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Wine Soils I; Gout de Terroir and The Dirteaters

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.

Photo credit: gout-de-terroir.blogspot.com

This post was written by:

- who has written 17 posts on Enobytes Wine Online.

Jeffrey L. Lamy - Master of Science, Winery Consultant, Economist and Author. Jeffrey is a 1960 Yale graduate in Industrial Administration and Mechanical Engineering. Later he added an MS in Business. As it is with many second-career winemakers these days, his wine education was gained from short courses and technical visits to U.S. and European wineries. From 1982 to 1992, he planned, built and ran a 400+ acre operation for a wealthy lumber family, serving as its general manager and chief winemaker. His wines won more awards than any other Oregon winery. After returning to full-time consulting, he designed more than 400 vineyards, designed a dozen wineries and directed the winemaking for six. To Enobytes.com, Jeff brings extensive knowledge in the technologies of grape growing and winemaking, experience in many regions, and keen insights of the entire business enterprise. He has written a book [on management of the winemaking business, which is expected to be in print soon.

Contact the author

23 Responses to “Wine Soils I; Gout de Terroir and The Dirteaters”

  1. Jeff V. says:

    So, the aroma and flavor (taste) distinction between Riesling grown in blue, red, or grey slate means little? The difference in flavors is leaf & vine related, not root related? Am I understanding your argument? To continue with my lack of understanding, should I also assume from your article that my bottle of Verdicchio tastes like saleen because the dogs owner pissed on a vine? This puts that “Vineyard Dogs” book into a whole new perspective. Lastly, shouldn’t we discuss the effects that yeasts have on the flavor profile of wine and its ‘terroir’?

    • Jeff Lamy says:

      Whoa, big fella! You’re on me like a chicken on a June Bug.

      I believe you have won the prize for the most misconstrued understanding of my writings.

      Please reread the article carefully. You should come away from the experience with a significantly different interpretation. If you had taken a course on chemistry, horticulture or soil mechanics, your comprehension would have been facilitated.

      This kind of reminds me of conducting winemaker dinners. At almost every one, there is a wine geek who has dedicated the evening to making a monkey out of the winemaker. Unfortunately, debating wine facts is not like politics. You simply cannot take an opposing-polar position, and hope that your audience will end up somewhere in the middle. Facts are facts.

      There is a mountain of false information foisted on wine consumers. Some emanates from people who don’t have the facts, but most of it is done simply to promote the sale of wines. Wine consumers seem to gobble it up.

      I share a philosophy with Pamela and Marc. We strive to usher the BS out of the discussion and bring the truth to deserving wine consumers.

      Looking forward to your next post,

      …Jeff Lamy

      • Jeff V. says:

        No, not trying to be the chicken to your June bug, just trying to get a better understanding of your sarcasm vs. chemistry facts.

        Yes, I must have missed your overall point.

        I completely agree that there is lots of false information out there. This certainly is a fact. But, this false information is also foisted on winemakers. You can cook a steak to 200 degrees in a grill or in an oven, but they are going to taste different.

        I’m not sure what BS you’re referring to? Yeast?

        • Jeff, regarding the BS comment, Lamy is referring in the holistic sense that there is a lot of BS out there and we’re (Enobytes) simply trying to tell it like it is without sugar coating or misrepresenting the facts.

    • Jeff, when you mention the effects that yeasts have on the flavor profile of wine and its ‘terroir’, I don’t think I agree(along with Lamy) that this is part of the discussion.

      Per Lamy, the yeast strains used for fermentation are properly part of the winemaking process, not the growing of grapes. If the winemaker chooses to rely on wild yeasts for fermentation, rather than laboratory-produced strains selected from famous growing areas or for desired performance characteristics, that is a choice made in the winery. Most American winemakers use the cultured strains because of performance and reliability. Wild yeasts originate in the vineyard and travel to the winery on the grapeskin’s waxy bloom. They can be difficult to work with, particularly in the early winery years, before the vineyard is seeded with the yeast that survived fermentation, by spreading the grape pommace in the vineyard.

      …and per Lamy, middle Mosel Rieslings are unlikely to utilize wild yeasts. German winemakers prefer reliability and control. It’s something about the German culture (people, not yeast strains). The Research Institute at Geisenheim, the world’s best, has isolated yeast strains that work best for each ripeness level of the grapes, and those strains are used in American wineries.

      Lamy will discuss more about yeast strains used in fermentation in his upcoming article, scheduled to hit the eno newsstand on Wednesday.

      • Jeff V. says:

        Pamela,

        Excited for the yeast article. Admittedly, the ‘science’ aspect of wine is an area that I strive to learn more about.

        Certainly, one of the most frustrating/fascinating aspects of grape growing and winemaking are all of the dynamic choices that growers and winemakers make.

        Understanding these difference based on region, grape, site, and ‘normal’ practices is part of the fun!

        • I share your excitement! Even with my chemistry background, I’m astonished with the process to make a finished product. I remember taking a UC Davis winemaking class and how infatuated I was with a winemaker decision chart that listed out a ton options—when to harvest? Crush? Destem? Whole berries? Add SO2? How much? Adjust acid? Inoculate? Fermentation temp? Vessel? Size? Type of press? Program? Barrel aging? Oak? How much toast? Percentage of new barrels? Racking? Fining? How much? Cold stabilization? Ion exchange? Make a couple of bad decisions and you’re struggling to make it right or maybe you have an unsalvageable wine after a really bad decision. I have a newfound respect for winemakers!! There is so much to learn about winemaking and viticulture.

  2. Acrylic says:

    However not all areas suitable for growing grapes

  3. FDM says:

    This is a great review of terroir, thank you Jeff!

  4. JL,

    Great story thanks for your contributions, substance and facts. Something a lot more scribblers should get a handle on.

    I am now back from Portugal; highlights were tasting 1890, 1910,1932, 1957 and 1963 vintage ports. Stories to follow soon.

  5. Jeff Lamy says:

    To Jeff V:

    If you have an urgent need for info on yeast strains and their properties, I suggest you go to Scott Laboratories’ website and download their “Fermentation Handbook.”

  6. Tom Darnell says:

    To better understand the concept of terroir a review of James Wilson’s work is in order.

    In the Sept. 2001, Vol. 8, No.3 issue of Geoscience Canada the article by Wilson, “Geology and Wine: The Origin and Odyssey of Terroir” is a must read for those wanting to learn more about terroir.

    Wilson is also the author of, Terroir, The Role of Geology, Climate, and Culture in the Making of French Wines.

    In the Geoscience Canada article Wilson defines terroir as “…a concept…not easily grasped but includes physical elements of the vineyard habitat–the vine, subsoil,siting, drainage and microclimate. Beyond the measurable ecosystem, there is an additional dimension–the spiritual aspect that recognizes the heartbreaks, the pride, the sweat, and the frustration of its history.”

    An important issue regarding terroir in the Walla Walla Appellation is what are the impacts on terroir by applying fertilizers-including micronutrients, compost, irrigation etc to vineyard soils.

    This issue was addressed by Walt Gary, WSU Cooperative Extension Service (retired) in 2002 when he asked Wilson “If one raises wine grapes in such a manner as to apply numerous applications of insecticides and herbicides along with foliar and possible soil applied fertilizers and irrigates to supplement the natural precipitation for a site, then can that site and its wine be talked of in terms of terroir conceptually.”

    Wilson replied, “The question is a very significant one. I would say that grapes grown in the fashion you describe could be questioned as having come from a terroir–especially when the property has been irrigated. As I point out, irrigation is strictly forbidden in the appellation vineyards of France.”

    Wilson also states, “Although terroir has become something of the buzzword of the American wine industry, you will be interested in the enclosed article (Geoscience Canada Vol 28 No 3) which describes the origin and true meaning of the word. …but I would be happy if the true meaning of terroir was more widely known and more judiciously applied.”

    Isn’t terroir then the sum total of the natural components that result in the particular characteristics of wine from different sites.

    Another issue is how old does a vineyard have to be before it achieves terroir? Can a five year old vineyard and its wine have terroir?

    Can a vineyard with consistently overly vigorous wines also achieve terroir?

  7. Tom Darnell says:

    I spent 35 years of my professional career in the WW Valley. Seven years as an agriculturist (fieldman) for Birdseye Frozen Foods and 28 year as the county agent in Milton-Freewater, OR where I had responsibly for several crops in Umatilla and Walla Walla counties. I worked closely with the wine grape growers on several important issues and although I retired in 2006 and moved to Central Montana I still have an ongoing interest in the wine grape happenings. I frequently enjoy a bottle of merlot, with a perfect steak, from the WW valley.

    My intent, from my previous post, was to stimulate discussion on what terroir is and isn’t. Hopefully, someday, we can all agree.

    When considering the WW AVA it is important, I believe, to distinguish the vineyards and grapes grown on the cobbly loam soils of the WW River floodplain from grapes grown on the deep, highly productive silt loam soils above the floodplain. The differences are obvious and require different management practices. Do these differences impact terroir? Can an AVA with these differences achieve terroir “across the board”?

    I believe terroir is the expression of the natural characteristics of a particular site imparted to the grapes without the unnecessary influence of soil amendments and similar practices.

    I also believe that terroir is achieved over time with consistent management practices and inputs. Is a four year old overly vigorous vineyard the same as a 40 year old vineyard that has adequate but not excessive vigor? I wonder when I see excessive vine growth with leaves as big as dinner plates!

    Do severely winter-damaged vines and uneven crops relate to terroir?

    How do winemakers impact terroir if is measured by the finished product?

    For more to think about check out, several articles re. terroir @ wineanorak/terroir.

  8. Carroll B. Merriman says:

    By posting this I am aiming to share a group of the topfast and easy hairstyles. A few days back while running around and needed quick Hair Style Advice for a a birthday party I researched and read this page (will post link) that had lots of very elegant yet easy enoughto obide by. My intentions for posting this article is to share knowledge that made my life more time efficient. I truely hope this was of good use to you! Thank you for your time!

    • Tom Darnell says:

      Carroll, you comment is totally useless (junk mail) and should not have been posted here. This is a site for discussion of vineyard soils and their influences on grape and wine quality.

      I look forward to a post that relates.

  9. sky habitat says:

    Spot on with this write-up, I honestly believe this web site needs a great deal more attention. I’ll probably be back again to read through more, thanks for the info!

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. [...] Tasting (MadWine) Wine Soils I; Gout de Terroir and The Dirteaters (Enobytes) Rôtie Cellars: Walla Walla’s Rhone-style Specialist (Winepeeps) Ever Want to Visit [...]

  2. [...] between terroir and geology. They were raised in response to the September 21, 2011 article: Soils I: Goût de Terroir and The Dirteaters. The reader is advised that the bibliographical citations for Soils I were all listed at the end of [...]

  3. [...] did. Before go on, I have to say I have a soft spot for Bordeaux’s. I’ve always loved there “Gout de terroir”, or the flavor that these wine makers can extract from the soil to the grapes to the wine. They [...]

  4. [...] did. Before go on, I have to say I have a soft spot for Bordeaux’s. I’ve always loved there “Gout de terroir”, or the flavor that these wine makers can extract from the soil to the grapes to the wine. They [...]


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