A Cave Exploring Winemaker
Here’s a comparison that sounds like it’s heading into food pairing territory—but don’t lick your lips just yet. Now, foodies do seem to get remarkably excited about various benefits of grass fed versus corn-fed beef. At the center of the debate is the sizzle factor, the texture, flavor profile and cookability. Yum! It is, of course, supported by a whole host of conflicting scientific data. Whichever side you come down on, and you may be feeling hungry already, there’s no doubt that the food source does influence the quality of what the chef eventually plates for you. Wine is no different, except the food source is the soil and its various micro-nutrients. Winemakers get remarkably excited about soil types but, at the end of the day, good dirt is one of the hardest things associated with wine to write about in an engaging and fun sense.
There is just a bewildering array of soil types, each may impart different flavors to the wine in ways you might not expect. Before we get copious complaints from other vineyard owners there is no right or wrong soil type. Just differences in the final wine which the individual taster may perceive as beneficial. The fun of wine is exploring some of these differences in the glass. As a general rule the poorer the soil, the better. That is why thin soiled hilltops are popular as super premium vineyards. They limit the vigor of the vine, producing smaller berries and, as most of the flavor and color is in the skin, the juice to skin ratio is preferable, ie more skin less juice.
Vine roots go deep. Really deep. I am an avid cave explorer and have often been invited into cave systems under vineyards. The vineyard owners had become rightly concerned that their machinery might collapse into a cave! In such caves, vine roots have been found searching for water and nutrients some thirty to forty feet underground, meandering over the passage floors in search of hidden sustenance.
Caves are most often formed in limestone and this brings up one of the traditionally most popular soil types for viticulture. Think Champagne, Saint-Emilion, the Cote d’Or, Coonawarra, seemingly most of Southern Italy and of course Brecon Estate in Paso Robles. There is good reason, as these calcium-based rocks and their associated, well-drained, calcareous soils are high pH but ironically they produce wines that have fantastic natural acidity (low pH). It’s all to do with the reduced potassium uptake and beneficially means the winemaker rarely needs to further supplement the grapes natural acid level. Arguably, supplementing the acid (a common practice in wines from some other soil types) never seems to integrate as well into the wine as when grapes with balanced acidity are used. Up until the mid-20th century supplementing the wines natural acidity was not a practical proposition. Wines with brighter acids from calcareous soils lasted longer, were less prone to spoilage, and were more consistently world class in terms of flavor profile, minerality, mouthfeel and tannin perception than other local wines with perhaps softer flabbier acidity.
Keep a look out for strange backhoe pits in empty fields during your travels in wine country. These might be test holes dug in prospective vineyard sites by the local “Dr. Dirt” or more appropriately a soil scientist. Now these guys really, really get excited about sub-layers. Some of the best dirt doctors heavily influenced me in my eventual choice of a home for what is a truly a generational planting, firmly founded on a bedrock of calcareous shale.