Early in his career Robert Mondavi recognized that he could differentiate his California-made wine from those made in Europe by emphasizing the inherently fruity character of the former. In comparative tastings he habitually badgered guests into conceding that while European wine was often good California wines were “just a bit fruitier” and therefore just a bit better. The reasoning followed this line: because it is made from fruit, wine’s most perfect expression one that most resembles fruit. In his winemaking Mondavi favored an approach that pushed fruit to the fore.
His reasoning and winemaking practice seemed sound enough at the time, so long as one didn’t examine the logic behind either too closely. Why exactly did something that started as fruit have to retain its fruity character in the finished product? Aged Gouda starts out as fresh milk, but a slice of this hard, waxy, dark orange cheese bears so little resemblance to what was squeezed from the udder of a cow you’d never connect the two without being told they’re related. Would we take seriously a person who claimed that cheese should only be made in ways that preserve the taste of fresh milk? Should vodka taste like a potato?
Mondavism, if that’s what we should call it, hasn’t entirely passed from the scene, but it’s being gradually displaced by a new dogmatism that’s really an old dogmatism. It’s the notion that the most important thing in winemaking isn’t preserving a connection to the taste of fruit, but to the taste of the land where the wine originated. I call it an old idea because we know that from the days when the Pharoahs cultivated vines in the Nile delta individual wines were known to express character based on the vineyards they were sourced from, and that this individuated quality was prized.
In Burgundy, where religious orders began their survey of vineyard sites early in the Christian era, the tendency of certain plots to express distinctive character in wine was noted from the very outset and informed the whole approach to winemaking there. And though this way of looking at wine was mostly confined to the best vineyards and top properties in this prestige growing region, the last 20 years or so has seen a dramatic emigration of the idea to almost everywhere wine is made. Now that every vineyard site however humble is thought to have a character of its own it’s become a winemaker’s first responsibility to work in a way that throws that character into high relief.
Wine drinkers, too, labor under a new mandate: to find their highest pleasure in detecting and appreciating the marginal differences that ensue from this kind of winemaking.
Of course, there’s still plenty of disagreement about what’s mainly responsible for the expression of individual character in wine, but right now, if you had to bet, you’d be wise to put your money on soils because that’s where the rhetoric is.
In the soil-as-primary-determinant-of-wine-character theory it’s the mineral content and the organization dirt and rock in vineyards that sets the tone for the wine that issues from it, and while science hasn’t yet blessed this hypothesis the notion that geology is destiny seems to have a powerful hold on us. Which begs the question: what is so enthralling about soils anyway, and why are we so ready to find in them a simple answer to what is by all accounts a very complicated problem?
Now that every vineyard site however humble is thought to have a character of its own it’s become a winemaker’s first responsibility to work in a way that throws that character into high relief.
I can only speculate, but I would say first that a big part of the attractiveness of ground as the primary source of differentiation in wine can be attributed to its brute tangibility. Land has a physical solidity that makes other terroir factors (latitude, degree days, rainfall, day-night temperature differentials) seem ephemeral by contrast. From a purely practical point of view, when the time comes to identify the source of the character of the wine in your glass it helps for there to be some physical thing to point to. Rocks give you that.
But it’s not just crude mass that gives ground its evocative power. Terrain conveys an impression of both duration and durability. Geological changes don’t occur on a time scale commensurate with a human life or even human evolution and as long as humans have been gazing at the landscape it has looked essentially the same. As far as we can determine from our own experience, the fields, valleys, low hills, and lofty peaks that surround us have always been here and always will be.
Our sense of the primordial permanence of terrain is memorialized in conversational riffs such as old as the hills and older than dirt. Eternity itself seems to be rooted in the soil, at least from a human perspective: Adam was made of the dust of the earth and to it we all return.
We like, too, to think of the character of a historic wine as a durable thing, as a taste that reaches back over centuries. It pleases us to imagine that if a Burgundian monk-vintner from the fifteenth century were to rise from the dead with his memory intact he could, given the chance, readily distinguish a modern-day Chambolle-Musigny from a contemporary Gevrey-Chambertin. And if he did, what more plausible justification for this persistence of expression could we find than the underlying geology of the Côte de Nuits, essentially unchanged in 600 years? What besides the land has stood still over centuries?
Soils monopolize our attention for another less obvious reason: the rough consonance that exists between the number of distinguishable types of wine and the number of discrete kinds of geologies that are purported to nurture them. If we’re going to assert that for every wine that exhibits a certain set of traits there is a soil type that corresponds to and accounts for it, we’re going to have to show that there is a rough correlation between the number of soils and the number of wine types.
There’s no way to count them of course, but it seems to me that the number of existing soil profiles and the multiplicity of identities wine is able to assume are consonant, if only on an order of magnitude level. If this weren’t the case, the idea of a one-to-one correspondence between them wouldn’t be the sort of idea a reasonable person could entertain.
Finally, soils are compelling because we find (and like) the flavors and aromas of the ground in our wine. It’s in this sense that dirt has become the new fruit; the way fine wine ought to express itself. And while it has been demonstrated that those aspects of wine that are conventionally described as minerally or earthy are actually either sulfur compounds generated during fermentation or plant compounds attributable to vine biology, it doesn’t change the fact that for us these tastes and smells are more reminiscent of soils and stones than anything else we can compare them to.
One day we may know just how much of a contribution soils make in determining wine character and understand how they interact in their seemingly infinite variety with those other durable environmental factors — climate, exposition, latitude, etc — that we have reason to think have a role to play too.
Meanwhile, and until some more compelling theory comes along to displace it, dirt, rocks, soils, and stones seem destined for a good long run as Explainers-in-Chief, even if the confidence we place them is largely derived from appeals to our own imaginations.
Stephen Meuse can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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