Rocks for shocks: geologists don’t “debunk” terroir; minerality questioned

Many geologists object to two things: misusing “minerality” and being misquoted.

Site reader and distributor Damien Casten sent in an AP story (with no byline) yesterday entitled “Geologists debunk soil impact on wine at Ore. talk.” The Oregon event was a special session at the annual conference of the Geological Society of America.

At the meeting, Alex Maltman presented a paper with this to say about minerality: “The widely cited direct, literal connection between vineyard geology and wine taste seems scientifically impossible. Whatever “minerality” in wine is, it is not the taste of vineyard minerals.” He calls any perceived connection a “romantic myth.”

Fair enough, there may not be a transfer of minerals from substrate to the glass, but is terroir debunked? Not quite, argued Jonathan Swinchatt in a paper that cites the indirect influences of drainage, accessibility to water, microbiology, soil temperature, and trace element chemistry. He argued that unraveling these links is “devilishly” complex and thus “the connections between geology and wine will remain elusive for some time to come.”

Terroir: clear as mud!

After the jump, Greg Jones, a climatologist from Southern Oregon University (and son of the founder of Abacela Vineyards and Winery in Roseburg, OR) chimes in with his thoughts from the conference and the reporting of it.

Over the years of being in the media’s eyes on climate and wine, I have found that they get it right about 25-40% of the time. The rest of the time they capture what creates the story, not the truth.

Yes, I was at the meeting (a very good session in my opinion) and gave two talks. Even what I said was taken out of context in the AP story as was much of everything else. There was no ‘debunking’ only good debate about the relationships between climate, landscape, soil, and the vine. The take home was that it clearly is a non-linear issue that we know virtually nothing about, but that the use of terms like ‘minerality’ are over-done and have no connection or basis for being derived directly from some mineral aspect in the soil. It never stated that soil has no impact on wine, to the contrary the take home for me confirmed what I truly believe … that geology, landscape, and soil are important factors that mediate the interaction between climate and the vine, especially soil water supply and nutrition. But that climate is the most basic and most profound in terms of what can be grown where and how. For me this gets back to the sense of place or the importance of site being at the core of terroir!

In the original AP piece that I saw, they said “Jones found that more than half of existing vineyards are planted on land that is only marginally suitable for growing grapes. Nearly a third of the planted acreage is mismatched to climate: Cool-climate grapes such as pinot noir are growing where it’s too warm, and varieties requiring more heat are growing where it’s too cold.” My comments were simply that in many instances sites are not ideal for grapes more because they were owned and planted, instead of sought out for growing grapes. Therefore many sites are not ideal, but compromises … which further accentuates the importance of site selection! The 1/3 mis-matched varieties is correct. In smaller emerging areas this is always the case were growers are trying to find out what does best where … my modeling shows that climate can delineate this suitability with much less trial and error.

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27 Responses to “Rocks for shocks: geologists don’t “debunk” terroir; minerality questioned”

  1. Nice follow up here, Doc.

    I suppose I react strongly to this because if people truly believe that soil plays no role in winemaking, then it is easy to argue there is no reason to have good, clean soil and it is a slippery slope from that point to all sorts of nastiness.

  2. Portland conference.

    Great blog that seeks and finds the middle ground.
    The central problem (as always) is communication; specifically, translating and understanding the French concept “goût de terroir”. This is a useful concept, certainly something that most geologists, climate scientists, viticulturists, etc accept but of course they know enough to not take it literally. It is euphemism not to be taken literally any more than “she is so hot” while her mother is just “not cool”. In such street jargon are we to believe this family suffers from a variable temperature syndrome and that federal support should be given scientists to document the family’s temperature differences to the 7th decimal point?
    To the cognoscenti in viticulture climate clearly trumps soil but this certainly does not diminish the importance of place, including all its attributes like topography, soil, human activity there, etc. We have known for a long time that blind tasting a wine does not yield information to allow the taster to describe how a mouth full of the soil in which the wine was grown would taste. The rock scientist improved our knowledge by applying today’s best technology to study the chemical finger print of both wine and its parent soil and thus extended our knowledge by discovery that the composition of the two substrates are not linked in a predictable manner.

  3. Why is it that those that question “terroir” are usually those that don’t have it? Never mind, this is a notty question which is covered in my book “the Wines of Chablis” and is too long for inclusion here.
    But, to question mineral property of wine is mind boggling. I do maintain that “minerality” is not the same as mineral typicite. Tizer and Coca Cola have minerality but Chablis has mineral typicite given by the exclusive mineral contant of the soil from the Exogyra Virgula. You can no way make authentic Chablis from grapes grown in Washington Park or as I say “Plumstead Common”. Drink a great premier cru Chablis and marvel at the reflected mineral character, disagree if you dare. If I am wrong, then all the great Chablis producers (I mean real Chablis, not general Intenational Chardonnay)should retire and turn to farming.

    Austen Biss

  4. To make an analogy: people from elsewhere are always raving on San Francisco sourdough bread, and trying to bring home a mix or starter sample. Immediately on their return home, their precious starter begins to take on the character of their home region, and they are disappointed even if the bread is good. Well, Duh. Wild sourdough yeasts from SF are not going to grow in Peoria’s climate.

    I think that the microbiology of terroir could be the next great thing in wine research. Why isn’t it studied more? Because, unlike filtration, or stainless steel tanks, or reverse osmosis, it can’t be translated from one place to another, i.e., it can’t be used to make money. And Vive la differences!

  5. I have asked a number of winemakers about terroir and minerality on camera. Here is my Minerality play list:

    Lots of different opinons and information to absorb. Good thing Study Hall involves a glass of wine!

  6. There’s always a mechanism involved. If it (the perception of minerality) can’t be explained, then we shouldn’t jump to conclusions. All anyone can do is admit a correlation between place and “minerality.” Beyond that, any explanation is mere conjecture, right?

  7. My personal reaction to this has been a roller coaster at first I was waving my fist yelling Idiots idiots! Everyone knows soil is a huge component in wine profiles, then I re read the piece and it left me with more of a “so what” kind of attitude. Science may say my shirt is not black but actually a combination of 35 different colors that my eye perceives as black but guess what when I get dressed in the morning my shirt is still black. So my Champagne may not actually contain any chalk but the way that soil type and the vine interact creates a very distinct flavor profile and structure that I connect with a wine grown in chalky soil. From a science point of view yes the wine may not contain any of the mineral itself but is that to say that the presence of that mineral in the soil has no distinct effect on the vine?

  8. …or, how’s this?
    “Winegrowers Debunk Toba Catastrophe Theory.”

  9. That is a terrific pic by the way. You could have a contest to see where people think it is if it weren’t linked to the flickr account. I just learned that Lanzerote is an island among the Canaries, and that “For inexplicable reasons, phylloxero (insect disease) has not come to the Canaries. Root stalks can therefore be planted directly into the ground without the necessity of stalk grafting.”

    Also, they seem to harvest with camels, at least according the the Wines of Lanzarote site from which I copied the quote above. I now have one more wine that I am curious to try.

  10. I often cringe when I hear a wine professional espouse causality between soil minerals with minerality in the wine. This is no different than gratuitous wine marketers linking eucalyptus trees around a vineyard with the minty flavors in their wine. As author Alex Maltman says, it is a romantic myth.

  11. NB: Let me be clear, however, I believe in terroir. But not in a singularity of just soil influence. As noted in the study, wine character is produced in the vineyard as influence by its environment – climate, soil, aspect, clone, etc.)

  12. You’ve got it right Patrick B.! Despite the fact that the term “terroir” conjurs up images of soil, like like the latin “terra”, it’s really about place. The influence of terroir is ALL of the factors involving the particular place where a particular lot of grapes have been grown. The soil is just one of those factors. Terroir is all encompassing.
    The conference debated a very interesting connection between soil and wine, but it didn’t seem to address all of the factors of terroir… so the title of the article itself is misleading.

  13. Damien –

    Yes, I was trying to pick a place that has a distinctive terroir and Lanzarote with its volcanic soil, low-yielding bush vines, wind and sun came to mind.

    FYI we did have this as a “mystery” photo some time ago. You can see the whole series of mystery places here:

    Submit one for our guessing since it has been a while!

  14. Patrick,

    I agree completely. “This is no different than gratuitous wine marketers linking eucalyptus trees around a vineyard with the minty flavors in their wine.” I think you can throw into that Top Chef contestants pairing hazelnuts in their food with a Pinot just because they know that the vineyard has hazelnut trees and thinks that will have a corralation!

    Fun times. Interesting blog topic today. I needed it.

    On a more somber note, I took a break from writing about wine for the week. This is do to the fact that we have all lost a large amount of heroes over in Afghanistan, including my collegiate teammate Capt Kyle Van De Giesen. I wrote a short piece about how he impacted me and just want to share what a unique kind of person he was.

  15. The photo looks like it was shot in Santorini with their distinctive planting style of training the vines into baskets.

  16. Patrick/Erol:

    Sorry, you’re wrong on the Eucalyptus contribution. It has nothing to do with Eucalyptus trees IN the ground, and everything to do with the fact that they are used as wind breaks. Down-wind vineyards get the oil from the leaves splashed on to the grapes. Red wines are made with the skins…material on the skins is directly contributed to the wine (this is from where some of the yeast for “natural” fermentations comes).

  17. Steve- that’s what I meant, there’s no link (air, soil or otherwise). But to keep an open mind, I have yet to see a study that substantial oil molecules can travel a distance and accumulate enough in grape skins to produce minty wines. I am not a chemist by trade, but isn’t it the minty flavors in wine comes from the same chemical compounds (pyrazine) that also produces peppery flavors.

  18. […] […]

  19. Patrick/Erol/Steven –

    There does appear to be some science behind the connection between eucalyptus trees growing near a vineyard and mint flavor in the finished wine.,50,68&pageid=102

    This is from the website of ETS Laboratories, not a scientific journal. Nevertheless it supports Steven’s explanation.

    Incidentally, I came across this while researching a recent post for my blog on the Cline Small Berry Mourvedre (Contra Costa County) – a wine that exhibits that minty note vintage after vintage due to nearby eucalyptus.

  20. Maybe I should have entitled this post: “Gary, Conan wants his tongue back!”


  21. About the Eucalyptus, I’ve seen it several times: when those surrounding trees are cut down the mintyness on the wine goes away the next vintage.
    And about Phyloxera, Chile is another example of a place where most of the vineyards are “own rooted” due to the absence of the plague.

  22. “The take home for me confirmed what I truly believe … that geology, landscape, and soil are important factors that mediate the interaction between climate and the vine, especially soil water supply and nutrition.” One thing left out is the people. Having no clue about much of anything when I first walked onto the vineyard, I always asked a lot of questions. I remember when I asked our winemaker about the concept of “terroir” he thought that, beyond conventional elements of soil and landscape, a lot of it has to do with the people managing the land at that time. As it turned out, wine growing and making is enology as much as an exercise in spirituality for him.

  23. […] Rocks for shocks: geologists don’t “debunk” terroir; minerality questioned | Dr Vi… […]

  24. Maybe in the Columbia Valley where temperatures cook the fruit the minerality can’t be found. What a load of junk, the typical, myopic “I can’t see it so it isn’t there” science. Where do the molecules that make up a grape (and stem and leaf) come from? Some kind of magic, spontaneous, organic matter generator?? If this guy is a scientist and believes that H20 and sunlight alone create the thousands of compounds found in a glass of wine, he must have gotten his degree from one of these places that flood my inbox each day.

  25. Rant #2 would have to deal with the “news” that many wine grapes aren’t grown on optimal soil. Just imagine how good the wine would be if we could “fix” Champagne, Burgundy, the Loire, Alsace, and Bordeaux? Their wine might be as good as the lovely plonk from the Central Valley.

  26. […] previously discussed geologists who debunked “minerality” as coming from the soil. But this smokiness in the glass appears to have come from the fires! […]

  27. Hello,
    since 2001 i do work doing terroir observations and consoulting in Chile and Argentina. I have a Ph.D in Paris at my thesis was about the micro zoning for terroir.
    You can follow my tweets as pitterroir and discussion about minerality are commun.
    For me is very complicate to get minerality in hot climates. Sugar erase minerality, and in this cases tecnical maturity is so brutal thats makes very rare to get this minerality notes (with 16 alcohol…..). I see that every year in Chile and Argentina, and I think its similar in California. Clouds help minerality.
    The clasical example in Burgundy for Chardonnys….Mersault, some are, some aren’t, depending the year. St Aubin, only claciare rock, always minerals, etc….Normaly scientist look in the wrong places…




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