Complexity and differentiation are the drivers of the wine world. If we cared about neither wine would be a commodity like orange juice, a homogeneous product with 2 or 3 mega-producers battling for competitive position via marketing and price.
We know that complexity and differentiation in wine are a function in part of geographical location with climate and weather playing the most significant role. But we also know that grapes harvested from regions with similar weather can produce vastly different wines even when we hold winemaking techniques constant. It seems like the soil matters a great deal in explaining why wines have their unique characteristics.
Yet when I ask winemakers what it is about the soil that explains the differences in wine aromas and flavors the answer I usually get is “water and heat retention characteristics”. Soil types differ in their capacity to retain water and hold heat. The problem is lots of soil types share water and heat retention characteristics but produce different wines. The mineral composition of the soils probably plays a role but the the science on this is controversial.
In short, we still don’t know how wine creates the magical diversity we all love.
The newest theory attracting lots of attention is that it’s the bugs in the soil that are influencing the character of the wine. Deborah Parker Wong in SommJournal reports on a research project conducted by Spanish biochemist and wine importer Paco Cifuentes and the U.S./Spanish company Biome Makers. They use DNA sequencing to evaluate the microorganisms in various vineyards and then show correlations with the flavor and texture of the finished product. Dr. Ignacio Belda of Biome Makers reports:
…microorganisms exist that act along the fermentation cycle, modifying existing compounds in juice and must; they can also add other characteristics, some of which could include expressions of minerality.
The more bugs you have to begin with, the more potential you’ll have for diverse chemical compounds in the finished wine…
This is exciting research, perhaps inching us closer to unlocking the mystery of wine. Winemakers may soon be competing to see who can create the most robust bacterial soup in their vineyards.