John Szabo’s VINTAGES Preview – April 28th, 2018

Vineyards, Rocks and Soils – An Important Book Review, plus top Minerally Wines, Benvenuto Brunello Reports, and A Big Win for the Queen
By John Szabo, MS, with notes by David Lawrason and Michael Godel

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

Do you know basalt from biotite, till from tuff? Are you curious about the contributions of geology to wine? There’s now a book for you, a first-of-its-kind wine lover’s guide to geology that clearly lays out the links between the interrelated worlds of rocks and wines. This week’s report features a review of professor Alex Maltman’s important new book, Vineyards, Rocks, and Soils: The Wine Lover’s Guide to Geology. And in honour of the work, the WineAlign crü has assembled a collection of wines that display (contrary to professor Maltman’s conclusions) a distinctive measure of minerality. Taste and tell us if you agree. Elsewhere, Michael Godel and I have written up our Benvenuto Brunello 2018 reports, with our top picks from the recently released 2013 vintage. See mine and Michael’s. And finally in other news, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled yesterday in favour of government, and against the wishes of the overwhelming majority of Canadian wine drinkers coast to coast.

Her Majesty the Queen vs. Gerard Comeau: Canadians Lose

I won’t go into details of the case, which has already been widely covered in the press, but suffice to say that yesterday the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in favour of the Queen, and Mr. Comeau will have to pay his fine for “importing” (cheaper) beer from Québec into New Brunswick. Read the full decision here. The court determined that the meaning of “free” in section 121 of the Canadian Constitution (“All Articles of the Growth, Produce, or Manufacture of any one of the Provinces shall, from and after the Union, be admitted free into each of the other Provinces”), doesn’t actually mean free trade between the provinces. In a nutshell, “the text, historical context, legislative context, and underlying constitutional principles do not support the contention that s. 121  should be interpreted as prohibiting any and all burdens on the passage of goods over provincial boundaries, essentially imposing an absolute free trade regime within Canada. Rather, these considerations support a flexible, purpose view of s. 121  – one that respects an appropriate balance between federal and provincial powers.”

That’s a big win for provincial liquor monopolies, and a big loss for Canadians. But the battle is not wholly lost. If you’d like to (legally) order in wine from Canadian wineries outside Ontario, let your MPP know. You can be sure that I’ll continue ordering cases of wine from BC, Québec and Nova Scotia direct to my home in Toronto. I suppose that’s as violent as protests get in Canada.

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What You Need To Know About Rocks and Soils

Book Review: Vineyards, Rocks, and Soils: The Wine Lover’s Guide to Geology, by Alex Maltman, Oxford University Press, 2018

Are you confounded by the geological terms and concepts that seem to be cropping up ever more frequently in wine literature? Do you know basalt from biotite, till from tuff? Are you curious about the contributions of geology to wine? It’s not the first to attempt to link geology and wine, but it’s the most successful book so far. Written by emeritus professor of Earth Sciences at Aberystwyth University in Wales (and amateur winegrower), Alex Maltman, Vineyards, Rocks, and Soils was admittedly my most eagerly anticipated wine book of the year. It’s the first of its kind to clearly lay out the links between these interrelated worlds.

I was previously familiar with Professor Maltman’s work through various articles on ‘minerality’ I had come across while researching my book, Volcanic Wines, and he had been kind enough to review (and correct) the glossary of geological terms I included. The correspondence led eventually to Maltman attending the i4c (International Cool Climate Chardonnay Celebration) in July 2016, where he was the expert speaker for a trade session on the concept of minerality, a session that remains the most talked about in i4c history. So, when I learned he was working on a book linking geology specifically to wine, I was more than a little intrigued. I devoured the book over a single weekend.

While the book falls short on making the illusive final connection between geological phenomena and the actual taste of wine, for reasons that become clear reading the book (more on that in a moment), it is an absolute must read for anyone in the industry who comes across, or uses, words like chalk, limestone, tufa, slate, alluvial, flinty, Kimmeridgian or iron oxide, to name but a tiny few, in relation to some aspect of wine.

A handful of volcanic rocks in a vineyard: can you taste these in the wine?

A handful of volcanic rocks in a vineyard: can you taste these in the wine?

Introducing (Correct) Geological Terms

First and foremost, the book is an excellent introduction to geological concepts and terms. Written in clear English, though with scientific rigor and precision, Maltman renders very obviously complex topics into a digestible form, without dumbing them down, all the while linking back to how they relate specifically to winegrowing. Hundreds of concrete examples from wine regions around are marshalled to illustrate and explain a vast spectrum of rock types or geological features or phenomena (i.e. “The colour of the celebrated terra rossa is due principally to clays stained with hematite (and goethite). Such soils develop in limestone areas with a Mediterranean climate, such as Istria (Croatia), La Mancha (Spain), and Coonawarra (Australia)”).

Considering the growing number of technical geological terms in circulation in wine literature and labels, marketing pieces and websites, and how few in the trade have any training in geology, the book is timely. Indeed, it seems a preoccupation of professor Maltman to right all of the geological wrongs that are regularly perpetrated by wine writers and marketers, who co-opt and often misuse terms, or trot out anachronistic concepts that were abandoned by geologists shortly after the world became round. With thinly veiled disdain, Maltman litters the text with examples of incorrect usage or confusion between terms.

For example, regarding sulphur compounds, he writes: “Some wine writings confuse these various sulfur-bearing anions. So to be clear, sulfates contain four oxygen ions. They should not be confused with either sulphides, which have no oxygen at all, or sulphites, which have three oxygens.” (He then goes on to explain the differences further.) Or, regarding the hill of Brouilly and its composition of diorite, a type of igneous rock, he reminds readers that “It is therefore incorrect, as with all intrusive igneous rocks, to call the hill a volcano, as some Beaujolais books have it. Incidentally, neither is it correct to refer to it as a prehistoric volcano… the igneous activity took place almost 400 million years ago, long, long before “prehistory,” a period that by definition involved humans”.

Abusing Rocks

Rock names, he shows, are particularly abused in wine writing. For example, “The adjective for a rock showing a schistosity is schistose… However, wine journalists seem to have invented a new word: schistous. It’s used to describe vineyard soils, and it seems to mean that the soils consist of fragments of schist. The word doesn’t exist in the geological lexicon.” Or, “Another troublesome term is marl. It’s an Old Saxon word and not much used in geology these days, though wine writers seem to like the term.” And, “the soils of Cognac (France) and the albarizas soils of Jerez (Spain) are often called chalk, but they don’t exactly fit with the geological meaning. Indeed, in some wine writings, chalk is used for any vaguely fossil-bearing, crumbly limestone. Chalky is sometimes taken as a synonym for calcareous and sometimes even as simply another name for limestone. If the word “chalk” is to have any use in understanding vineyard geology, it has to be one particular kind of limestone…The two terms are not synonymous”.

And another favourite of mine: “here we have three words that look rather similar and are sometimes used as though they all mean the same thing. Geologically, however, these three materials are quite distinct: tuff is volcanic, tufa is a calcareous precipitate, and tuffeau is a marine limestone in the Loire region of France”.

So there you have it. If you have ever abused or confused these rock types, or have leant up against any other geological terms the meanings of which you are not 100% certain, this book is for you.

Debunking Myths?

Maltman is also keen to debunk perceived myths, unafraid of courting controversy along the way. For example, one passage that is sure to generate ire, especially in those who espouse biodynamic as a form of winegrowing, regards the importance of timing certain vineyard or winery activities to Moon phases: ‘in light of some misconceptions… The oft-proclaimed idea that just because our oceans conspicuously show tides so must everything else, including grapevines, was shown to be wrong over three centuries ago. An object has to have substantial mass and freedom in order to have a significant response to the Moon’s gravity. And only four things in the Earth’s system have that mass and freedom: the oceans, of course; the biggest lakes; the atmosphere; and the solid earth itself.”

He’s also disposed to point out the untenable or manufactured connections that wine writers often make between geology and wine: “Commentators like to mention what the pebbles of, say, various vineyards in the Médoc are made of, but while this may be of academic interest, it’s irrelevant to the vines [because they are chemically inert]: what matters are the variations in fragment size and packing that affect the drainage properties of the soil”.

And also: “When we taste wines from soils that we know are rich in marine fossils we may be reminded of things to do with the sea, and it becomes easy to perceive marine elements in the wine. Thus, commentators often mention the abundant and striking oyster-like fossils in the Chablis vineyards and go on to describe the wine as having an iodine taste. However, as far as the vine is concerned, any fossils in the rocks and soils are indistinguishable from any other piece of geologic mineral – for that is what almost all fossils are”.

And then there’s Maltman’s most widely circulated statement regarding the now-ubiquitous term minerality, the one that caused much discussion after the i4c session: “whatever minerality is, it is not the taste of vineyard minerals”. Maltman argues convincingly that vines don’t absorb, or at least only in minute quantities, geologic minerals (not to be confused with nutrient minerals), and that they cannot possibly play any direct role in wine aroma or taste. Therefore, the nature of a vineyard’s bedrock makes no direct contribution to the aroma or taste of wine.

Underpinning it with Science

But the book doesn’t come off as just a finger wagging cautionary tale for the wine trade (just get the terms correct). It’s also filled with solid information on aspects that are critical to understanding the interaction between geology, soils and grapevine/wine chemistry, including soil cation exchange capacity, the influence of pH on nutrient absorption, the critical role of soil and bedrock water holding capacity based on faulting, fissures and jointing, weathering potential and rate, and the type of soil derived from various rock types and its texture, sunlight reflection and reradiation potential, the important role of soil microbiology, choice of rootstock, and on and on. It is not a text for beginners.

And Fascinating Facts

Yet there are also fascinating tidbits that render an otherwise academically heavy text more readable. For example you’ll learn that: “(Curiously, in light of its significance for wine, the yeast Brettanomyces was first isolated in this same brewery [Carlsberg], during experiments on the spoilage of British ales, hence the microbe’s Latinized name for “British fungus”)”, or that Michelangelo’s David, “probably the most famous sculpture of all, is actually a somewhat inferior marble, full of microscopic holes that are presenting challenges to those conserving the work today. Michelangelo probably used this particular marble simply because a suitably large block happened to be available, in one of the Fantiscritti quarries in Misceglia, just northeast of Carrara”.

The Ultimate Question

In the end, if you were hoping that this book might unveil such mysteries as what wines grown on limestone, or slate, or volcanic soil taste like, then you’ll be disappointed. Maltman’s ultimate message is not that terroir doesn’t exist, in fact quite the contrary, but rather that it is an exceedingly complicated system of interrelated features. Bedrock and soil type chemistry are just one part, and probably not the most important part. It’s surely ironic that a geologist should downplay the importance of geology to winegrowing and the taste/aroma of wine.

The message is also that wine writers, and wine makers should question more thoroughly the glib received wisdom bandied freely about, and challenge conventional thought. Much of what the back labels or winery brochures say, according to Maltman, has no scientific basis. One thing is for sure, reading this book will forever change the way you read a wine label, a technical sheet, or a writer’s writings. For this alone it is worth reading, and you’ll be inspired to seek deeper explanations.

But What of Empirical Science?

But hang on. If you’re in a state of disbelief right now, or even angry, thinking “but wait, in my experience wines grown on limestone taste like…”, Maltman cleverly leaves the back door open. He concedes that science does not have all the answers. Not yet. “But there does seem to be something more to it [terroir] that science hasn’t yet recognized. For example, it would seem that linking the basics of terroir understanding with modern knowledge of viticulture and winemaking should make it possible to produce outstanding wines from almost any site that has a generally suitable climate. You just manipulate the factors and then emulate the practices of some celebrated producer and, presto, you have a rival product. But it doesn’t seem to work that way; there is almost a kind of “glass ceiling” that distinguishes a few sites…it’s just possible that they [great vineyards of the world] have something extra, something yet unacknowledged in science”.

So despite Maltman’s poking fun at commentators who “boldly assert the special qualities that this or that bedrock brings to wine”, or enthusiasts who “are convinced that the vineyard geology can actually be tasted in their wine glass”, the scientific jury is still uncovering, debating and weighing the facts. Humans, including geologists, are still the only instruments sensitive enough (so far) to synthesize the bewildering array of inputs that result in a glass of wine, and render them into a relatively simple, if metaphor-laden, tasting note.

Wine writers should be happy that the processes at play, which eventually result in fermented grape beverages, are so devilishly complex. Otherwise, a list of factors could simply be summed up and the flavour profile determined as if by a mathematical equation. There would be no need for experts. But this is manifestly not the case.

While there is surely no direct link between rocks and glass, at least none that is easily measured or quantified, one things is absolutely certain: wines born on different geologies within the same relatively small area (say, the Wachau, or parts of Alsace, or Barolo, or the Côte d’Or) do smell and taste differently. They have a different structure, and a different potential longevity. This is true of wines from the same producer working different sites (eliminating the winemaker’s influence), but it’s also true often enough of the wines from the same site made by different producers (site trumps winemaking). The staggering weight of empirical evidence from growers, winemakers, wine tasters and wine enthusiasts over centuries and from around the world is too much to ignore. We know there’s something there.

Of course the similarities or differences are not due to bedrock or soil exclusively, but in the world of wine commentating or marketing, some simplification, some easy differentiation between vineyards and wines, is needed, and welcome. And geology/soil type is the most logical fall back. Speculating on differences due to soil microbe populations, rootstocks, micro bedrock fissures, cation exchange capacity, humus content and soil depositional irregularities, and whatever else, seems a little heavy in the pursuit of describing tasty wines!

So I’m in favour of using a “shorthand summary label”, to use professor Maltman’s words, in order to distinguish between wines. And rock types suit the job just fine. While there is no universal, say, limestone or slate character, within a specific context, it’s a useful point of departure.

And “minerality” as a descriptor remains a useful one, in the metaphorical sense, to describe the range of aromas/flavours and taste sensations (such as salinity), which can’t readily be attributed to grape variety or ageing vessel. It covers all of those “non-variety” characteristics that separate the predictable from the intriguing, serviceable from superlative, and the good from unquestionably great vineyards. So I’ll continue to use it, with my apologies to geologists worldwide.

I’m also recommending professor Maltman’s book unreservedly. It’s thorough and thoughtful, written by someone clearly in possession of facts and considered opinion, with an ability to communicate clearly and the confidence to dive unreservedly into the intricacies of a vast subject. It’s for anyone invested enough in wine to care to know the difference between chalk and limestone, tufa and tuff. It’s for those unafraid to have the romantic veil at least partially lifted from wine in order to marvel instead at the extraordinary range of factors that come to bear on your glass, some of which have their origins hundreds of millions of years ago in the mists of geological time.

Minerally Wines

Following on the theme of Professor Maltman’s book, the WineAlign crü has selected wines from the April 28th release, and a few Ontario wines (marked “Winery”), that show some ‘other-than-varietal’ character – aromas and tastes that don’t derive directly from grape variety or barrel ageing. Call it minerality, these flavours fall in a spectrum that brings to mind the inorganic world, metaphorically speaking, and make for wines that have a distinct sense of place, a strong regional profile.

And judging by our independent agreement on several wines, there just may be some consistent idea of what minerality means! We’d love to hear your comments on whether you find these wines ‘minerally’ or not.

VINTAGES Buyer’s Guide for April 28th

Minerally Whites

Brauneberger Juffer-Sonnenuhr 2014 Riesling Spätlese, Mosel, Germany ($40.95)
John Szabo – German riesling, especially from the Mosel, must be among the most minerally wines in the world – one look at the steep, rocky, pure slate-covered hillsides is enough to conjure up non-fruit flavours in even the most die-hard anti-mineralist. This is a magnificent example, pure wet rock covered in wildflower honey. Flavour intensity on the palate is exceptional, as are length and depth. Best 2018-2029.


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John Szabo, MS

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