Questions of terroir and minerality


Luis Zabala in his singularly unique Arroyo Seco (dry riverbed) Chardonnay growth

This post is a combination of "Bottom Line" columns previously published in The SOMM Journal and Sommelier Journal

Is it okay to talk about terroir in terms of minerals?

When you become a working sommelier, and are privy to tastings of wines from around the world, you invariably develop an increased appreciation for wines tasting distinctly of their “sense of place” – commonly known as terroir. The current obsession with concepts like “balance” in lieu of sensations associated with oak, overripe fruit, alcohol or other excesses is, in one sense, really an expression of our longings for wines that taste more of vineyards or terroir, rather manipulations thereof through the heavy handed intervention of winemakers. 

I have always thought of terroir as like a tree falling in the forest. Just because you can’t hear it, it doesn’t mean there is no sound. As subtle as terroir related sensory delineations can be, they often aren’t. A Chablis, for instance, is far less weighty than a Puligny-Montrachet, even though both are grown in Burgundy and made from Chardonnay. The difference between a Chablis and Carneros grown Chardonnay is even more graphic – more acid, less alcohol/body, and far less tropical fruit aromas. The impact of terroir – entailing everything defining a vineyard or region, from soil to climate, aspect to temperature, altitude to latitude, viticultural decisions to winemaking practices, et al. – can be so big, wines made from the same grapes often barely resemble each other.


The Mittelmosel's ridiculously steep Wurzgarten

But what of wine aromas and flavors commonly associated with regions and vineyards, usually described as some kind of minerality? Chablis is commonly identified with sensations of chalkiness, Pouilly-Fumé by a flintiness, Savennières by a somewhat loamier flintiness, and Mosel-Saar-Ruwers by an entire range of sensations suggesting slate or flint. In the past, these would all be examples of wines with characteristics traditionally attributed directly to components contained in the soils in which they are grown.

“Bullshit,” I once heard Santa Barbara’s Peter Cargassachi say, “vines do not have the capacity to uptake the taste of minerals through root systems... that’s been proven over and over again.” I cannot disagree with that. We all know, of course, that aromas and flavors of wines are not directly related to biological factors such as soil. When you describe a Riesling as flowery, a Chardonnay as tropical-fruity, or a Zinfandel as peppery, it doesn’t mean there are flowers, mango, papaya or peppercorns growing in the ground among the vines, directly effecting the taste of resulting wines. By the same token, mineral sensations in wines do not come from minerals in the ground. But if this is so, where do sensations of minerality come from?

In a piece by Jordan Ross called “Minerality, Rigorous or Romantic?” published in Practical Winery & Vineyard Journal (Winter 2012), scientists like Alex Maltman (University of Wales), Anna Katherine Mansfield (Cornell Department of Food Science) and Carole Meredith (U.C. Davis Department of Viticulture & Enology) are all quoted to say basically the same thing: tiny amounts of dissolved ions are typically absorbed by vine roots, but none of them are of sufficient enough efficacy to contribute to actual sensations of minerality in a wine’s aroma or flavor.


Puligny-Montrachet

But it is no coincidence, Ross explains, that sensations of minerality also happen to correlate with wines grown in colder climates – wines, as such, retaining higher natural acidity. In his article, Ross cites Grégoire Pissot of Cave de Lugny in Mâcon as saying, “’Mineral’ is, at times, used when ‘acid’ would be more appropriate.” The Mosel’s Nik Weis concurs, drawing attention to the fact that, although grown in similar gray slate, a higher acid Ockfener Bockstein will always taste more minerally than a lower acid Piesporter Goldtröpfchen, most likely because Goldtröpfchen is a warmer site.

Still, as sommeliers we know that minerality is not an abstraction – we can taste it. An Ockfener Bockstein, for instance, retains mineral notes that are slightly different from that of nearby Üziger Würzgarten. The question is, are the differences logically attributable to the high iron content of Würzgarten’s red slate slope, as opposed to Bockstein’s gray slate and sandstone? Würzgarten, after all, does not translate as “spice garden” for nothing.

Whether or not the differences among Germany’s great Riesling growths are directly related to variations of aspect, slope, soil, or any number of topographic factors that influence grape expression, the fact remains: under similar cold climate conditions, the minerality of a Bockstein is different from the minerality of a Würzgarten; just as both taste different from a pungently minerally Maximum Grunhauser Herrenberg, and the oft-times dramatic, pervasive earthiness found in Rieslings grown in even warmer sites, such as the Rheinhessen’s NackenheimerRothenberg or the Pfalz’s Forster Ungeheuer.


Langley Hill block in Santa Cruz Mountains' Thomas Fogarty Vineyard

Yet the connection between minerality and acidity make sense. A few years ago I spent a day studying Chardonnays grown on four different slopes in the immediate vicinity of Thomas Fogarty Winery & Vineyards, 1700 to 2000 ft. up in the Santa Cruz Mountains. All four vineyards were planted in the early 1980s on identical trellis systems, and all to Clone 04 Chardonnay (California’s most ubiquitous selection, known for its tabula rasa amenities). No question:  across multiple vintages, Fogarty’s two coolest, slowest ripening sites (Portola Springs and Albutom Estate) consistently taste more minerally – like the common taste of “wet stones” – than the two warmer sites (Langley Hill and Damiana Vineyard). Higher acid sensations also correlated with increased minerality. Moreover, the more a Fogarty Chardonnay tastes of ripe, sweet toned peach, pear or apple-like fruit, the less minerally the flavor.

Then there is the consistent inverse relationship between high pH in soil and lower pH in wine, which is another reason why wines grown in more alkaline, calcareous soils are often associated with increased minerality. Nonetheless, warmer climate wine regions that have calcareous soils with off-the-charts alkalinity, such as much of California’s Paso Robles AVA, are not nearly as closely associated with wines replete with minerality as colder climate calcareous terroirs such as those found in France’s Burgundy and Loire Valley. Climate clearly trumps soil when it comes to higher acid wines with actual imprints of minerality.

Still, as difficult as it is to prove direct connections between minerality and soil composition, there will always be hard working vignerons who will vouch for it. WillametteValley’s Ken Wright, for instance, is as respected as they come. He says that it is precisely because there is a “symbiotic relationship” between positive microorganisms in soils and healthy plants that there is a direct contribution to wine flavor from soil via root systems.

Ken Wright Cellars image

“As someone who has planted many a vineyard over 35 years,” says Wright, “I can say that without question, when vines roots reach the mineral rich parent material something wonderful happens.” Wright’s conclusions are based upon his own lab reports tracking soil composition as a result of farming improvements documented over several decades: the higher the uptake of ionic minerals through enhanced root systems, the higher the clarity of resulting wines. “Wines from these vines go from being muddled and indistinct to having recognizable, crystal clear aromatic and flavor traits.” Wright, however, is not talking exclusively about sensations associated with minerality. He cites aroma-related flavors such as “chocolate, tobacco, anise, or cola,” on top of “increased profiles related to iron/stony qualities, which remain consistent from year to year.”

Is terroir a crock?

Yet lately I have been feeling a disturbance in the universe. The profession of sommelier has been under fire, which is not surprising. The number of working sommeliers has increased significantly in recent years, which leaves the trade all the more open to persistent stigmas: sommeliers are snobs, sommeliers are arrogant, sommeliers are the cause of ridiculous restaurant prices and, apparently, numerous other things “wrong” with the wine and restaurant industries.

Earlier this year I found myself taking flak for suggesting that a newly published book, entitled Terroir and Other Myths of Winegrowing (University of California Press), is not entirely copacetic. According to the author, Mark A. Matthews (a Professor of Viticulture at U.C. Davis), terroir is a crock essentially because “minerals derived from rocks may represent a relatively small part of the soil’s impact on plants,” and “mineral nutrients have no established contribution to flavor” in wines. Because of that, Matthews concludes, terroir is nothing more than a “shibboleth that establishes an in-group in a world unto itself... This isn’t wine appreciation… it is more like wine snobbery.”

Soil pit showing deep fine sandy loam in Lodi' Becthold Vineyard (Cinsaut planted in 1886)

Aside from the professor’s value judgement, the idea that there is no direct correlation between flavors in wines and minerals in soil is nothing new. We concur. The SOMM Journal (and its previous incarnation, Sommelier Journal) has published several articles explicating this very issue. Matthews errs, however, in his interpretation of the consequences of this observation. Most of us (I can’t speak for everyone) who speak often of terroir are not talking about “flavor” uptake from soil. We are simply talking about the direct influence of physical attributes of a given vineyard or region on the sensory qualities of wines.

You know: The things that make, say, a classic Chablis taste lean, lemony and minerally, whereas a Carneros grown Chardonnay taste fuller, fleshier, and intense in floral tropical fruit. Terroir matters... a lot. By Matthews’ implication, we “terroirists” would have everyone believe that Chablis tastes minerally because of minerals in the calcareous soil of Chablis, and that Carneros Chardonnays taste tropical because there is papaya, mango and passionfruit growing under the ground. I’m no agronomist, but that doesn’t make me stupid. 

Yet somehow, the myth of sommelier imprudence persists. One of many responses to my online objection to Matthews’ thesis, and I quote: “For every level headed article you write about ‘sense of place’ some jackass is writing an article about tasting dirt. Master Sommeliers insist that the ‘blood’ note is the result of iron in the soil. Which is another problem; terroir is almost completely attributed to soil... I believe that the influence of the sun, when the grape sees it and doesn’t and the resulting temperature dynamics create a huge diversity in a small area. How many somms, writers and even winemakers are open to the idea that something other than soil can be the predominant factor in ‘place’?”

Bandol's Domaine Tempier

Ahem... all of us? Who among us are not cognizant of the impact of much more than soil, but also topography, aspect, elevation, latitude, climate, temperature, wind, and endless other natural factors – not to mention typicité contributed by grower (choice of grapes, clones, rootstock, vine training, pruning, picking decisions, ad infinitum) and, of course, winemaker decisions – on our best and most interesting wines? 

The simplest, and still most accurate, definition of terroir is “sense of place.” No one says “sense of dirt.” If some people think sommeliers do, maybe the trade simply needs better PR. I’m more concerned about the concept of terroir driven wines. If there is an element that believes it is more important that wines express “varietal” character or winemaking technique instead of the special places they are grown, then we really are in trouble. Although the fact of the matter remains, you cannot sprout a Chablis in Carneros, and vice-versa. No matter how many times you blink, terroir is that giant elephant in the room.

Still, I cannot fathom the likes of a Tempier, Mouton, Scharzhofberger, Fiddlestix, Rued or Original Grandpère going the way of minotaurs, unicorns, or Tinker Bell. But many lesser known yet distinctively terroir driven, worthy wines could fade away for sheer lack of love, if we let them. All the more reason to be a sommelier...

All the more reason to double-down on the significance of terroir!  

View from Fiddlestix Vineyard barn in Sta. Rita Hills


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"I fought against the bottle," as Leonard Cohen wrote, "but I had to do it drunk"... specializing in wine as a restaurateur, retailer, wine judge, journalist, frequent flyer and mental traveler. But to me, wine is a food like a rose is a rose. So why all the fuss? Currently: Editor-at-Large/Bottom Line Columnist, The SOMM Journal; Contributing Editor, The Tasting Panel. Awards: Sante's Wine & Food Professional of the Year (1998); Restaurant Wine's Wine Marketer of the Year (1992 & 1999); Academy of Wine Communications (commendation) for Excellence in Wine Writing and Encouragement of Higher Industry Standards; Electoral College Member, Vintners Hall of Fame at the Culinary Institute of America, Greystone.