~In the late nineteen-seventies I made a trip to Napa Valley, to taste first-hand the wines that I was told had started a revolution.
~I have many memories of that trip, and two rather vivid ones.
~One vivid memory was of Cabernet Sauvignon that tasted like bell peppers; the other was of Cabernet Sauvignon that tasted like eucalyptus.
~About the bell peppers, I was given a weak explanation along the lines of “this is what the grape tastes like.” I have since learned that the bell pepper situation, as well as other vegetal qualities in wine, often has something to do with unripe grapes. In the seventies there were a lot of new wineries in Napa with young vines.
~The eucalyptus, I was told back then, was because of a grove of eucalyptus trees situated near the vineyard. “You see,” the tasting room person said, “it’s the terroir.”
~I knew the word terroir, but I had yet to understand its implications, and I don’t think I do today either.
In the French wine world, the word terroir began as the phrase “goút de terroir,” taste of the earth. It meant that the wine reflected the earth in which the grapes were grown.
Over time, however, the complete phrase has been diminished to a word, terroir, and the word came to mean not only the earth, but also the micro/macro climate of the vineyard.
~Some wine drinkers think of terroir as the taste of the stuff that is in the earth in which the grapes were grown. The most blatant example of this reflection is in the taste descriptor, “minerality.”
~Terroirists believe that the minerality of a wine is a direct result of the minerals located in the earth of a vineyard site.
I have talked with and I have read myriad people on the subject of minerality and terroir. I’m not so sure I have learned anything concrete from anything I have heard or read.
On Sunday, May 6, 2007 Harold McGee and Daniel Patterson did an admirable job for the New York Times at trying to, as the headline read, “debunk the idea of earth in a bottle.”
~McGee and Patterson made what appeared to be a cogent argument that the taste of minerals in wine is not the result of the actual minerals in the earth. Then they went on to make the case that what is actually happening in the vineyard is that the minerals in the earth are dissolved in rainwater and then vine roots take up the water, which of course carries the trace minerals.
~If it’s true, and I believe it is, that the minerals are dissolved and then taken into the roots system in water, it seems perfectly clear to me that the vine is taking up minerals, diluted as they may be, but minerals nonetheless.
~Are we talking semantics here?
~At one point, the authors claimed that it is the fermenting yeast that is the driver of the mineral taste in many wines. Perhaps that argument would have been believable had the writers explained why the same yeasts used to ferment different grape varieties don’t usually produce the same mineral qualities in the taste. The only reason I can think of for that situation is that even though yeast fermentation plays a role, grape components have an awful lot to do with the resulting taste of the wine—and grape juice with trace minerals, well, you get my point.
~What happens during fermentation is one of the most complex subjects to mankind. One thing we do know about fermentation is that the various components found in grapes are altered and manipulated by the process, often resulting in a host of sensory offshoots.
~I wanted to tell the authors of the article that it is too simplistic, and probably also false, to make a definitive claim that yeast fermentation creates the mineral taste in wine. But they seemed to have figured that out on their own; later in the article, they clarified that particular claim.
~The authors mentioned Jamie Goode, a plant scientist who makes the claim that the minerals that we think we taste in wine are actually sulfur compounds in various forms. I suppose that would mean that wines without a mineral taste to them have no sulfur compounds, but from what I know about wine, that can’t be an absolute.
~Mr. Goode’s explanation may need further explanation.
~Then there’s the Frenchman who is paid quite handsomely to trot the globe consulting with wine producers. He claims that it is the winemaker who determines what a wine should be, the implication in that claim, I guess, is that the earth is just their to support the trellis system and the vineyard posts. Bleh!
~It’s true that the winemaker manipulates the hell out of the juice and the resulting wine, but I believe that somehow what gets into the juice through the root system still manages to have an influence. The strength of that influence is based on many factors, not the least of which is the vineyard’s terroir.
In their article, however, McGee and Patterson made a salient point, one that is so much misunderstood.
Wine does not necessarily taste like what is in the earth, but the vineyard’s environment is often reflected in the taste of wine.
Still, there is that thing about Cabernet Sauvignon growing next to a eucalyptus grove…
~The thing that really makes me wonder, however, is how some wine geeks can get overly exercised by the idea of “terroir.”
~Often the difference between wine geekdom and the rest of the universe is the difference between enjoying what you like as opposed to enjoying what you are supposed to like. Therein lies a geek’s penchant for overreacting.
May, 2007. All Rights Reserved.