Dirt is the new fruit
What's behind our fascination with soils?

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Vines on the slopes of Sicily’s Mt. Etna are rooted in distinctive black volcanic soils. 
Credit: muccimports.com

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 tableintime@icloud.com

It’s July 4, 1776
Let's raise a glass of . . . what exactly?

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Colonials share a bowl of punch in a tavern. Artist unknown.

The twentieth may have been the American century, but it was during the eighteenth that we made the transition from an ethnically uniform but marginally viable colony of the British Empire clinging tenaciously to the east coast of North America to a fully independent administration taking its place and its chances among  the nations of the world.

The Declaration of Independence is still a thrill to read 238 years after its composition by a youthful Thomas Jefferson under the watchful eyes of Benjamin Franklin and John Adams.

It’s not clear how or on what timetable the declaration was actually read or heard by citizens of the spanking new United States of America, but if you were a partisan of independence it must have rejoiced your heart to read such a stirring defense of your cause and driven you to raise a glass to its prospects.  But what would that glass have held?

Let’s survey the possibilities …

Cider.   Hard cider was a staple drink wherever the apple tree could be induced to fruit – and that was much of North America.  According to the Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America, fermented apple juice was colonial America’s “foremost beverage and remained so well into the nineteenth century.”  Without further elaboration apple cider could attain alcohols of no more than about 6%, but freezing or boiling the juice would concentrate the sugars and result in the more potent drink known as applejack. An infusion of rum could be added to achieve the same purpose. Cider was rural America’s daily drink.

Beer and Ale.  One reason the Mayflower landed at Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1620 and not at “Hudson’s River” (the original destination) was because they were running low on stores of beer and there was fear that if they went further there wouldn’t be enough left for the ship’s crew to make the return voyage. With no barley at hand the pilgrim community struggled to make beer with whatever grain that could be had, including Indian corn (maize).   The first licensed brewery in Boston was established in Charleston in 1637.

By the 1660’s there was a sufficient number of breweries to require legislation establishing minimum quality standards. In the years leading up and during to the revolution taverns where beer and ale were served abounded and assumed importance as places where groups met to discuss grievances and strategy, in some cases serving as nurseries for what would become state government. In 1787, on the last day of deliberations by the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, General Washington made this note in his diary: The business being closed, the members adjourned to the City Tavern.  Beer was, as it is today, the sociable drink of masses of Anglo-American males.

Whiskey.  Emigrants with Scottish or Irish roots arrived in the American colonies with a taste for this distilled spirit and a talent for making it (or maybe it’s the other way around). Scots-Irish immigration rose mightily in the 1730’s and so did the number of stills, but New England wasn’t the best place for growing wheat or rye.  Better soils for these grains (and corn) were found further west, in Pennsylvania and Virginia.  Washington maintained a distillery on his estate at Mt. Vernon where, in 1799, he produced 11,000 gallons of whiskey.

One powerful motivation for making whiskey in early America was provided by the bad condition of roads and consequent high costs of transport: distilling condensed many barrels of grain into a single barrel of fiery spirit.  When the young republic attempted to raise cash to pay off its revolutionary war debt by taxing whiskey and bourbon in 1791,  it found itself with a full-scale rebellion of its own on its hands. From the beginning whiskey seems to have been a drink of the frontier rather than of the young republic’s more well-established communities.

Rum.  Distilled directly from sugar or from molasses, a by-product of sugar refining, rum was for a while the most popular and widely available distilled spirit in the northeast colonies, though there would have been both a measure of poetic justice and no little irony involved in toasting independence with a cup of  it. Justice, since British taxing of rum’s raw materials in the Molasses Act of 1733 and the Sugar Act of 1764 was a continuing cause of colonial vexation.

From the beginning whiskey seems to have been a drink of the frontier rather than of the young republic’s more well-established communities.

Irony, because rum production anchored one corner of the infamous triangle trade by which molasses shipped to New England from the Caribbean was processed into rum which was then exchanged on the West Coast of Africa for slaves.  The human cargo was in turn shipped to the Caribbean for sale to planters who needed workers for the notoriously labor-intensive work of sugar manufacture – completing the vicious commercial polygon.

One wonders how a citizen of Boston could so so obtuse as to celebrate the declaration’s daring assertionthat all men are created equal, endowed by their creator with inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, with a tot of rum. Not much yo ho ho in that.

Punches.  Early versions of what we would later refer to as cocktails were generally rum-based with fruit juice added. Punch was popular at mixed-sex gatherings where the drink was considered more genteel than beer or hard liquor.

Punches were inevitably social in nature. Men eager to establish a bond of solidarity passed the punch bowl around for all to drink from.  Grog, the traditional beverage mixed and served out twice-daily to ordinary seaman in the British and American navies consisted of rum, water, and lime juice (to fend off scurvy), was a kind of punch.  More menacing than a flogging, a threat to “stop your grog” was usually enough to return the surliest foretopman to his duty.

Wine.  The vision of Jefferson sipping claret in the dining room of  Monticello colors our view of wine in this period, but Jefferson was a wealthy man and had spent a significant time in France first as a diplomat and later as a tourist.  His deep knowledge of and experience with French wine was  atypical, however. For most of the eighteenth century, beginning with the war of the Spanish Secession in 1702 and carrying on until the defeat of Napoleon in 1815 Britain and its colonies were at war with France and so its subjects were periodically either cut off from the sources of French wine or forced to pay very high duties on its importation.  As for local wines made from native U.S. grapes, that project had been a failure pretty much wherever it was tried.

The Methuen Treaty of 1704 brought the Portuguese into alliance with Britain against France with a promise that Portuguese wines would always be taxed at a rate lower than French wine. Reflecting on the event in 1824, Alexander Henderson wrote “By taxing any commodity excessively, the use of it will, no doubt, become confined to the wealthiest classes … and this may be said to have the case with the wines of France.”

The treaty gave a boost to the production of the powerful, fortified wines of the Douro known as Oporto or Port, which subsequently became a favorite of British drinkers. But British and British colonial consumers had long been keen on the sugary, high-alcohol wines produced in Spain in Portugal in part since they were more durable on long ocean voyages. The English delight in the wines of Jerez – sherry or sherris-sack) is documented as far back as  Shakespeare’s time.

The powerful, durable, partially oxydized wines that had their origins on the island of Madeira (Portugal), the Canary Islands (Spain), and in Malaga on the Andalusian coast were robust, affordable alternatives to the products of French vineyards and in every year from 1696 to1785 imports of these wines dwarfed those of France.*   In the colonies, European wine would have been a drink confined to the wealthy professional, merchant, or land-owning classes.

*    *    *    *

In 1776 the neonatal nation as a whole had a wide variety of beverages to choose from in standing to offer a toast on what has become known as Independence Day, but any individual’s experience was likely to be severly circumscribed by any number of social, geographic, and economic factors.

So what should it be in 2014?  Considering the crucial help the French gave our fledgling republic in the years from 1778 to 1783, and the fact that they bankrupted themselves doing it, I’ll be raising a glass of the best claret in my cellar – and damn the duty.

Stephen Meuse can be reached at tableintime@icloud.com  

  *The History of Ancient and Modern Wines, Alexander Henderson, London, 1824.  Appendix No. VIII “An Account of the Quantity of Wines Imported into England from Christmas 1696 to Christmas 1685; distinguishing the Quantity and Species of Wine imported in each Year.”

It’s a personal thing.
Oz Wine Co. founder seeks wine with 'a sense of place.'

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Massachusetts-based importer/distributor Andrew Bishop says he doesn’t follow trends because “they always seem to come back around to where they started.”

Andrew Bishop, 45, grew up in Simsbury, Connecticut, toured in a rock band, had a stint in the 1990′s as bar manager at “Boston’s first real wine bar,” Les Zygomates, and in 2000 bought a container of wine in Western Australia, brought it into the U.S. and sold it all. Today he’s founder and owner of Oz Wine Company.  Bishop lives with his wife Chom and two sons in Haverhill, Massachusetts.

Oz imports and distributes wine from 175 properties in 10 countries.  Among those that will be familiar to Central Bottle regulars are Domaine Richou, Mas de Libian, Vadiaperti, and Bodegas de Ameztoi.  I sat down with Andrew earlier this month in Cambridge. What follows is an edited transcript of our chat.

The transition from wine bar manager to wine importer seems logical enough, but how did it happen?
I was getting tired of the restaurant life in 1999, five years at it seemed to be enough. I was single and had saved some money. I started traveling and visited my ex-stepfather and his friends in Hong Kong. They had some money to invest, were interested in the wine business and asked me to help. I traveled to California and Australia for them, looked at some vineyards, and put together a little bit of a business plan. I told them that they were looking at millions of dollars and that somebody would have to know how to grow grapes and make wine. Read More →

Lingovino Monday
The Wine Vocabulist explains glou-glou, Preparation 500,
volatile acidity, chaptalization, punching down/pumping over.

 

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Glou-glou. Jaunty French slang for simple, fruity wine that’s so delightful to drink you scarcely give a thought to anything but the pleasure it gives.  I think of glou-glou (pronounce it glue-glue) as red wine, although the distinction is hardly an important one.  The term is pretty well current in English-speaking wine circles now, in part thanks to the influence of the late Joe Dressner, whose delight in lighter-bodied, high-acid, naturally-made wine gave a distinct twist to the importer’s portfolio.

At a recent Central Bottle tasting devoted to the genre we sipped the a fizzy little rosé of pinot noir from Austria, a sprightly gamay from the Côte Roannaise, and a juicy Bardolino – all very glou-glou.  If you missed it, drop by and we’ll point you in the right direction.

Preparation 500.  Biodynamics seems to have made more headway in grape farming than in almost any other branch of agriculture, but very few wine enthusiasts can tell you what it involves in terms of actual process.  At the heart of the program are nine prescribed “preparations” — but the one that seems to be the starting point and most often spoken of  is Preparation 500. Read More →

Taking wine’s full measure
To experience all that wine has to give, swallow

Screen Shot 2014-05-20 at 12.07.21 PM At large-scale tasting events one very good indicator that I’ve sampled something quite fine is a reluctance to spit the wine out, as is customary.  I used to consider this a kind of professional failing until I realized that when a wine is still interesting after being aggressively swished and sloshed for long seconds it’s because it has something to give on its way down that I don’t want to miss. It has always seemed to me that when it comes to wine that’s really worth drinking you just don’t get the whole experience until you swallow, although I couldn’t have explained why.

Not until this week, looking back into my copy of Michael Schuster’s unequaled Essential Winetastingwas I reminded that a scattering of taste buds lurk in the farthest reaches of the back of mouth in something called the otolarynx.  They’re positioned at the top of the esophagus, the tube that leads to the stomach, too — the better to receive whatever parting gifts wine has to give.

Length is something experienced wine tasters can frequently be heard extolling — but what does it actually consist of?  A wine that provides a continuous, sustained, sequence of pleasing sensations from the time the glass touches your lips until it slides down your throat is said to have length, so does one whose flavors, aromas, and texture seems to ring on the palate even after it has gone its way, via a swallow or a spit.

We prize wines that exhibit length for the most basic of reasons: our tasting apparatus is geared to enjoy them.  But it’s important to realize that in order to provide a satisfying sense of duration right to the end, wine has to have a beginning and a middle, too.  It’s the aggregation of parts that ultimately conveys a satisfying sense of length. Read More →