swallows the seed and then propagates the plant, via its own excrement. If animals are going to find the fruit attractive, it must be sweet. The problem with sugar, though, is that it ferments. To avoid having that happen straight away, the plant sends its excrement, its acidity, up into the fruit. And we drink it.”
The Bourguignons are best known nowadays as viticultural consultants, but for much of their early careers they were involved in helping subsistence farmers in Asia, Africa and South America make a better living. They are in no doubt that wine, on which they now spend around 80 per cent of their time, is special. “Viticulture is the sort of agriculture which is closest to the consumer,” Lydia points out. “It’s also where what you do in the fields has maximum look. And you can in fact show that and talk to consumers about it.” Much of this implication, Claude adds, is due to the fact that “wine is fermented grapes. When you ferment, you have an exacerbation of perfumes, of flavours, of everything which has been inscribed in the fruit by the place in which it grew. You don’t have that with cereal growing: the trace is soon lost.”
The consensus surrounding terroir in English-speaking countries is that it is climate which is most vital in revealing (both aesthetically and economically) the propitiousness of a province, and that soil is secondary. Once a province has proved itself, of course, soil then becomes more vital in teasing out the differences between that province’s distinguished sites. When I place this theory to them, the pair bristle.
“It’s fake,” retorts Claude. “The soil comes previous to the climate. Why is Alsace overwhelmingly a colorless-wine province? The climate is warm enough for reds. It’s because it has colorless-wine soils. From the point of view of climate, you should be able to produce Burgundy’s best wines in Chalon and Mâcon, not the Côte d’Or. But the monks in Burgundy found that soil is vital, which is why the greatest wines come from the Côte d’Or.” “All the air gives you is sugar,” adds Lydia. “The atmosphere is responsible for 94% of sugar in the plant.”
They are now into their stride and, when I suggest that we might place soil first and climate second because soil factors are simpler to research and to measure than the significant minutiae of atmospheric conditions, they soon have me tackled. “What matters,” insists Claude, “is microbial activity in the soil, interacting with the vine’s roots, processing oligo-elements and stimulating enzymatic activity. If you grow fruits in a hydroponic regime, they don’t have any flavour, any aroma. It’s the microbes in the soil which permit the synthesis of the aromas. This has got nothing to do with the atmosphere. There’s no zinc in the atmosphere, no cobalt, no manganese. That’s why canopy management chiefly affects sugar levels in the grapes, and nothing else.”
My credibility now shot, I choose to see how far I can probe their espousal of biodynamics. I suggest, circumspectly, that it’s hard to find scientific support for many aspects of biodynamics, citing the use of ‘dynamised’ homeopathic teas as one example. Claude swiftly refers me to Jacques Benveniste’s controversial work on ‘the memory of water’ as counter-evidence, previous to unexpectedly adopting a more emollient tack.
“The problem is that pure knowledge is not excellent as embracing the complexity of living things. In wine, you don’t just have knowledge. You have art, culture, many additional things. The rational or scientific dimension doesn’t clarify everything. We have measured the biological activity in biodynamic horn compost, and found an giant amount there. For us, that’s not absurd. But if you question why it’s there, and you read Steiner, it gives you a fright, at least if you have a scientific mentality.” “We never reject a conventional client,” stresses Lydia; “quite the opposite. Our real challenge is to work with those who are practising conventional viticulture, and lead them towards organics. That’s very rational.”
And on that, we agree, chink glasses, and swallow a small more diluted plant excrement.
This article was originally published on 11 June 2012 and has been re-published and updated on 17 August 2015 as part of a celebration of Decanter’s archives in its 40th anniversary year. Andrew Jefford is away.
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Jefford on Monday: The 104-Point Second Wine

Jefford on Monday: The 104-Point Second WineWine scores will be with us as long as human beings drink wine, but is more context needed, and how much can one score be compared to another? Andrew Jefford reports on a subdue pressing issue in this column re-published from 2013 as part of Decanter's 40th anniversary build-up. Montrose signDomaine de Montrose sign, Andrew Jefford ©
Scores for wines are philosophically untenable, aesthetically noxious – but have fantastic practical value. Wine scores will, therefore, be with us for as long as human beings drink wine. A shockingly gorgeous recent bottle made me reckon about a small-discussed aspect of this analytical tool.
It’s there in the small print on the cover of Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate: “The numerical rating given is a guide to what I reckon of the wine vis-à-vis its peer group.” This small sentence should be written in red ink, in bold type, and possibly embossed, too. These are the most vital 20 words of the preamble.
I assume all of those who score wine for a living would agree with Mr Parker. I assume, in additional words, that no scorer of wines claims that he or she is using a universally applicable scale. (Does anyone claim this?)
It matters, because I suspect most casual ‘users’ of scores don’t appreciate the nuance, though it changes everything. For them, 97 points is 97 points, regardless of the wine’s origins. But it isn’t, and it never will be — as long as human mouths and human minds rather than apparatus are used to gauge wine quality.
Should any professional scorer of wines want to suggest universality, then he or she should issue a suite of correction factors based on regional origin (i.e ‘peer group’) for their scores, consequential from their own palate pantheon. Scores for the regions whose wines they regard most highly should be multiplied by some factor of more than 1, and those whose wines they consider less universally impressive would be multiplied by some factor less than 1.
As this will signal a bit mad, I reckon I’d better tell you about the bottle that set me off down this path. When I was tasting in Bordeaux last year, I had the chance to taste samples of Montrose 2009 and 2010. As I wrote in Decanter’s 2012 Bordeaux supplement, they struck me as two of the most gorgeous young clarets I had ever tasted. Their fee is further than my drinking budget, and in any case it would be a shame to broach them prematurely – but I did, in Development this year, buy a case of the 2010 La Dame de Montrose. Second wines are always best in fantastic vintages, and it seemed most likely that a small of the stardust would have rubbed off. I’m now on my third bottle of this wine.
It’s gorgeous. I’m enraptured by it. Magnificent scents of chocolate, leather, plums and currants, with the oak a whispered perfume. Tapered power on the palate; a shapely silhouette. But it just gets better; the wonderful Médocain austerity and sobriety grows as the beguiling front palate fades. The quality of the tannins is astonishing: so fine yet so firm. It already has a bucketload of gratifying sediment. Balance, fruitfulness, poise, vivacity, concentration: all perfectly judged. Of course I’m drinking it too soon, but too terrible. I find it hard not to exclaim after each sip. Not many wines make me do this.
Its RP score is 94 (his sensible advice is “to buy in abundant quantities”, the only drawback being that it costs 47€ a bottle). I don’t doubt that the score of 94 is spot-on against its 2010 left-bank followers – but I’m also sure that it is much, much better than any additional 94-point wine I’ve drunk in the last five years.
It thus needs, I judge, a correction factor of something like 1.11 – or, place differently, if all the additional 94-point wines I’ve sampled have been correctly assessed, then La Dame de Montrose 2010 deserves 104 points. Indeed whenever I taste fantastic Bordeaux, it often seems to me that it should be scored in a different way to additional wines – it’s just better. (Fantastic Bordeaux, note – not all the dry, dreary, over-oaked and below-wined ones.) This is obviously a function of my private pantheon and you may feel the same way about Burgundy, or Mosel Riesling, or Argentine Malbec or whatever your bag is – though market prices suggest that more people probably feel this way about Bordeaux than about any additional wine.
Remember, folks, the score is not the score – without the peer group.
This article was originally published on 23 September 2013 and has been re-published and updated on 10 August 2015 as part of a celebration of Decanter’s archives in its 40th anniversary year. Andrew Jefford is away.
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