Let’s Talk Dirt (Among Other Things…)

Ch La Tour

(The vineyards of Ch. La Tour, Pauillac, Bordeaux)

Have you ever wondered, as you mulled over a fine weighty Cabernet from Napa Valley, or watched the sunlight glint through a glass of Sancerre, or enjoyed the estimable flavors of a manzanilla sherry, exactly why certain areas of the world have become famous for making wine?

Have you ever wondered why, as you’re driving through the Haut-Medoc in Bordeaux, the chateau on one side of the road can command $700 a bottle while the chateau across the street – a matter of maybe twenty feet away – can only command $40?

Well, the reasons are multitudinous – having to do with such things as soil, climate, topography, winemaking techniques, science, history, socio-political cause and effect, and culture among much else.

But a lot of it has to do with terroir. Terroir is one of those French words that wine people bandy about all the time. Literally it means dirt – soil to be more precise – but in winespeak it has to do with soil, climate, topography, and all other facets of the environment that makes a grape vine grow and produce great wine grapes.

Soil is important. When the first Benedictine monks began planting vines in Burgundy in the Middle Ages they literally tasted the soil everywhere they went to decide which areas were best for good wine.

Some soil is better for one grape variety than another. The perfect example for this is in Bordeaux. The soil on the Left Bank of the Gironde River is largely gravel carried down from the mountains by a retreating glacier toward one of the Ice Ages, and is perfect for growing Cabernet Sauvignon which flourishes there. But the glacier didn’t touch the Right Bank of the Gironde, and so the soil there is largely chalk and clay – perfect for Merlot.

  Sometimes the same type of soil can be beneficial in different areas for different reasons. The chalk soil of the Champagne region is beneficial there because there is a lot of rain in Champagne and the chalk allows proper drainage around the vines. (Also, because Champagne has a cool climate the chalk reflects the sunlight onto the vine providing that much needed warmth to ripen the grapes.) In the sherry region of southern Spain, the chalk soil (or ‘albariza’) is advantageous because there is little rain in the area and the chalk holds on to whatever moisture there is, allowing the vines to survive.

Domecq - Albariza

(The chalky albariza soil of Jerez – the home of sherry.)

       Expert wine tasters can often tell you what kind of soil the grape vines grew in just by tasting the wine. A famous example would be the wines of Rutherford, which many tasters will tell you stands out from other Napa Valley wines because they can taste the ‘Rutherford dust’.

  So why does the chateau on one side of the road in Bordeaux sell for $700 while the one across the street sells for $40? Well, in this case a lot of it has to do with drainage and elevation. In the 18th century a series of drainage ditches were dug out leading to the river, and for some reason it seems that many of the best first and second growth chateaux are located near one of them. Also, these great wineries have a slightly higher elevation – sometimes even a matter of a few feet can make all the difference in the quality of the vines.

   But that’s getting into topography, which will have to wait for some future blog.

    If you really want to think about wine in relation to the soil, here are some wines you might want to try — 

Champagne – Moutard Brut Cuvee (with 90 points from Steve Tanzer it’s a steal at $34.99!) 

Burgundy Rene Lequin-Colin Santenay Premier Cru ‘La Comme’ 2005 (Pinot Noir with beautiful fruit and earthy flavors, and only $23.99)

Bordeaux Left Bank – Ch. Belle-Vue Haut-Medoc 2006 (90 points from Robert Parker and only $18.99. Who says Bordeaux has to be expensive?)

Bordeaux Right Bank – Ch. Larmande Grand Cru Classe Saint-Emilion 2006 (88 points from Wine Spectator. Subtle and complex for $32.99)

Sherry – Hidalgo La Gitana Manzanilla (try this with olives and almonds and shrimp, or any of your favorite tapas for that matter. Only $11.99 for a 500 ml bottle).

Vineyard Toil - Burgundy 

(Still ploughing the soil the old fashioned way in Burgundy.)

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