Whence comes the taste of terroir?
If the author of this new book knows, he isn't saying.

Screen Shot 2014-04-16 at 2.39.35 PMFirst, plant a chardonnay vine in the commune of Puligny-Montrachet in the French region of Burgundy. Now quickly plant another genetically identical to it in Santa Barbara County, California. Prune and train them similarly and when they’re of age make wine and mature it, using identical techniques, from the fruit of each.  Now taste them side by side. You may well recognize a family resemblance, but you won’t have to be an expert taster to realize that they’re dramatically different.  Why?

The agent responsible for their diverse flavor and aroma profiles is thought to be something called terroir. The French loan-word really just means “territory,” a particular, discrete plot of ground, but it implies quite a bit more. Because every physical location on the earth is subject to a singular set of environmental and ecological facts — things like temperature and rainfall, the condition and content of the soils, elevation, how the sun strikes it in the course of a day — it follows, or seems that it should, that whatever is grown or raised on that location will bear a distinctive signature. When the product is grapes destined for fermentation, the wine that results will be similarly stamped. Terroir is said to be the thing that gives fine wine a sense of place. It’s what one wine writer memorably called its whereness.

In his just-published book, “Land and Wine: The French Terroir,” science writer and lecturer Charles Frankel takes readers  on what might be called a Tour de Terroir, a swift, chatty and generally readable survey of French wherenesses, the famous and not so places where French fine wine is sourced. His stated aim is to “to reveal the geologic framework that lies behind each great wine region” and to provide insight into how clay, gravel, sand, schist, flint, and marl – to name a few of the many gritty character actors we’re introduced to — can be responsible for the kaleidoscopic diversity that characterizes the output of the world’s greatest winemaking nation.

Land and Wine: The French Terroir
Charles Frankel
University of Chicago Press
251pp/ $27.50

A heads up: You’ll not only need to buckle your seatbelt for the journey, but pack some Dramamine. A scant 226 pages of text to work with means volcanic upheavals, primordial seas, tectonic plates, and carboniferous sedimentations whizz by the window at an alarming rate. We tour Champagne, the Loire Valley, Burgundy, Bordeaux, and eight more major French wine regions each of which gets chapter-length treatment, but our progress seems not only hurried but a tad joyless, in part because there are so few people (winemakers; expert tasters) on hand whose voices would humanize the relentless iteration of soil types and all those millions and millions of years.

Rocks are clearly the thing that Frankel knows best and is most comfortable explaining. Knowing little of the subject, I can’t vouch for its correctness, although I’m more than willing to give him the benefit of the doubt on it. The litany of geological terms is occasionally wearying, but it wasn’t the challenging vocabulary that began to chip away at my enthusiasm for this book. It was the growing suspicion that Frankel was never going to address the question he set out to answer: How does vineyard geology determine wine character?  Describing the geologies underlying French vineyards is only half the work. How does it actually shape wine?

Admittedly, this is not yet a settled question. But there is scientific consensus on what is not happening: Vines do not take up and transfer to grapes a set of mineral aromas and flavors we imagine soils and rocks possess. Inorganic mineral compounds appear in wine solely in the form of mineral salts of which only sodium chloride (ordinary table salt) can be detected by tasting. So Frankel is off-target when he asserts that “Flint in the soil translates into spicy, smoky aromas . . .” but is on firmer ground elsewhere when he explains how rocks on the surface of the ground can absorb and retain solar radiation and by this means effect the rate at which grapes ripen.

More such observations would have made this book more valuable as an explication of terroir effects, as would acknowledging the influence of local yeast and soil microbe populations whose activities are of great interest to people studying the origins of wine character and which are increasingly viewed as key agents of terroir.

Are there rocks in our wine, or just in our heads?  Inquiring minds still want to know.

This is an expanded version of a review that appeared in the Boston Globe on April 16, 2014.

Stephen Meuse can be reached at sm@tableintime.com

Noah’s premier crû
In world's first-ever vintage, creation gets a do-over.

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Russell Crowe in a still from the new film Noah, based on the biblical flood story.

The Georgians – and here I refer to those denizens of the Caucasus Mountains rather than the inhabitants of the sprawling suburbs of Atlanta — claim to be on vintage no. 8000, or thereabouts. If true, their boast sets the origin of wine culture deep into the era we call the neolithic and makes wine older than cities, writing, and metallurgy.

It’s amazing all right, but not quite as amazing as it would have appeared to a pious Anglican of the 17th century who, on the basis of a chronology worked out by Bishop James Ussher, was convinced that the creation of the world had taken place as recently as October of the year 4004 BCE.  Under Ussher’s scheme, wine would be even older than the earth.

Okay, so the bishop of Armagh was way off. But even if we just stick to what the Bible has to say on the subject, wine appears as one of man’s early and  important achievements.  In the well-known story of the great flood that appears in Genesis chapters 6-9 we’re told that the first thing the patriarch Noah did after emerging from the ark with his family was to plant a vineyard.

We can skip over the question of where Noah got the plant material to establish his new property, since it’s clear that getting too literal isn’t likely to lead anywhere. The more interesting question goes something like this: why would a man who had just come through this epic, traumatic ordeal choose as his first post-diluvian project one that requires daunting amounts of labor and offers no immediate reward? After what he’d seen, what assurance did Noah have that God’s wrath wouldn’t be visited on the world again, perhaps this time wiping out all life, no exceptions granted? Read More →

Art, wine, and authority
Who decides what wine is and ought to be?

Screen Shot 2014-04-03 at 2.51.08 PMIt seems laughable now, but in European theaters it was once common practice for the impresario to hire applauders for opening night. Claques, as they were called in France, were brought in to give it up enthusiastically for the playwright and cast at the end of the debut performance with a view to ensuring a long run. I don’t think we do this anymore — hey, it could be the entertainment business’s best-kept secret for all I know — but I have to admit that there have been nights at Symphony Hall when thunderous applause has convinced me that the performance I had just witnessed must have been truly extraordinary.  While I enjoy classical music, I’m no Jeremy Eichler.  If the audience is on its feet shouting bravos, it must have been great, right?

Yes, it’s hard to remain calm when all around you are losing their heads, but it’s equally hard to refrain from being swept up in the enthusiasm of a cheering crowd. I was giving this some thought recently as I pondered how it is that wine has changed so much in the decades since I first became an enthusiast. When I came, in the standard for really fine wine could be found in just three places: Bordeaux, Burgundy, and Champagne. There wasn’t much French wine from other regions, or much Italian wine, available in Boston well into the 1970’s and even the ’80′s.

Together these three regions provided the models for how proper, status-conferring wine was supposed to be made. In 1976, California pushed France to the wall in the tasting event that’s become known as The Judgment of Paris, with the result that the standing of American wine was enhanced.  But making room for one more deity on wine’s version of Mt. Olympus didn’t really involve a revolution. Napa Valley was admitted to the Pantheon. But no one was questioning whether there should be a Pantheon. Read More →

We prize it in peanut butter
Is consistency something wine should strive for - and if so, how?

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It was American essayist-philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson who first suggested that the mentality that rates order, uniformity, and predictability too highly is not to be trusted.  ”A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds” is how he memorably put it.

It’s true that a world where everything happens in just the same way every time would soon become unbearably tedious, but no less true that a world where everything is fresh each day would be an uncomfortable place to live. Routines swaddle us sweetly in the familiar but also turn us into sleepwalkers. We talk incessantly about what’s new, but cling tenaciously to tradition and habit.  In the end is there any real difference between being in a groove and being in a rut?

We’re all a just little schizophrenic on this point, so it shouldn’t come as any surprise when we see the same sort of bi-polarity manifest itself in the world of wine: on the one hand a quiet, steady commitment to wine that is as consistent as possible from place to place and year to year; on the other joy in the spontaneous variability that springs endlessly from nature.

The poles in this case are Bordeaux and Burgundy, two wine regions that established themselves early in the Christian era but which gave birth to two radically divergent views of what wine should be. Read More →

Lingovino Monday
The Wine Vocabulist explains off-farm inputs; micro-oxygenation; yield; sulfur/sulfides/sulfites; extraction; the cement egg

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An 18th century French prime minister once described the proper way to engage with wine this way: First one looks at the wine, then one smells the wine, then one talks about the wine. Whether he may have advanced so far as to actually taste the wine is not known, but there’s nothing to beat this oft-quoted bon mot as a way of introducing the importance of being able to talk a good game – winewise, I mean.

Like the fashion world it mimics, the world of wine likes to move a little faster than most of us can comfortably keep up with, thus the need for the occasional touch-up and top-up of our wine vocabulary. What follows are six terms, some new and some old, you really ought to be familiar with even if you don’t plan on crossing swords with a Master Sommelier anytime soon.

Off-farm inputs.  The wine world is struggling manfully to come to grips with what we mean when we talk about natural or authentic wine.  Those dedicated to the concept seem agreed on one point: that such wine should be made with minimum recourse to anything but fruit – whenever conditions allow.  Things like fertilizers, fungicides, sulfur (an anti-microbial agent; see below), tartaric acid (depresses pH) , cane or beet sugar (raises potential alcohol) have few obvious qualities in common – except that they are all things that a farmer has to buy, i.e. they’re not the outcome of agriculture, but of some industrial process.  To capture them all in a meaningful way, the phrase off-farm inputs has been coined – and it’s quite a useful one I think, except that it is easily confused with off-putting farmers, which is another thing entirely. Read More →