Columnist, Food

Grapes grow near Pauillac in France’s Bordeaux region, which is prime cabernet country. (Caroline Blumberg/Bloomberg News)

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.

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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 new 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.

McIntyre blogs at dmwineline.com. On Twitter: @dmwine.

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