The Terroirists Win!

vineyard soil 2This is interesting in itself from a “look what we can do” perspective:

What if it were possible to prove that every vineyard soil, anywhere in the world, had an individual and identifiable fingerprint? And what if you could prove that that fingerprint continues through into the grape and then into the wine? And doesn’t change throughout the lifetime of the wine? What then?

It’s a mind-boggling idea, is it not? But if you’re a forensic scientist, it’s not as mind-boggling as all that. You can analyze cotton to see where it comes from, and to make sure that everybody in your supply chain is telling you the truth. If the unique characteristics of a place can be detected even after all the processes that cotton undergoes, why not wine?

It looks like this is doable according to Oritain, a New Zealand forensics company. They sample vineyard soil, testing for 42 of the elements on the periodic table. Each patch of land will have its own chemical signature. They also sample the grapes and the finished wine. Apparently that chemical signature is reflected in the finished product and  neither fermentation nor aging affects it. Thus, it is possible to authenticate where a wine came from based on the chemical makeup of the wine.

The obvious drawback is that you have to take the wine out of the bottle to test it, although the article claims mass spectrometry through the bottle is feasible. The other problem is that most wines are blends from different vineyards and/or regions or different portions of vineyards with unique soil characteristics. I’m not sure how that is accounted for although I would imagine if you know the percentage of grapes from each vineyard that go into a wine, some fancy statistical analysis will get you useful information.

This may well be a gamechanger in helping to prevent wine fraud at least for the high end brands that can afford it. Furthermore, it has some theoretical implications:

(1) It seems to weigh heavily on the side of the terroirists in the debate raging a few years ago about whether terroir was real or a mere figment of romantic imaginations. It is apparently real and decisive in explaining the chemical makeup of a wine. However, forensic analysis by itself won’t tell you how the chemical imprint influences flavors and aromas. For that you have to taste.

(2) Nevertheless, it should significantly increase our knowledge about what factors do influence wine aromas, flavors and textures if we can draw causal inferences from chemical makeup to flavor profiles, which can be done through pairwise comparisons.

(3) This knowledge might be quite useful to wineries and viticulturalists in deciding what sites to develop into vineyards and what they might expect from a site.

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