Questions of terroir and minerality
|Luis Zabala in his singularly unique Arroyo Seco (dry riverbed) Chardonnay growth|
This post is a combination of two "Bottom Line" columns previously published in The SOMM Journal and Sommelier Journal
|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.
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.
|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.
“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.”
|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.
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?
I’m more concerned, however, 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.