WIne Review: Matthiasson White Wine Napa Valley 2014



matthiassonLong recognized as a innovator in vineyard management and a champion of sustainable agriculture, Steve Matthiasson and his wife Jill began making their own wine in 2003. They are now known for making award-winning Napa wines that are decidedly non-Napa like. They aim for a fresh, low alcohol, elegant style more often associated with France or Italy and using varietals seldom found in the U.S.  This white blend is roughly 50 percent Sauvignon Blanc, 25 percent Ribolla Gialla, 20  percent Semillon, and 5 percent Friulano. (Ribolla Gialla and Friulano form the backbone of the racy, expressive white wines of italy’s Friuli-Venezia-Giulia region.)

Intensely aromatic, tropical notes characteristic of California Sauvignon Blanc are prominent but set off by a powerful whiff of sea shells on the shore when the tide is out. Hazelnut is a background note. Round with some viscosity in the mouth, the long expressive midpalate redolent of lemon and peach gives way to a tart, orange peel and saline finish. The hint of salt sits on palate for several minutes if not interrupted.

The distinctive wine takes you on a journey from exotic and untamed to severe and exquisitely disciplined. The offbeat, vaguely tropical, subtle mood shifting of Bachianias Brasilieras #5 by Wayne Shorter is a good match for this mercurial wine.

Technical Notes: All varietals were co-fermented in 20% new Boutes barrels, aged on the lees (no stirring) for 10 months.

Score: 92

Price: $43 (Purchase Here)

Alc: 12.5%


























Crisp, refreshing and uniquely spicy and mineral-driven, this blends 50% Sauvignon blanc, 25% Ribolla Gialla, 20% Sémillon and 5% Tocai Friulano—all unusual varieties in the Napa Valley. Light, bright and fleshy, it tastes of lemon, mango and the sea.

The first thing that jumps out on the nose is pine sap followed by starfruit, under ripe honeydew, apple skin and white flowers with wet flinty gravel, fresh straw, hand cream, licorice and allspice. In the mouth white peach, sweet lemon curd and quince with toasted almond, bee’s wax, and oyster liquor from the shell. Juicy finish of orange pulp and cherry stone. Brisk acid and round creamy body a bit at odds.


The Sauvignon blanc brings a clean fresh citrusy acidity and some tropical character. The

Ribolla gialla brings seashell minerality, n

uttiness, and structure to the blend. The Semillon

contributes viscosity and

waxiness that adds gravity and weight. The

Tocai friulano adds spicy

aromatic notes. The acidity and fruit expression is balanced by a rich lees character and a

faint backdrop of


oak. There is interplay in the wine between lightness and richness,

and focus and complexity.


Flavors include the trademark white peach, kafir lime, lychee

nut, beeswax, ripe fig, and pineapple, but with much more prominent stones, oyster shells,

and freshly baled straw.


All four varieties were co

fermented in



new Boutes barrels, and


on its lees, with

no stirring, until bottling (often we stir a bit to

help the wine flesh out, but this vintage didn’t need any more weight


wanted to

maintain freshness)


To preserve all of the acidity the wine was prevented from going through


lactic fermentation

. After


months of barrel aging, the wine was filtered to prevent

further malolactic fermentation, and then bottled


Ga Ga Over Glou Glou—Yes It’s Baby Talk



person chuggingFrom “terroir” to élevage” to “sommelier”, the French have given us a wonderful vocabulary for denoting various elements in wine production and consumption. Their most recent linguistic import, despite the onomatopoeia, will hopefully have less long term significance.

You may not have heard the phrase glou-glou yet. It hasn’t quite hit the mainstream although it’s common in natural wine circles. Roughly translated, it means glug-glug mimicking the sound liquid makes when you chug it down your throat. It has come to refer to wines that are so refreshing you want to grab the bottle and keep drinking. It’s the hip version of porch pounder and among some natural wine aficionados, it’s become almost talismanic. Here are just a few encomia to the glories of glou-glou:

From Helen Johannesen, who owns the LA bottle shop Helen’s Wines:

It’s easy; it’s casual; it’s a vin de soif,” she said. “You’re not going to be swirling it in your glass over three hours trying to extract the tasting notes … It’s also a vibe—like: It’s a party! It’s cool! Life is for the living! (She said “living” in a Frenchy way.)

From Italian winemaker Stefano Bellotti:

So I decided, instead of making serious wine, I just wanted to make wine. Wine to drink. I make a red and a white. It worked out really well because instead of making wines that you have to intellectualize, I’ve also produced ones that just win you over, a wine you don’t think about, that you take great pleasure in drinking. You don’t need to worry what about the region or the varietal or the nose or whatever. When you do this you are intellectualizing wine, and wine doesn’t give a shit about being intellectual. So it’s “Simply” red or white: you bring them to the table and you don’t think about it, you just drink it. That’s it.

Summing up the general tenor, Louis Dressner finds this gem of hyperbole:

It’s more than just drinking. It’s a lifestyle.” said some bearded hipster.

It sounds like someone’s been drinking the adult Kool-Aid.

There are many methods for preserving freshness and fruitiness in wine. Glou-glou specifically refers to the use of carbonic or semi-carbonic maceration in which whole grapes are fermented in a carbon dioxide environment that allows the juice to ferment while still inside the berry. The result is a very juicy wine with low tannins. This is the method of fermentation that gives the wines of Beaujolais their distinctive bubblegum and banana aromas, which finds its most sublimely ridiculous expression in the cheaply made, expensively marketed, insipid Beaujolais Nouveau.

That this has become the cause célèbre of the natural wine movement is a shame.

Wine is of course many things. One of those things is a simple, inexpensive thirst quencher that we can drink while relaxing or occupied with other tasks. There is always room for this sort of wine and glou glou wines are more interesting and drinkable than most of the plonk you find at the supermarket.

But that is not all wine is. Wine is also a deeply complex, fascinating intellectual terrain as well as the source of great beauty, and an emotional lure connecting us to the land, the community, and to history. Anyone who thinks the future of wine lies in wiping out those deep resources in favor of weeknight chug-a-lug fundamentally misunderstands the scope of wine’s attractions. The glou glou wine style has a place; the excitement surrounding it is just juvenile.

As Simon Woolf, an expert on natural wines wrote recently:

Glou-glou dumbs wine down. Our thirst for juice light and bright with not a tannin in sight is being quenched at the expense of other qualities. Why should a winemaker sweat about structure when what’s most prized is fluidity? How many natural wine drinkers still care about longevity? How many importers or bars have the sitzfleisch to lay wine down? Why would they bother? When a market thirsts for something juicy and new and asks no questions (“don’t think” is another tenant of glou) such as whether a wine might be better given a year or two, what the market gets is you-know-who.

I’ve been drinking a good deal of natural wine lately and have visited several winemakers devoted to making wines that minimize interventions in the winery. I only occasionally come across a wine that I would describe as glou-glou. Thankfully, not everyone is on board the glou glou craze.

Natural wine is a fascinating and promising area of wine production driven by sound ethical and environmental principles as well as a search for distinctive flavors and vineyard expressions. If it is taken over by this simple minded pursuit of simplicity it will become just another passing fad attractive to only those unserious about wine. That is neither aesthetically inspiring nor a wise business strategy.

For more on the philosophy of wine visit my Monday Column archives at Three Quarks Daily

Budget Wine Review: Bodegas Breca Garnacha de Fuego Spain 2016


, ,

garnache de fuegoBodegas Breca is noted for their old vine vineyards in the mountains of Southern Catalyud from which they’ve produced impressive, affordable Garnacha since 2010. Unlike other bottlings from Bodegas Breca that I’ve tasted, this wine is sold under the Spain D.O. (Denominación de Origen) instead of the region of Catalyud and makes no mention of old vines on the label, so I’m not sure of the provenance of the grapes. But the wine has  the signature dark fruit and minerality of old-vine, high altitude, dry-farmed Garnacha—and something more.

Aromas of blackberry, ripe plum, charred wood and crushed rock provide an intriguing,edgy introduction, the aromatic intensity boosted by alcoholic heat. A seam of minerality drives the medium weight palate giving the pure, dark fruit a hard edge. The tannins are expansive and drying and seem to get an intensity boost from the high alcohol while showing some bitterness on the finish—15.5% is almost unheard of in an $8 wine. Beware the sorcery of tannins and alcoholic heat. Darkly defiant, pent-up savagery hidden by a veneer of restraint, this is one weird wine with an occult charm like Ghost’s Danse Macabre

Technical notes: Aged in concrete and stainless steel

Score: 88

Price: $8

Alc: 15.5%

Wine and Politics Are Drinking Buddies


, , ,

wine and politics A tweet over the holidays unearthed some residual controversy over wine writer Jon Bonné’s article from last summer on the occasion of Anthony Bourdain’s death. Essentially, Jon Bonné’s point was that wine writing is in danger of becoming “fanboy literature”, ignoring the seamy side of the wine industry, and we need more Bourdain-type journalists who expose the truth.

Amber Lebeau at Spitbucket has a nice summary of the recent tweetstorm controversy which pitted Bonné against one Maureen Downey who was insisting wine and politics should seldom mix.

My initial reaction when the piece on Bourdain was published was supportive but conflicted. There should be more investigation of the political dimensions of wine but I hesitated over Bonne’s claim that we should judge the “moral condition” of the winemakers whose product we consume, if only because in most cases I know little about a winemaker’s “moral condition”.

But the original article implicitly raises a general question that is nicely framed by Amber—”are wine and politics strange bedfellows or drinking buddies?”

It’s important to emphasize that it’s beyond ridiculous to assert that wine writers shouldn’t write about political issues germane to the wine industry. That includes diversity in the wine business, the status of immigration and the treatment of immigrant labor, labor abuses including sexual harassment, climate change, the use of chemicals in the vineyard, and the closeting of great wines available only to the super rich. It goes without saying that writers who discuss politically –charged issues should be competent and well informed.

But I want to focus on the contrary argument alluded to in Bonné’s original article

It is an industry that, because it’s viewed by outsiders as a nice little escapist haven from the real world, has a nearly pathological aversion to its less-than-perfect side.

Many of the tweets, as well as Amber’s post, expressed a desire for wine to be that safe haven that Bonne dismisses as escapist.

Is wine a safe space, an arena of aesthetic pleasure and conviviality which will be inevitably compromised by the conflicts and tensions of politics?

There is no doubt that the wine industry is selling romance. Wine is a symbol of the sweet life, a life of ease, pleasure and conviviality. I don’t think we can fault the industry for selling that because wine quite naturally lends itself to that image. (It is more than that as well, but I will leave that discussion for another day.)Thus, it isn’t surprising that many people see wine as a safe space, a place where the tribulations of the world can be suspended if only for a moment, and we can put aside differences and rejoice in the pleasures of life.

But that portrayal of wine is inherently political.

The enjoyment of wine (and food when enjoyment is the point of consumption) puts our lives outside the time frame of our obsession with the hamster wheel of production and consumption that drives the frantic pace of modern life. Wine prescribes a different use of our time—the time to savor the tissue of moment to moment satisfactions that sustain life’s meaning. With its emphasis on conviviality and good cheer, the wine life puts out of joint the authoritarian production paradigm that pits one person against another in a competitive space with a strict hierarchy in which sharing goes in one direction, toward the top of the organization. By contrast, wine and food occupy the space of hospitality where there is a hierarchy, the carer and the cared for, but relations of reciprocity and interchange are at its essence

The enjoyment of wine is not merely of the sensory properties of wine but the idealized meaning of a way of life. The mythology, the romance, is precisely the point.

But there is a political point to this that cannot be wished away in our zeal to preserve inner peace.

As French philosopher Jacques Rancière writes: “Politics is primarily conflict over the existence of a common stage and over the existence and status of those present on it.” And  Rancière thinks aesthetic objects, such as art but I would guess also wine, play a crucial role in politics so defined. Art defines ways of being together or being apart and changes our assumptions about who or what belongs in the same space. (Think of paintings or films that put people or objects in a shared space quite different from their juxtaposition in ordinary life.)

Rancière calls this the “partition of the sensible”. Aesthetic practice takes part in the “partition of the sensible” insofar as it suspends the ordinary coordinates of sensory experience and reframes the network of relationships we engage in by situating them in a different space and time, and by revising our perceptions of what is common and what is singular.

Wine defines a common stage, a particular way of being together outside the time and space of the production paradigm. But as such it then cannot turn around and ignore questions about who gets to be on the stage and what their relationships are. Or to put the point differently, the romance of wine precludes judgments like “I don’t have time for you” or “my pleasure depends on your pain”.

If wine is about pleasure and hospitality, we can’t forget about the hospitality side of the equation—the question of whose pleasure and how it is being served is just part of the territory.

Seek the Different, Not the Best


, ,

monet water liliesFollowing up on my Monday post on brand conscious consumers, I found Decanter’s Andrew Jefford gets to the heart of the problem. Using, as a case in point, reports that soccer star Ronaldo spent thousands on a bottle of Richebourg grand cru and a Petrus to share with teammates in a bar, Jeffords writes:

Meaningless label drinking, Ronaldo-style, is the consequence of the over-emphasis in the wine world on ‘the best’ rather than ‘the different’. The more we pile tasting on competitive tasting, and the larger our mountain of notes and scores, then the more ‘best-obsessed’ we become – and the further we move away from that kind of understanding and enjoyment which makes for the profound pleasure of wine.

This is exactly right. There is no such thing as “the best” wine just as it is absurd to claim a Monet is better than a Van Gogh. What makes both Monet and Van Gogh great is that they were distinctive and original.

Obviously, in wine as in painting, there are distinctions between quality levels—there are flat,uninspiring, amateurish  paintings just as their are flat, uninspiring, amateurish wines. And there are competently rendered paintings that produce much pleasure just as there are competently made wines that are delicious.

But once we reach the level of masterful painting or winemaking what we look for is distinctiveness, meaningful difference. All aesthetic appreciation is really in the business of discovering that. This is something that neither a score nor a competition could capture. Neither cardinal nor ordinal rankings accurately measure individuality or distinctiveness.

Of course, high status wines are often distinctive. But drinking them for their status is the wrong reason.


For more on the philosophy of wine visit my Monday Column archives at Three Quarks Daily

Wine Review: J Bookwalter Volume 5 Cabernet Sauvignon Columbia Valley 2015


, , ,

j bookwalterA mid-sized winery producing about 30,000 cases annually, J. Bookwalter has been fixture in the Tri Cities area of Eastern Washington since 1982. They source this Cab from the  Dionysus Vineyard on the banks of the Columbia River from vines that are nearly 40 yrs. old. This is the second vintage for acclaimed winemaker Caleb Foster who took over the winemaking from John Bookwalter in 2014.

A ripe, dense wine, showing aromas of cassis, fig, damp leaves, chocolate, and graphite it leaves an unctuous first impression in the mouth, rich and heavy with a weight of woe. The marked sweetness is rescued by a layer of soaring acidity that keeps the focus on high toned fruit notes through the mid-palate and finish. Despite the massive fruit and dynamic acidity it has a tender underbelly. The tannins are exceptionally soft seeming to hide behind the bright acidity generating some tartness on the medium length finish.

A lush, indulgent box-of-chocolate wine until the acid darts like lightning with a promise of hope, yet the tannins are too soft to deliver genuine power and depth. It’s searching for its soul but will get  a boost when paired with a diva-delivered big ballad.

Technical notes: 22 months in 60% new French oak. 100% Cabernet Sauvignon

Score: 91

Price: $75

Alc: 14.9%

Brand Whores and the People Who Exploit Them


, ,

lafiteOliver Styles has a brilliant reminder of how even experienced wine lovers are led around by the nose by branding. The occasion for his take down is the flurry of interest in new companies making synthetic, knock-off wines in the lab by reverse engineering iconic wines that most people can’t afford.

Some people in the wine world are all atwitter about the possibility of purchasing for a few dollars a replica of, for example, Lafite-Rothschild, the iconic 1st growth Bordeaux selling for over $800 per bottle upon release. Of course it won’t be identical to Lafite but the lab wizards expect to make something that kinda sorta tastes like it. (Allegedly they are working on a knock off of Dom Perignon.)

But Styles points out what should be obvious though I haven’t seen anyone make the point until now. Writing about another iconic, expensive wine from Bordeaux, Yquem, he laments:

The real tragedy – as is the real tragedy behind all wine forgery – is that the lookalikes already exist. Yquem is not the only vineyard in Sauternes. In fact, Sauternes isn’t the only sweet appellation in Bordeaux. Want a knock-off Yquem? Get yourself to Sainte-Croix-du-Mont. It’s good and reasonably cheap and tastes enough like Yquem. Sure, it’s not Yquem, but if you really, really want Yquem, go buy Yquem.

This is true of all the famous, over-priced icons that wine lovers long for but can’t afford. There are wines from the same region that are very similar at a fraction of the cost. Of course, in most cases, they will not be identical to the original. But neither are the synthetic knock-offs.

The only difference between the similar-but-not-quite-as-distinctive alternative and the synthetic, lab-produced knock-off is that the latter will claim to be a knock-off of the brand. That is what generates the excitement.

As Styles writes:

What has happened is that hype and concentrated wealth have combined to produce wines that are an apogee, wines that everyone talks about and then, through the envy/ostentation/narcissism/sycophancy vortex that is social media, and the headline-obsessed real media, we get a concentration of paradigms. Everything else doesn’t register.

Consumers don’t care what the wine tastes like; they want association with the brand and the selfie to prove their connection.

The point is we don’t need “knock off” wines. We already have them, more of them than we can possibly drink, often made from the same grapes and using techniques similar to those used to produce the icons.

The only reason replica wines would be interesting is if they could succeed in producing exact duplicates indistinguishable from the original at much lower cost. To my mind that would ruin part of the romance of wine but at least it would be a remarkable technological feat and make the most remarkable taste sensations available to a much wider audience. But the producers of replica wines are far from accomplishing that.

Thus far they’re producing something we don’t need preying on consumers who don’t realize they’re buying a label, not a wine.

Budget Wine Review: Segura Viudas Cava Brut Penedes NV



segura viudasAffordable and delicious, this Cava may be the best bargain available if your looking for a celebration sparkling wine that doesn’t break the bank.

The mousse disappears quickly but it has a fine, explosive bubble spout. Aromas are typical pear and green apple notes with almond hints. The palate has a bit of creaminess,  nicely dry with just a bare hint of sweetness as the wine warms in the glass, and a refreshing mineral water blanket that wraps the flashy effervescence. It shows more fruit than yeast and the chalky, lemon finish lacks punch and interest, but these are minor quibbles at this price.

A wine like this must be accompanied by smooth insouciance,  a bubbly bass line, and staccato horn bursts like Kassin’s Relax (Luaka Bop)

Technical Notes: A blend of 50% Macabeo, 35% Parellada, 15% Xarello, made via méthode champenois. Segura Viudas has been part of the massive Freixenet Cava empire since the 1980’s and makes about 20 million bottles per year. This is their entry level wine.

Score: 89

Price: $13 (purchase here)

Alc: 12.5%

Thoughts on John Atkinson’s “Marketing Redux”



accidents will happenSeveral weeks ago I summarized a very interesting and thoughtful article by MW John Atkinson entitled “Marketing Redux”. Here is the original article and here is my summary. John’s thesis was that, despite calls from modern marketing types who want to see change in how we talk and think about wine, we will not see significant changes in wine going forward. This is because inertia in the wine industry is structural—it takes decades to produce wine, realize a profit and gain expertise . It thus doesn’t lend itself to sharp changes in fashion. Stylistic changes in modern winemaking that occur periodically are minor compared to radical innovations in the past such as Champagne, Sherry and Madeira. Moreover, we are locked into the French model of what wine should taste like and this is unlikely to change except in minor ways as we discover new regions and varietals.

John’s argument was well made and I found it persuasive. However, for me, skepticism and critique are occupational hazards; we philosophers are a contentious tribe. And so the more I thought about it, the more I think there are alternative ways of thinking about this question of change in the wine business.

First, it is important to note that the examples of radical change in the past that John lists, the development of Sherry, Madeira, and Champagne, were initiated by accidents. The development of flor on the surface of post-ferment wine was a happy accident thanks to the native yeasts and specific climate of Andalucia, Spain. The estufa method of making Madeira was developed after a ship had returned to Madeira from a long trip—the owner of the wine discovered he liked the taste of wine that had been cooked in the high heat of the ship’s hold. The Champenois had plenty of experience with unwanted,explosive bottle ferments as their cellars warmed up in the spring. The key  to the development of Champagne was the fact that the English and some French aristocrats decided they liked the bubbles.

The central component in the development of each new production method was its origin in happenstance and, importantly, the judgment of consumers that the accident was worth repeating intentionally. Thus, it wasn’t the flexibility, speed or responsiveness of the production process that encouraged development of alternative wine styles—it was accidents and people seeking new taste sensations. John is right that the slow pace of wine production limits rapid changes in fashion. But I’m not sure that tells us much about the possibility of future innovation which seems to be tangential to the normal course of production.

Accidents, of course, by their nature are impossible to predict.

John’s argument amounts to the claim that winemaking and winetasting have become  so normalized ( or as Deleuze would say territorialized) that forces of change (Deleuzian lines of flight) cannot emerge. Perhaps, but I’m not so sure. I see three difference engines that generate potential for significant change: nature is unpredictable, many winemakers, especially artisan producers not beholden to accounting departments, love to tinker and experiment, and among wine lovers there is a significant, influential coterie devoted to finding new taste sensations. These three difference engines are destabilizing and embody significant potential for change.

I agree with John that we are still under the sway of the French winetasting model where the best of Bordeaux, Burgundy and the Northern Rhone set a standard for what wine should be, a standard which the new world tries to emulate and surpass without substantial modification. But perhaps the natural wine movement represents an alternative. As John notes, simply doing without sulfur is not in itself a radical change in the image of wine. But as the examples of change noted above indicate, the potential for change resides more in consumer response than in production processes. As consumers become more enamored with off beat aromas and funky flavors we may find the image of wine changing toward a more adventurous cast where the taking of risks is its own reward.

Or taking a different angle, imagine a world in which the microbiome turns out to be the main input to terroir and can be manipulated to dial up organoleptic properties. The biodyanamic folks turn out to be right that flora and fauna in the vineyard have a profound influence on the grapes. And germ line modification becomes so precise that fine tuning flavor output becomes a fine art. Surely under those scenarios the current image of wine might shift with new possibilities that we cannot today imagine. (That marketing departments might be making these decisions is a terrible thought.)

None of this speculation is more plausible than the claim that the structural inertia of winemaking will prevent radical change. But betting on stasis throughout history has never been a reliable wager either.

For more on the philosophy of wine visit my Monday Column archives at Three Quarks Daily

A More Subtle Anti-Terroirism



vineyard soilGeologist Alex Maltman’s recent article on Decanter’s website, entitled “Busting Wine Terroir Myths: The science of soil and wine taste”, contains much useful information, but several of his claims strike me as misleading. Maltman is a leading authority in the field, and author of the highly regarded  Vineyards, Rocks, and Soil: The Wine Lover’s Guide to Geology. As I am not a soil scientist, I have no basis for challenging the scientific claims he makes. My worries have more to do with the sweeping skeptical conclusions he draws and the central role of a straw man argument that does too much work in the article.

The main thrust of his argument is that climate, weather, and land topology play a much larger role in shaping the final product than does soil type. This may well be true and the evidence Maltman provides suggests as much. But for most people who believe terroir is central to wine quality, that would not be an utter surprise, and it would not diminish the argument for the importance of terroir. There are many definitions of terroir floating around and some people may mean “soil type” when using the term. But most wine writers and wine professionals include climate, weather, and land topology as central components in the concept of terroir. Maltman agrees with that broad definition but the rhetoric of his article suggests a broader assault on the concept than is warranted. There is a subset of “terroirists” who do focus specifically on soil type as a central input, but the idea of the importance of place conceptually doesn’t require it. If it turns out that weather is the main input, the sense of place would nevertheless be secure.

But my main worry is that giant straw figure perched in the middle of the text. Many years ago, wine writers often waxed poetic about mineral flavors in wine by suggesting they were directly transferred from the soil to the wine. As Maltman points out, this idea has been shown to be false. Most of the minerals taken up by the vines have no flavor and in any case there is no mechanism for such a transfer to take place. Some wines do exhibit flavors reminiscent of gravel, flint, wet stone, salinity, etc. But they are not a copy or representation of minerals in the soil. In other words, you’re not literally tasting soil when you sip on your Riesling.

My problem is that no serious wine educator or writer with a modicum of experience has made such a claim in many years. Soil scientists were routinely pointing out this fallacy 10-15 years ago, the wine press dutifully reported it, and the wine community has largely accepted the point. This is no longer part of the conversation. Maltman quotes someone without attribution making such claims:

We read, for example, that ‘the vine transmits its nutrients all the way from the stony soils to the final wine’ and ‘the vines sip on a cocktail of minerals in the vineyard soil, for us to taste in our wineglass’.

Read where? For controversial claims that support sweeping generalizations it would be nice to have a source attribution.

Professor Maltman makes several interesting claims that are worth attending to:

  • Warm rocks radiating heat into the vineyard on cool nights are unlikely to have much effect on the grapes.
  • Whatever mineral uptake there is by the vines, the rootstock rather than the cultivar would matter more.
  • Organic material, including the microbiome, in the soils may play an essential role in explaining properties of the wine.
  • Irrigation can overcome deficiencies in the water retention properties of the soil

These are all useful points, although that last claim is one that I have seldom heard discussed and seems to contradict the widely held belief that water retention properties of the soil are crucial.

But it seems to me Professor Maltman misses the forest while focused on the trees. He dismisses as mere anecdote testimony from winemakers and growers that soil type produces differences in wines. But the alleged connection between soil and wine properties is more than an occasional stray story. For centuries, winemakers and viticulturists throughout the world  have observed the connection between soils and what they taste in the wine. These are not mere anecdotes but a massive data set of correlations that must be explained. There clearly is something going on despite the fact that we don’t quite know how to explain it. Maltman writes that

Certain vine cultivars are often said to suit particular rocks: Chardonnay and limestone, Syrah and granite, for example. But much of this derives from the geology that happened to be where a cultivar first flourished; Syrah and Chardonnay thrive today in many soil types.

But the issue isn’t whether cultivars can grow well in various soils. The issue is whether various soils create different flavor and texture profiles when planted with suitable grapes. The claim that Pinot Noir and Chardonnay have interesting organaleptic properties when grown in limestone is not a casual, unreflective claim but an idea that has been widely accepted by thoughtful, attentive experts making  careful observations. Of course, these observations of a correlation by themselves don’t prove a causal connection between soil and wine properties. But they are more than just anecdotes. That well established correlation must be explained or explained away. Perhaps it is all about the weather. But if so that entails rather substantial, widespread, independent errors on the part of competent observers.

In summary, Professor Maltman seems to conflate the claim that perhaps terroir functions differently than we thought with the claim that terroir matters less than we thought.

It’s worth mentioning another assumption that informs Professor Maltman’s article. He seems to assume that if soil type is important to wine quality, the influence of the soil must be a direct causal influence. But nothing in the concept of terroir requires that assumption. It is conceivable, again without knowing the science,  that The influence may be indirect yet nevertheless substantial.

For example, Maltman writes:

All organisms require nutrients in particular proportions, but whereas animals like ourselves ingest them in bulk and have internal mechanisms (liver, kidneys etc) to sort and expel the excess as waste, plants such as vines regulate them on the way in.

How? Put simply, the vine has an armory of sophisticated mechanisms aimed at selecting and balancing its nutrient uptake as required, even varying it as the growing season progresses.

It would be interesting to know if variations in these sophisticated mechanisms that balance nutrient uptake are chemical reactions to variations in soil type. If so, might these chemical changes in the vine influence flavor? That would be an indirect influence of the sort I have in mind.

There is much about this topic we don’t know, but the fact that we haven’t discovered the mechanism is not by itself sufficient to warrant the conclusion that a correlation is spurious.