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Down to Earth

By |  June 16 2008

Since those who thus admonish us generally make a living from advice they offer about where to plant, it would be more than merely odd if they denied that some soils are conducive to better wine. Yet, surely "better" implies different in flavor and superior in taste.

Scientists are necessarily interested in the quantifiable. And those concerned with practices of viticulture and winemaking are interested in seeing how what’s measured measures up to certain benchmarks, as well as in the means to reach them. Consider these words of Robert White, emeritus professor of soil science at the University of Melbourne and author of the standard reference book Soils for Fine Wines. "If you are a vigneron there are plenty of modern tools to help you choose which piece of land to grow grapes on and how to manage the soil to achieve desired outcomes in terms of style and taste-you do not have to rely on the accumulated experience of monks and later vignerons. But everyone likes a good story, and that is more or less what the tale of terroir is about."

Not quite. The down-to-earth common ground between professed terroir enthusiasts, skeptical scientists, and practical-minded vintners is surely that flavor varies with soil in ways we can explore with scientific rigor, and at least partially predict. That, in effect, is Terroir 101. If flavor were not what is at issue, or if we couldn’t at all predict it, then those purporting to offer vintners sound advice would be the ones who merely entertain us with their tales of ancient oceanic creatures, lava, glacial dust, and prehistoric periods. Of the extent to which, and the mechanisms by which, soil and flavor are related, surprisingly little is yet known, though some popular hypotheses (such as direct uptake of minerals from roots to fruit) can be ruled out. And whether one emphasizes the constraints of nature or the arts of man, is merely that-a matter of emphasis; why should there be a conflict? Celebrated Saar vintner Egon Müller routinely witnesses another world "down under," and this is how he puts it: "We always believed wine was made in the vineyard. In New German, that’s known as ‘terroir’- the vineyard determines how the wine will taste. The Australian sees that completely differently. He says, ‘I want to make such and such a wine; how can I do it?’ That is unbelievably exciting."

The views of Emile Peynaud- insinuated virtually into the genes of subsequent generations of viticulturalists and enologists-epitomize (indeed, appear to be the origin of) this downto- earth conception of terroir and synthesize the two viewpoints to which Müller alludes. "Bring me the best grapes in the world, and I’ll make you the best wine in the world," Peynaud reputedly told his clients. Some sites were optimally conducive to that end, promoting reliably high ripeness in terms of sugar, acids, and phenols-qualitative parameters that remain of fundamental importance to wine scientists and growers, even those who prefer to chew their grapes and not just have them analyzed. The vineyard manager or enologist’s job, through "a long struggle with small details," is compensating for the natural limitations of all but those best sites, crafting wines fit to measure against the best.

Superiority of site and soil, and thus of flavor, could be explained in large part-thought Peynaud and his Bordeaux successors-in terms of drainage, retention, and soil structure. If scientists are generally skeptical of other mechanisms connecting soil and flavor- however stubborn a hold some of these have on vintners’ imaginations-the role of soil in managing water is a another bedrock principle of terroir on which all interlocutors surely could agree, one so ubiquitous and critical to ripening as to be like a central bank’s adjustment of interest rates: Amazing how many intricate economic (or metabolic) processes can be controlled by just one lever.

On the most basic level, acknowledging terroir is merely conceding the opportunities afforded or limitations placed on wine by where it’s grown. "Terroir seems metaphysical [only] because it’s so complex," says veteran Napa vintner George Hendry. "It’s everything that a site brings to a bottle of wine. It sets limits on what you can do in the winery." He illustrates this with his blocks of Pinot. In numbers 4 and 5 "there are 4-5ft [1.2-1.5m] of soil and then marine shale. The vines stop growing at the end of June and [then] go into multitasking mode, ripening fruit but producing no more foliage," while number 3 (whose fruit he usually sells off) "collects moisture and the rock is 8ft [2.4m] down. Vines utilize their ATC for building foliage and hence less [desirable] phenolics."

Ironically, only in very recent decades, as more sophisticated vineyard management and cellar methods- and changes in climate, too, perhaps- have rendered genuinely unripe or flawed wines so much less common, do winemakers, journalists, and consumers enjoy the luxury of setting their sights on higher (at least, metaphysically and metaphorically higher) realms and asking after vineyard signature, sense of place, or flavor characteristics that might correspond to certain sorts of soil. But as intriguing and enticing as the prospects are of finding such rarified implications of terroir, the state of basic research as yet hovers only inches above the ground.

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