The French have an expression that relates the taste of a wine to the place in which it was grown: gout de terroir. It is loosely translated to taste of the earth or sense of place. Winemakers in every country try to identify such relationships for two reasons. First, it may help them understand their wines. And second, the concept can be used to differentiate their product from the competition.

Recently, a Portland area winewriter (hereinafter identified by the pseudonym “The Scribbler”) tried to cover the subject. However, a very important something was left unsaid, and because of it, the reader is left to misinterpretation of the term taste of the earth.

On my first reading of the column, I came away with the very distinct impression that The Scribbler believes that the soil holds some aromas and flavors that are carried over intact from the soil to the grapes and finished wine.

That is not what the French mean by the term gout de terroir.”

“Gout de terroir,” “taste of the soil,” “taste of the earth” and “sense of place” all mean the same thing. It defines a sensory profile, in aroma, taste and tactile sensation, that is common to wines grown in the same terroir. To the French, terroir includes the soil, the climate and topography, three conditions that are inseparable.

So, soil is not a factor that can be isolated, in terms of its effect on wine qualities. You cannot grow the grapes, especially Pinot Noir, in the same soil type, but different topography and microclimate, and expect to get the same results.

Going a step further, the effects of climate on the vine are significantly shaped by the vineyard’s row direction, trellis configuration and vine spacing because they determine how much, and when, solar radiation is received by the vine canopy. These factors must also be taken into consideration. If the winemaker employs wild, native yeast for the vinification, then we have another significant contributing factor that is not transferrable from one site to another.

Oh yes. We cannot ignore the clone. The clonal selections of Pinot Noir are many. Each clone tends to bear its own signature of aromas and flavors, further complicating the influence of soil on wine.

I’m going to cut the two wineries in the article some slack here. They seem to be very knowledgeable people about wine and well-intentioned. It is The Scribbler who is responsible for conveyance of the winemakers’ true message to wine consumers. To understand this subject further, it is instructive to take a brief trip through how a wine’s characteristics are derived from the soil and grapevine.

Soils are not homogeneous throughout. The “A horizon” (topsoil) may only be 6-12 inches. Some soils have “A,’ “B,” “C,” and deeper horizons. It depends on how the soil was built up over millions of years. Typically, about 85% of a vine’s root system is located in the first 18 inches of soil depth. The remaining 15% will go deeper, depending on the vine’s need to access water in the dry  months, and the soil’s composition which may, or may not, permit the roots to grow through it. In some soils, the root system can reach down 40-60 feet in search of water. (This subject will be pursued further in Wine Soils II; Cornelius Gets Short Shrift.)

Grapevines take up nutrients and minerals from the soil entirely by ion exchange at the root hairs. Hydrogen ions (H+) are given up by the root in exchange for nutrient and mineral ions from the soil. So, the mix of ions entering the vine is different within each soil layer, and is strongly influenced by the soil’s pH (electron bonds may be strong or weak).

So, where did the winemakers get the soil samples? Did they try to duplicate the roots’ exposure to materials. Did they take parts from 2”, 6”, 10”, 14”, 18”, 60” and 20 feet deep and mix them? Or, did the presence of solid basalt rock or high clay content block deep root penetration and eliminate the need to sample more deeply? Or, did they just gather what was easy, and take the whole sample from the top two inches?

In the first two inches of topsoil, we might expect to encounter several aromas and/or flavors. Elemental sulfur would be prominent, because environmentally-driven growers apply a lot of it. There might be some saltiness from dog piddle. Next, might be earthiness from the dung of sheep that were run through to mow the weeds. A barnyard character might be the result of cow manure buried in cows’ horns for the winter, then dug up at the spring solstice and added to a compost tea made of weeds, herbs and pruning debris, then sprayed on the vines. Biodynamic growers do that.

And, finally, we might have some mushroomy character resulting from development of Rosellinia necatrix, a fungus that grows on the vine trunk below the soil surface, between the woody bark and green cambium tissue. It results from a large amount of rotting woody material in the soil, and is mostly a threat in poorly-drained soils.

At the other end of the vine is the leaf canopy, the real engine room of the process. In photosynthesis, the leaf takes water, carbon dioxide and solar radiation from the atmosphere. The water gets broken down and hydrogen ions are sent to the roots for the exchange. Electrons are freed and enter the photosynthetic process. Free oxygen is released to the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide moves through the process to be used in the leaf and elsewhere for construction of many complex materials.

Photosynthesis yields simple sugar (sucrose later converted mostly to glucose and fructose), as well as the oxygen. The sugar is used in the leaf and other parts of the vine, and utilizes the nutrients and minerals from the roots, to create other sugars, organic acids, tannins, lignins (for the woody parts), and many other complex hydrocarbon molecules. Grape juice contains over 200 compounds. Wine contains somewhere around 300 different compounds.

Aroma and flavor constituents of the wine are evolved mostly in the leaf, but also in many other parts of the vine, before being sent to the grapes. To imagine that the grapevine can take ions from the soil and then reassemble them into the identical molecules that they were in the soil is preposterous. Grapevines don’t have brains or hard drives to store the information, even if they could reach behind the ions to discern what those ions were part of before they were dissolved in the soil’s water originally.

If you believe that the vine can do that, I might be interested in asking you how much time you spent last spring solstice, dancing around in Sam Hill’s Stonehenge replica at Maryhill, WA.

I’m more than happy to join superwriter Matt Kramer in his belief that “sense of place” is the best term to use for gout de terroir. It better conveys the meaning.

Editors note: Stay tuned for next week’s post when Jeff Lamy covers, “What is the best soil for Pinot Noir?”, an epic post not to miss.

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