jamie goode's wine blog: More on terroir and minerality

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

More on terroir and minerality

Really good article on terroir by Harold McGee and Daniel Patterson in the New York Times.

'The idea that one can taste the earth in a wine is appealing, a welcome link to nature and place in a delocalized world; it has also become a rallying cry in an increasingly sharp debate over the direction of modern winemaking. The trouble is, it’s not true.'

They continue:

'Grape minerals and mineral flavors are also strongly influenced by the grower and winemaker. When a vineyard is planted, the vine type, spacing and orientation are just a few of many important decisions. Growers control the plant growth in myriad ways, such as pruning, canopy management or, most obviously, irrigating and replenishing the soil with manures or chemical fertilizers. The winemaker then makes hundreds of choices that affect wine flavor, beginning with the ripeness at which the grapes are harvested, and can change the mineral content by using metal equipment, concrete fermentation tanks or clarifying agents made from bentonite clay. Jamie Goode, a British plant biologist turned wine writer, describes in his superbly lucid book “Wine Science” how techniques that minimize the wine’s contact with oxygen can increase the levels of sulfur compounds that may be mistaken for “mineral” character from the soil.'

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At 2:58 PM, Anonymous Luca Risso said...

You confirm my opinion that what people call minerality is often related with some problems in controlling sulfur reactions. This is true when technologies limiting the contact of the wine with oxigen are not accompanied with a proportional reduction of SO2 content, but also in many organic wines, when sulfur is sometime generously used in the vineyard to fight Oidium.


At 9:24 PM, Blogger Paul Tudor said...

Great link, thanks Jamie.

Does the tasting term "minerality" cover more than just sulphide characters? Or sulphur derived compounds?

What about wine styles and varieties that are fully ripe, clean fermented, with varieties that do not rely heavily on sulphur compiunds for their aromatic and/or flavour profile (e.g. Riesling)?

I am not sure that when we refer to "minerality" that we are always describing sulphide-like characters. Though I do acknowledge that when we talk about it, that is what it often is. When I am training my students on wine quality, I try to point out to them that factors such as complexity are relative. Especially when you consider so-called "minerality". That you can have a wine complexed by "mineral" overtones that objectively is not of great quality...

At 9:30 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Jamie Goode, a British plant biologist turned wine writer, describes in his superbly lucid book “Wine Science” how techniques that minimize the wine’s contact with oxygen can increase the levels of sulfur compounds that may be mistaken for “mineral” character from the soil."

Bit vulgar of you to put this on your own website, Jamie.

At 10:42 PM, Anonymous D said...

I think several issues are being confused here.

Terroir is not simply the flavour of the earth or the taste of minerals in the wine. It is the combination of all the geographical, geological and physical factors that give us a strong indication through tasting the wine of the very origin of that wine. (Also known as typicity). We might say that the fewer interventions in the vineyard and the winery the greater the expression of such typicity.

'Grape minerals and mineral flavors are also strongly influenced by the grower and winemaker. When a vineyard is planted, the vine type, spacing and orientation are just a few of many important decisions.'

The grower does not influence mineral flavours, nor does the vine type. Often the vineyard is planted a hundred years before the grower takes over. Of course you can do as much or as little as you like: you can help make the vine more efficient or, through biodynamics, for example, help the vine to become stronger and resist disease without recourse to man-made treatments. When we look at the flavours that make wine distinctive we should be looking at the variable factors not the constant ones: eg the nature of the vintage, the use of wild yeast in fermentation versus cultivated yeast, but whilst this will ultimatly help to determine the personality of the wine in a particular year it will not affect its underlying "minerality."

McGee and Patterson are quick to dismiss the fact that grapes derive any minerality from the soil; ergo all flavour must derive from the inherent flavour of the grape variety and from fermentation aromas or chemical reactions. I just don't see the logic of this. What about the difference between hard water versus soft water? Water is not manufactured and yet it has distinctive flavours according to the soils from which it is drawn. Since vines absorb water from the soil which is decomposed rock and other vegetable and mineral matter, may we not surmise that the water may pick up trace elements of that matter?

The point about sulphur compounds is absolutely valid but doesn't affect the above argument. Just because we may taste things which are the result of chemical or biological reactions does not diminish terroir. If you cook a chicken that is reared on a particular diet, the act of cooking will change the molecular composition of the chicken and concentrate flavours in a certain way, but you will still be able to taste the fact that the chicken was reared on the diet.

If we are entirely to dismiss terroir then we should look at wines which are made in an identical fashion, using the same grape variety, trellising and canopy management systems, picked on the same day and fermented in vats at identical temperatures. (By the way McGee and Patterson are wrong. If you go to hundreds of wineries you will see exactly the same fermentation vessels and people making wine in the same way)Look at the base wines for a good estate in Chablis or Sancerre, for example. If we were to taste half a dozen different vineyard plots we would find the wines different in every respect. The winemaker can either allow the expression of site: the single vineyard wine (microclimatic terroir) or blend the various wines together, but an experienced taster can pick out the different notes just as someone who listens to music can discern different instruments in an orchestra.

What we have to ask ourselves is this: it is a sheer coincidence that, objectively speaking, we can taste mineral flavours in wines and then discover that the vines grow in soils that contain a high quantity of those minerals? Are we being bamboozled when we say we can smell the scent of the garrigue on wines from different grapevarieties from Roussillon through the Languedoc to the Rhone and Provence or eucalyptus in the wines of Barossa? It can't just be down to grapes (different varieties) or technique (different techniques are used); it is surely the imprint of place.

And if you think terroir is the sole province of the French, think again. Look at Australia and New Zealand now and the way each region is being differentiated according to its soils and micro-climate. If it's simply a massive marketing ruse then everyone is in on it.

At 9:19 AM, Blogger Jamie said...

Luk, good point.

Paul, I think you are right. I wouldn't say that minerality is just about sulfur flavour compounds. I think acids can taste minerally, especially in the context of rather tight white wines.

Anon, sorry about the vulgarity.

D, your point adds a very important counter to the MgGee and Patterson piece. I'd say that terroir as you characterize it certainly exists and is important. I guess where I agree with them is on the issue of mechanisms. How are site difference transduced into wine differences? I find it hard to disagree with what you say.

At 11:39 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A California winemaker told me that the garrique you taste on Southern Rhone wines was, in fact, garrique, or at least the pollens of, blown all over the grapes as they grew.

Perhaps it's coincidence but I can definitely taste something chalky and "shell like" in Chablis. Call me a sucker, but I can taste it.

At 6:30 PM, Blogger Michael Pollard said...

Is minerality a real word? I’ve never been successful in finding it in any dictionary.

That being said, I've often wondered if minerality is really petrichor, as Robin Garr noted some time ago. “Petrichor ("PET-ruh-core") describes the fresh, earthy smell that fills the air when rain after a dry spell releases molecular oils given off by vegetation into the air”.

The word was coined in 1964 by the Australian geologists I.J. Bear and R.G. Thomas. I’ve chased down their original articles and they are fascinating; unfortunately I don’t have them with me at work. From memory part of the active ingredient is sulphur based. There is also an Indian association with a type of disc that is made from dry earth that has a similar smell. I’ve often wondered if petrichor isn’t transferred to the grapes by the breakdown of the local rocks and wind transfer. Who does not have images of the dust coming up from vehicles as they travel the vineyards, or even drive up to the cellar door!

I believe there is precedent for this type of thing with the transfer of the smell of eucalyptus onto grapes from nearby trees. And recent fires in Australia transferred a burnt aroma to wines made from grapes in the path of the ash from the fires. Although washing the grapes did not completely remove the odor suggesting that the compound responsible was in the skins, I wonder how hard you would have to wash grapes to remove all the material they have on their surfaces. Are some compounds more tightly bound to the grape skin, or even able to penetrate into the skin?


At 10:56 PM, Blogger Jamie said...

Michael, thanks for this really interesting input. If you do track the source down, I'd be delighted to know more.

At 10:39 AM, Anonymous Keith Prothero said...

An interesting debate for sure.
If terroir is so important,does it not make sense for wineries to buy in grapes from various growers,where they know the terroir of that particular grower is superior to their own estate grapes?
I realise this is done,in many countries,especially in the new world,but to my mind this gives the winemaker,far more flexibility,than those who rely solely on thier own vineyard.
And yet,so called estate bottling is seen to be superior,in the market place.

At 1:24 PM, Anonymous Doug said...

Keith makes an interesting point, but I think the marketing angle is estate/domaine bottled wine rather than estate grown. It is far better to be in control of the entire process from the vine to winery, but nowadays, on large estates, and particularly in the new world, you will have, of necessity, a big team of vineyard managers, contract growers and oenologists. With this long chain of command and human intervention the wines are effectively made by committee and less likely to reflect "terroir" as such. Alternatively, you can look at it this way: you can make an estate wine that is a blend of different local vineyard sites each with their expression of terroir. The blend as such stands for the region as a whole and retains echoes of each vineyard but no dominant single note. Or you can make a single vineyard wine which is the purest microclimatic expression of the grape or grapes. And I'm puzzled why if a grower had a vineyard with exceptional terroir they would wish to sell the grapes in the first place. Far better to bottle and sell it under your own boutique label!

Michael, you're right, minerality is not a word as such, but it has been created by extension to mean the quality of being mineral. It could therefore mean in this case that the wine is actually mineral (one for the lab boys to argue about) or that its flavours remind us of minerals. The first is an objective statement, the second subjective, and although the second may be generated by the first, it may also be to do with other things.

I read an amazing thing on a web-site by a scientist who claimed that you couldn't "smell" minerality. Well, there's a great thing they do in Chablis wineries where they strike a stone with a hammer and break it open. The smell is powerful and evocative - of Chablis! I also read that transfer of smell can be airborne: dust, grass, flower and tree pollen - aren't these also the variables that determine terroir character?

At 3:18 PM, Anonymous Clark Smith said...

Although the NY Times article on terroir is well written New York Times it starts off silly in posing and then debunking the idea that terroir means that soil is literally transported by vines into their grapes, but does conclude properly by defining terroir as a collaboration of natural flavors unique to a place stewarded to the glass through skilled artifice. Missing only is the connection I observe between organic practices and enhancement of wine quality: flavor, structure, longevity and minerality.

I admire John Williams’ articulate essay on the Science of Sustainable Viticulture http://www.sarep.ucdavis.edu/production/viticulture/williams.htm and am pleased that his considerable experience reflects my own observations. Here we find testimony of this underappreciated connection between living soil and wine quality. In my experience, grapes grown in living soil always have a mineral tingle in the finish (such as my Roman Syrah and Faux Chablis have heaps of this) and this character is not easily destroyed in the winery, though high alcohol bitterness can obscure it. I do think it is often confused with acidity. It's easy to spot the difference, because acids (except acetic) occur on the front and sides of the tongue, whereas mineral energy is only in the finish.

Sulfur has nothing to do with this impression, but it does impart a reductive strength which often manifests as reduction.


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