The greatest pleasure to be had writing a wine blog is that of discovery. And today, while researching the health benefits of wine, this is what I found: A certain Paolo Mantegazza (1831-1910) had recently returned from a trip to Peru, and intrigued by the local’s use of coca leaves, he tried them himself. He was inspired, shall we say, and went on to successfully isolate the active ingredient, cocaine, (other sources credit Albert Niemann) and to write, in 1858, a paper entitled On the Hygienic and Medicinal Properties of Coca and On Nervous Nourishment in General, a paper promptly read by French chemist Angelo (Ange-Francois) Mariani, (1838-1914). In 1863 Mr. Mariani produced and marketed Vin Mariani, the world’s first cocawine. It must be remembered that coca was then poorly understood, its addictive properties unknown. Addiction itself, as a physiological condition, was limited to morphine, a grim consequence of The Civil War. Indeed, during what has been called The Great Binge (1870-1914) all species of newly synthesized drugs were naïvely blended in every consumable, from cough syrups, cordials, to children’s toothache drops. So, stateside, Mr. Mariani, when met with stiff competition from similar domestic tonics, upped his cocaine content from 6 mg per fluid ounce to 7.2 mg per fluid ounce. Enter John Pemberton (1831-1888), a Confederate Civil War veteran and pharmacist out of Georgia. Mr. Pemberton’s biography is too litigious to tease out here. Let’s just say he developed a rival product, and that it, too, was designed to promote health, which in his case included relief from morphine addiction, his and others. Introduced in 1881, it is alleged his vinous product contained 8.46 mg of cocaine per fluid ounce.
Now, all of the above is a fairly routine gloss. I’ve done little more than piece together elements from lazy, contentious public sources. However, what follows is a bit more rigorous. It seems cocawine lives on. In Bolivia, for example, there exists a small family-run company, Coincoca. Melby Paz, owner of Coincoca, like many small Bolivian coca drink producers, she provides necessary cultural continuity. In addition to cocawine, her company sells coca-laced remedies for everything from simple coughs to diabetes and obesity, but sells only domestically. Of far greater moment is Vin Mariani Winery , a new Peruvian wine concern. They have resurrected Angelo Mariani’s brand. Coca wine is back, and the new Vin Mariani Winery is looking for markets. I encourage you, dear reader, to take a moment and wander through their web-site linked above. I am especially fond of their Tour de Peru. And if you’ve the time or inclination read the publicity from their U.K. based company, Mariani Amalgamated Ltd. I’ve been told Vin Mariani Winery has an international campaign in the works for sports drinks. Look for them at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Down the rabbit hole we go.
Links updated 7/1 and again 8/28
The Chameleon Indonesian Restaurant, Temple Bar, Dublin.
This was my first trip to the Emerald Isle and I was only here for one night with my colleague Matt. Our contact was Adrian, and after a hard day’s work we invited him for a few drinks and a meal to take advantage of his local knowledge. I’m a big Asian food fan and once he’d mentioned an Indonesian restaurant in the area no further options were needed.
The front of the Chameleon is unassuming, easily mistaken for a traditional pub, but closer inspection shows the numerous awards won over the last 11 years. Inside we were shown upstairs to the first floor where we removed our shoes and sat, cross-legged, at the traditional tables. The menu concentrates on Rijst Tafel – a selection of different bite-sized dishes covering all that Indonesia has to offer, each one aimed at giving a single person a hearty introduction to the cuisine.
As all three of us were hungry we went for Rijst Tafel 1, 2 and 3 as I looked at the wine list. The Fred Loimer 2006 Grüner Veltliner from the Kamptal seemed a perfect choice. Grü-V is a delicious white variety I first tried a few years ago and I’m always keen to expand my experience of it, plus I recall it matching well with Asian food and neither Adrian nor Matt had had any of Austria’s finest before, so I was honour-bound to show them what they were missing. It was served well chilled and had a crisp, floral aspect that had us half-way through the bottle before the main dishes had arrived!
As for the food, well, I’m going to blame the couple of pints of Guinness we had after the meal for my incomplete notes, but the Rempah Daging (spicy meatballs), Sate Ayam (Chicken Satay) and Beef Rendang were the stars of the show and suffice to say it was all absolutely delicious and nothing made it back to the kitchen!
The final bill for 3 was approx. £100 which is a little bit on the pricey side (at least as far as my boss is concerned!) but the food and atmosphere are well worth it and this is a must-visit restaurant for anyone with a few days in Dublin, only Amsterdam is guaranteed to have better Indonesian in the region.
I have enjoyed the wines of M. Chapoutier for many years. But I have never understood the odd raised bumps on the labels until a serendipitous find on the internet: they compose, in fact, a Braille text giving the sight-impared information as to winemaker, appellation, the name of the wine, vintage, and whether red or white. M. Chapoutier has been labelling bottles in Braille since 1996. And as written on his well-designed web page “Far from being anecdotic, this symbol draws its origin from the very history of the Hermitage vineyard.
Maurice Monier de La Sizeranne, owner of the plot of the Hermitage, la Sizeranne, is also the inventor of the first version of abbreviated Braille. The trademark pays tribute to this man but also expresses the desire to reach out to and include all people with sight-impairments, lovers of good wines.”
I have never before reflected on how great must be the effrontery to the independence of 10 million blind and vision-impaired Americans alone caused by the absence of Braille labels not only on wine bottles but on virtually all consumables, commodities generally. I cannot remember having ever seen a sight-impaired soul in a wine store. Are Braille tasting notes published? And Braille wine books? James Halliday writes in his Wines of Australia a gloss on Mount Eyre Vineyard, and of their blind winemaker, C.P. Lin, he says, “…he has also translated The Oxford Companion to Wine into Braille”(!) One question follows upon another….The short of it: I think Chapoutier’s idea is a good one.
Other wineries and label companies have since followed, but very slowly. The Confrerie des Chevaliers du Tastevin now provide Braille labels. 2004 saw the arrival of Braille labels on bottles from the South African organic producer Bon Cap. In 2005 an Irish label company, Designerwine stepped up. As did the Czech wine producer Galant in 2006. And in a new development, Pyrotech has begun producing wine bottles in Braille.
My list is by no means complete. There are at least a dozen other small wineries around the world using Braille labels, all wineries with a very modest ‘international’ profile to be sure, but which nevertheless strive to bring a greater independence to the lives of the sight-impaired. Larger wineries should make the effort, too. Wine is the most social, civilized of drinks. It is only right that everyone have a seat at the table.
How many Native American wineries are there in the United States? Just one, Native Vines Winery outside of Lexington, in the Yadkin Valley, Davidson County, North Carolina’s first AVA. The state is currently ranked 10th in grape and wine production in the United States. Quite an achievement. But North Carolina may now also boast of Native Vines Winery. Bonded in 2006, Native Vines Winery is entirely a family affair. The delightful family matriarch and winemaker Darlene Gabbard began making fruit wines more than nine years ago as a way of more productively using the bounty of apples and blackberries growing on the family’s 36 acre property, fruit that would have otherwise gone to waste. Plantings of vinifera vines soon followed; Pinot Noir, Chenin Blanc and Merlot (clones unknown) in the beginning, to which have been recently added Syrah, Riesling and Viognier, all of her favorites. She explained to me that she has never attended a viticultural school, is entirely self-taught.
And an environmentally sensitive, native ethic pervades her work. Indeed, in the vineyards lime sulphur spray is sparingly used to control endemic Pierce’s Disease and sporadic beetle invasions. In the winery she is equally green. After fermentation of most cuvées to off-dry, she limits the use of oak chips to wines aging in containers other than the more expensive American oak barrels used for the balance of her production. She dislikes the modern over-use of oak, “When I drink wine, I don’t want to taste the tree in my back yard”. She does not filter or add sulfites as a rule, yet Darlene has not sought an ‘Organic’ designation owing to the requirement that she be free to “do what is necessary” to save a vintage.
Screw caps are a non-starter for her. No romance, undignified. A synthetic cork was used for her last vintage but she objected to an obvious oily residue left in the wine from the proprietary coating designed to ease insertion into the bottle. So she washed clean the synthetic corks, each and every one of them! Natural cork will be used for each vintage from here on.
Native Vines produced about 1000 gallons of fruit and vinifera wines this year; next year, 5000 gallons is projected owing to vines coming into production on land owned in Surry County to the north. Down the road, the winery will top out at 10,000 gallons.
Darlene Gabbard will soon give what she modestly calls “a grape growing lesson” at the UNC in Pembroke, home of the Lumbee Tribe, to which she and her family belongs. She is a very energetic personality, quite a persuasive marketer. At the end of my interview, I bought half a mixed case!
I was preparing a post on the NMR machine fabricated at UC Davis designed to non-invasively evaluate the quality of precious wine, when my attention was drawn to an essay from a professor at the Virginia Tech’s Enology-Grape Chemistry Group about Chinese wine production. My supplementary question became how might NMR tech be used to combat counterfeit wines. However, one cautionary passage from the professor’s essay stopped me in my tracks:
“Over thousands of years, intensive breeding has rendered the silk moth (Bombyx mori) a blind, flightless, egg-laying machine[.]”
For those unfamiliar with an academic’s diplomatic double-speak required when having traveled and researched in a difficult country, let me offer a plausible translation: the message, subtle, is that production of fully technologically designed wines are only a matter of time. Indeed, far beyond detecting counterfeits and the simple evaluation of precious wine, I suggest NMR tech could one day neatly dovetail with the ancient lessons of silk moth domestication, and both provide new insights as to how a laboratory’s time might most profitably be spent building wine. Of course, proper anxiety over the rôle of science in overwhelming terroir and the homogenization/manipulation of wine generally is nothing new among the cognoscenti. Witness the recent dust-up over Mega Purple on another blog. But what might the public’s response be when the increasing centrality of science reaches a cultural ‘tipping point’ and becomes widely known, whether through bottle label reforms, the blogosphere or mainstream media? Will Joe Twelve-case particularly care? Altar or sacramental wines suggest one possible answer. Let me try to explain.
According to the Wine Institute’s 2005 figures, the Vatican City State of 932 souls consumed over 62 liters or 16 1/2 gallons of wine per capita that year, the highest rate in the world. It is reasonable to assume a fair percentage was altar wine. Mexico, by contrast, though hardly less pious, consumed a mere .14 liters, a little over a cup for each of its 107.5 million persons, 1/2 less wine than Mongolia! Understanding the importance of Catholicism in Mexico and the indispensable role wine plays in the celebration of Mass, I am suspicious of the low figure. Yet, try as I might I can find no reliable figures as to the percentage consumption of altar wine in that country. A partial explanation for this dearth of information must no doubt be proprietary. It is the Church’s business, after all. (And perhaps my limited time and research skill play a part!)
And even finding figures for the United States proves difficult. But we do have major producers of altar wines here that provide clues. The historically important Mont La Salle, near St. Helena, Ca., brands more than 150,000 gallons of sacramental wine a year. Sold to proper Catholic authorities, and to Lutheran denominations in the U.S., Canada, Mexico and Pacific Rim countries, they do a thriving business. As does the equally important San Antonio Winery in Los Angeles. They produce 60,000 cases of altar wine per annum. To this distinguished list must be added Cribari Vineyards. A 1990 reference claimed their North American market share of altar wine at 90%, a figure I cannot confirm for 2007. They had the pleasure of providing the altar wine for Pope John Paul visit to Toronto in 2002.
Now, the most important feature of altar wines is that they must have the approbation of a Bishop. He alone can guarantee that the quality of a given winery’s production practices are in accordance with Canon Law 924.3. Nothing less than the reunification of God with his flock is at stake. However, it is generally felt that, with a few exceptions, in the main, altar wines are not very good. Needless to say, no terroir is either detectable or even desirable. They are sweet and simple, juicy and of a high alc., not unlike a Mollydooker, a good deal of Aussie syrah, and many boutique Cali cabs. In fact, I would argue that the current, dominant wine style, big, fat and structureless, without varietal distinction, shares more than just a flavor profile with altar wines. The dominant wine style, too, was born of the approval of an authority, whether a wine magazine or singular critic. Indeed, when the consumer drinks a wine on an advocate’s list they may thereby feel closer, more at one with the profound authority they follow. Authority informs flavor. And if I were running a winery I would look long and hard at how I might bring my vinous ‘product’ into line, and by whatever means necessary. Secular transubstantiation swells the bottom line, any marketer will tell you.
No, not Montana, New Zealand. But Montana, USA. First, a little history: Thomas Pinney, in his excellent A History of Wine in America , writes, “Here, at the end of this narrative of America’s long struggle to discover the ways and means of winegrowing, what can be said about those states that have so far received no mention? In a few cases, almost nothing. So far as I know, the states of North and South Dakota, Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana do not figure even in a token way in the story I have to tell.” Indeed, as he continues in a footnote, “Montana and Wyoming did not become states until 1889 and 1890 respectively, and neither figures in any of the published reports or surveys after the dates of their statehood. There is now a winery operating in Montana, but it has, I think, no predecessor.” His was referring to Mission Mountain Winery, founded in 1979, Montana’s first Bonded winery. In fact, Montana now has at least eight commercial wineries. However, along with Mission Mountain, only two other wineries, as best as I can determine, make at least one cuvée exclusively from grapes grown on Montana soil: Flathead Lake Winery and Ten Spoon Vineyard and Winery. More about them in a moment.
I spoke with John Hilton, Deputy Director of the USDA Montana Field Office out of Helena, MT., and he found in the 2002 Agricultural Census for Montana 25 acres of grapes under cultivation in the entire state. The census is taken every five years. The next report will be released in early 2008. But whether information on wine grapes will be gathered is an open question. Far too little is being grown in the state to warrant the Govt. ink spilled. A pleasant surprise.
Working backward, believing a winery later established would have to work harder to brand itself in a small commercial environ, I spoke first with the affable Paddy Flemming of Flathead Winery, Montana’s 6th licensed winery. They began operations in 2003 and produce, in addition to a wide assortment of fruit wines, of course, but also a Gerwurztraminer and a Pinot Noir. The Gerwurtz is sourced from a 3000′ elevation 3 acre parcel on a nearby hillside of rocky, glacial moraine, a very interesting terroir, and the yield is about 1 and 1/2 tons per acre. Fermentation was done in stainless for the ‘06; the ‘07, to be released January 1st, was done in new American oak. 75 cases. The Pinot Noir is sourced from a 10 acre vineyard planted in 1983 in gently sloping loam nearer the lake. Three tons per acre is the yield. This will be Flathead Winery’s first Pinot, and will be released sometime in ‘09. 100 cases. This year’s grapes were picked days before the first snowfall. Indeed, it is the lake which provides a critical, temperate influence without which a vineyard would not prove viable. Intrigued by the ‘06 Gerwurtz, I asked whether the winery could ship to California. Paddy was not sure, went on to discover that a $10 per year permit from the state was required! Delivery is assured as soon as the paper work goes through.
I next spoke with Andy Sponseller, winemaker and co-owner of Ten Spoon Vineyard and Winery. Welder/pipe-fitter, former City councilman, Andy works with family and friends 4.5 acres of estate vineyards, all organic, or labeled with a lower designation in difficult years, “made with organic grapes”. A stone’s throw from the Rattlesnake Wilderness, a few miles outside of Missoula, MT, Ten Spoon grows a variety of French-American hybrids: Maréchal Foch, Frontenac, Leon Millot, Swenson Red and St. Croix, and St. Pepin. For 2007, they harvested more than 10 tons, (3 and 1/2 tons an acre was his estimate). At full maturity they hope their holdings to produce 17 tons. But for now they must be satisfied with 5500 cases(!) Unlike the Flathead area, warmed by the lake, they depend on the wind to flush the Rattlesnake Valley, rid the vineyards of frost. This year they harvested the 1st week of October, the whites came in much earlier. In fact, global warming figures prominently in their planning. Just as with Napa and Sonoma in California, along Montana’s ‘banana belt’, inclusive of Flathead Lake and Rattlesnake Valley, vignerons here, too, are experiencing longer, warmer growing seasons. (As brief aside, I chatted with Dave Stalling of the local chapter of the National Wildlife Federation about this matter. More later.) Andy has no barrel program. He uses oak chips because of the great expense of barrels, whether American, French, or other. Élevage is done occasionally in plastic barrels, but mostly in stainless. And he uses cork for all of his wines, saying that the cork industry has improved quality control and that ‘reductive’ issues have emerged with the screwcap. He sells 90% of the winery’s production locally, which includes the tourist trade, bien sûr, and 5% goes to a national following; the balance, I presume, is shared in the tasting room. Oddly, the winery has no Library Wines. I think I convinced him to begin one this year! And, a final observation, they have very entertaining labels.
Lastly, there is Mission Mountain Winery, the first Bonded winery in Montana. They are located near Flathead Lake. Their tasting room closed in October for the season. I was unable to speak with them for this post, hence I cannot offer anything other than what is already written on their well-developed website. Link above.
The Santa Cruz Mountains AVA was approved by the U.S. Treasury Dept. in 1981. It is hard to believe that only about 250 acres of vine were then under cultivation within its three county boundary. The appellation is defined by compelling elevation and climatic distinctions, and runs the length of the modest Santa Cruz Mountains, from Half Moon Bay to the north, to Mount Madonna in the south. Approximately 1500 acres are currently dedicated to the vine. An abundance of micro-climates and a hundred and fifty year tradition of strong, visionary personalities, makes for a wide variety of grapes grown and of stylistic expression, more so here than arguably anywhere else in California.
Central to the AVA’s creation was the hell raised, relentless from the 1950’s until his death in 1976, of Martin Ray, a winemaker originally located on Table Mountain, south of Montebello Ridge. He was obsessed with varietal distinction, a hands-off approach, and with the age-worthiness of his wines; and pushed hard, to put it politely, for other Santa Cruz Mountains producers to pursue his vision of Old World excellence singularly afforded by the region. However much despised in life, it is his delightful historical fate that the lofty winemaking standards he championed are today largely shared throughout the AVA.
And we are fortunate the beneficiaries of the AVA’s richness gathered in a small retail wine shop and tasting room in downtown Santa Cruz, Vinocruz. Opened in September of 2006 by J-P Correa and Jeffrey Kongslie, Vinocruz has fast become the ‘epicenter’ of our regional wines. Nearly all of the AVA’s more than 50 producers, including multiple cuvées and vintages, can be found on their well-lit and organized shelves. Tastings change daily. Martin Ray would be proud.
A short business trip over to Germany raised the possibility of trying out some of the less obvious local wines, and since German red wine not easily available in the UK, and has such a poor reputation, I decided to look a little closer at what was available in the country itself. I started in Giessen, a University town just north of Frankfurt which is closest to the Rheingau, Rheinhessen and Franken growing regions.
My colleague on this trip was Steffi, who favours dry and full bodied wines, so as we perused the wine list on the first night we were both concentrating on the reds. However the first to attract our attention was a white, the 2005 Silvaner Trocken from Weingut Hauck in Rheinhessen. Coming in at 12.5% abv this was rich and floral, a delicious wine to start the evening and only my second ever Silvaner (in Germany it is written with an ‘i’ unlike Alsace and Austria which use Sylvaner).
The hotel was the Altes Eishaus Weinstube, originally an ice-cream house but now a cosy lodging with a very quaint restaurant called the Pfannkuchenhaus (Pancake house) specialising, unsurprisingly, in savoury pancakes. For a main course I went for the Bauen Pfannkuchen with a smoked ham and onion filling. To accompany this we had the 2006 Portugieser Rotwein Trocken Qba by Weingut Volker Pfaffmann in Pfalz. Despite it’s name Blauer Portugieser is actually an Austrian variety used to make light red wines and this one was very light, but easy to drink with the mildly flavoured food.
In an attempt to add a bit more body to the evening’s drinking we finished with what promised to be a much richer red, a 2005 Spätburgunder, also from Weingut Hauck at 13% abv. Spätburgunder is a clone of Pinot Noir and is grown widely in Germany and Austria (where it is known as Blauburgunder) and is used to make medium bodies reds. Our one was a much deeper colour than the Portugieser and had a smoky nose that promised much, but unfortunately too much, as the flavour lacked depth, was bitter and it finished exceptionally fast. It seems that Herr Hauck is better at whites and at the end of the evening we both agreed that the Silvaner was the best of the selection.
I managed to pay a quick visit to a small convenience store before we had to leave Giessen, but unfortunately the selection was limited and mid-range at best.
A Dornfelder seemed the best option for a red, the Hemer 2005 Dornfelder Trocken from Rheinhessen. The label indicates Gutsabfullung meaning Estate Bottled and matured in Holzfass barrels. This came in at £5 ($10).
Hemer also produced one of the whites I selected, the Primus 06 Rivaner Trocken, also at £5. Rivaner is another name for Müller-Thurgau (a Riesling-Silvaner cross ) – although there are some claims that it is a distinct Riesling clone. In the 1970s more Müller-Thurgau was planted in Germany than anything else, but a bad winter in 1979 devastated crops and it has since suffered a popularity slump after being associated with the cheap and cheerful Liebfraumilch and Piesporter so prevalent in the 80s.
Finally I had to get a Riesling, but with the selection so limited I went for a historic and local reference instead, and chose the Justus von Liebig 2006 Rüdesheimer Riesling from the Rheingau. This is a commemorative bottle celebrating the 200th birthday of famous German chemist Justus von Liebig, after whom the University of Giessen is named and who also founded the company who created OXO! This set me back $11.
While none of these wines are for aging I’m hoping they will at least provide some pleasant drinking within the next year.
The next day saw a long drive up the autobahn to Bremen. Here we were staying in the very elegant Hotel Munte am Stadtwald next to the main city park and woods, close to the University. It was late when we arrived so we only had a light meal and a couple of glasses of wine to wash it down. I was determined to continue on the German red theme and ordered the Grossbottwarer Wunnenstein, 2005 Trollinger, 12% abv, from Bottwartal-Kellerei. I hadn’t even heard of Trollinger before, not having seen any on the shelves of the wine-stores back home, but it is also known as Schiava Grossa in Italy and is rumoured to be able to produce full bodied wines. Unfortunately this one failed miserably as any form of red, but I thoroughly enjoyed it anyway once I had mentally re-categorised it as a rosè, as which it was one of the best I’ve had! The deep ruby colour matched many a Spanish Rosado, it had a light berry nose and a Strawberry & Cream flavour to match.
If the manufacturer had marketed it as a dry rosè I’m sure it would win many fans, unfortunately this was the last nail in the proverbial coffin for my investigation into German reds, it had been 2 days and I needed something dry and full bodied. Before finishing that night I ordered a glass of South African Merlot, the Lourensford Five Heirs 2004 Merlot. W.O. Stellenbosch, 14.5%. Smooth and rich it just what was needed.
For the final night in Bremen we went to Del Bosco Trattorria, the Italian Restaurant in the Hotel. To my delight the menu contained one of my must have foods when I go to Germany, pan-fried calf-liver with onions (Kalbsleber mit zweibel), preceeded by a fantastic baked artichoke with prawns in a tomato sauce with grilled cheese topping.
We decided to stay Italian for the wine and went for the Masi Campofiorin 2004. IGT, Veneto. This is a Double fermeted Valpolicella Ripasso, made from Corvina & Molinara varieties, and is from a classic producer from the region – I’d had their Costasera Amarone Classico a few years ago which was an experience that has guaranteed a lifelong love-affair with Amarone. The ligher Campofiorin was a delicious and fruity accompaniment to the meal and the perfect red wine to finish a visit to Germany!
I have to say that, following this trip, my opinion of German red wines has not improved. Of the 4 main varieties used, Spätburgunder, Dornfelder, Portugieser and Trollinger, it is the first two that can (and I have to assume do) produce the more full bodied wines the British and American markets generally like, however locally the lighter reds seem to take preference and with these on offer I will stay with Riesling (or Silvaner if I can find it).
Greybeard, December 2007/ January 2008.
Mark Twain once observed, “The researches of many commentators have already thrown much darkness on this subject, and it is probable that if they continue we shall soon know nothing at all about it.” Terroir is such a subject. It simultaneously describes, mystifies, and annoys. Newbies fear it, wine merchants exploit it, professionals parse it. The chatter is considerable. So, then, what is it about the concept of terroir that generates such cultural noise? Precisely its ambiguity, which is also to say, its flexibility. Many a commentator will point out that no equivalent English definition exists. Yes and no. A quick glance at an early edition of the Oxford English Dictionary shows a sad little 15th century entry for terroir of a half-inch length, easily understood when placed against the multiple pages of definitions of soil, a historical synonym. Soil, in fact, comprehends terroir but only for the most philologically inclined. The French word terroir has perhaps been frozen in a pastoral avocation while the more inclusive English language juggernaut rolled on, allowing soil to accumulate centuries of scientific, cultural and poetic shades of meaning. Terroir remains, finally, semantically underdeveloped. Hence, I suggest, the concept of terroir, in its modern, discordant usages, is a consequence of its having been Balkanized by the academy, wine writers, and commercial interests, English-speakers in the main.
Indeed, terroir belongs to an abundance of modern lexicons including 1) the Scientific, specifically Geology and Enology; 2) the Historical, I would include select vignerons, some learned contemporaries, to be sure, though I’m thinking here especially of the attentive monks of Burgundy who, over hundreds of years found the finest sites; 3) the Cultural, our space; 4) the Experiential, everyday drinkers, our space as well; 5) and Everything else. For my purposes I will touch only on a bit of the Scientific material on the matter to illustrate my point.
Andrew Jefford, long a champion of terroir, writes in the introduction to his most excellent ‘The New France’ (see Books sidebar), Terroir “The Print of Place: Consistency, varietal character, depth of fruit, oak integration: these are qualities of absolute irrelevance to French AOC wine. Instead, its aim and its reason for being is to lend a sensual print to rock, stone, slope, and sky.” Contrast his remark to that of the great wine technologist Emile Peynaud, where in his ‘Connaissance et travail du vin’, he does not mention terroir at all, “The influence of climate, different varieties of grapes, picking the grapes at various stages of ripeness, vinification techniques, and methods of storing have all contributed to creating a considerable number of types of wine.” Neither does Marian W. Baldy PH.D mention terroir in her University Wine Course where she writes, “The composition of grapes is influenced by factors that modify their temperature and light-sensitive physiological processes [....] Some of the aroma- and flavor-modifying factors cannot be altered very much by cultural practices and have to be decided upon when the vineyard is planted. Grape variety, soil depth and texture, and climate are examples of these more fixed factors.” So what is the principle difference between Jefford’s position and those of Peynaud and Baldy? In Peynaud’s case, it is the omission of soil as a factor. In Baldy’s? Merely a shift to another semantic register.
To take two other academic examples. Geologist James E. Wilson writes in his book Terroir, (see Books sidebar) “Terroir has become a buzz word in English language literature. This lighthearted use disregards reverence for the land which is a critical, invisible element of the term. The true concept is not easily grasped but includes physical elements of the vineyard habitat – the vine, subsoil, siting, drainage, and microclimate. [T]here is an additional dimension – the spiritual aspect that recognizes the joys, the heartbreaks, the pride, the sweat, and the frustrations of its history.” Against this we have Dr. Ron S. Jackson, from his Wine Science, “[Terroir] has too often been misused to imply that it proves that regional wine, especially from famous regions, possess some unique and unreproducible sensorial character. [G]iven sufficient analysis, regional wines usually can be differentiated chemically. However… [e]vidence does not support the view that individuals can consistently detect or recognize such differences.” The contrast among these two authors? Dr. Jackson simply does not entertain Wilson’s “spiritual aspect”. It is not relevant to his understanding of the concept. Yet he does concede “regional wines usually can be differentiated chemically”, but are just not humanly perceptible(!) And with respect to Jefford’s? Still from ‘The New France’, “[T]he only trustworthy wine tastings are those conducted ‘blind’, that is without sight of bottles or labels.” Again, no strong contradiction as such among authors, merely greater or lesser borrowings from the flexible semantic field of a shared word, terroir.
It has been rightly said that scientists are educated but uncultured and that those in the Humanities are cultured but uneducated. Terroir is a word that belongs to both worlds. It is, therefore, hardly surprising that, baring the welcomed ascendance of academic hybrids, the noise will continue.
Yes, the historically important Mission grape is still being used in California for blends and even for 100% variety bottlings. About 1000 acres of Mission remain under cultivation here, roughly the same acreage as Petit Verdot! Though a far less distinguished grape than PV, nevermind Cabernet or Zinfandel, the other ‘founding’ California vine, the Mission grape possesses an unrivaled caché in the state. Still used as a blending grape for fortified sacramental wines and inexpensive Gallo and Robert Mondavi bottlings, there also exist a few higher end, charming efforts, more about which in a moment.
The padres vinified as they were able, using cowhides stitched together for the crushing, done underfoot. The juice was then poured into any available receptacle for fermentation. (Often the results, if fermented to dry reflected poorly on the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, shall we say. So Brandy was frequently added to the grape juice at the crush, arresting fermentation altogether, California’s first contribution to the world of wine: Angelica.) But with respect to modern expressions of Mission many a palate comes away with the impression of a sweet, simple wine, very pale, almost rosé in color. While not exactly disappointing, drinkers find Mission wine has very little structure. Tannins are virtually absent, alc tends to be nearly 15%, with little effort on the winemaker’s part to manipulate largely because of the historical significance of the drinking experience itself.
Yet it is also true that the term Mission may refer to any number of cultivars brought initially from Spain, often as seeds, to be grown not only on the lands of the Catholic Church’s 21 Missions in California over a 75 year history, but also in the larger South West and in Mexico for far longer. It has only recently been determined by using modern DNA techniques that at least one cultivar is in fact Listan Prieto, a grape rare in Spain today. Yet, apart from probable clonal variations of the Listan, we have historical ‘tasting notes’, typically the passing observations of travelers and explorers, which suggest when compared today, that at a minimum, two other varieties of early vines were planted in Alta and Baja California. Additionally, it is possible hybridization took place between Mission grape(s) and wild species Vitis girdiana and Vitis californica. The difficulty of teasing out the historical facts of the matter are multiple, the greatest of which is the paucity of surviving vines.
Be that as it may, for the purposes of this article I recently had the pleasure of drinking one of the finest 100% Mission wines still available: Rocco Malvini’s Com’ è Bella 2002 Vallecito Vineyards Mission. The nose is sweet, (alc. @ 14.3%, though I think it is closer to 15%) with dark, ripe plum and fig. Color quite light, a hint of orange, but does not taste oxidized. Vanilla cream and milk candy, followed by an expansive soft mid-palate of vanilla and plums. Finish has just a bit of acid, no tannin to speak of. Very fruity, oak notes close the experience. All in all, quite a bit better when done in French Oak rather than cowhide!
A very simple wine, to be sure, but also charming, like the man himself. I had the pleasure of speaking with Rocco. Somehow ended up with his home number. A humble man, he’ll sign your bottles should you make it to Com’ è Bella’s tasting room in Murphys, Ca., though now under very capable new ownership, renamed Bodega del Sur Winery. Wander in, have a chat with the man. Rocco is an important link to a swiftly changing vinous landscape.
PBS aired The Grapes of Math on December 19th. Although intended as a look at the increasingly sophisticated science of winemaking, the “dirty little secret” as the narrator says, this Wired Science segment did little to advance our understanding. Rather than provide an in-depth analysis of diverse technologies The Grapes of Math merely framed the discussion as one between manipulation of any kind vrs. non.
The subject is vast, opinions among winemakers, sharply divided, and, perhaps most importantly, consumer interest in the subject is on the upswing. And it is into the latter camp that the majority of the segment’s viewers most likely fell. Now, in California advertisement reigns supreme. Market trends are closely watched. Green has replaced horsepower in setting imaginations alight. And it is into this space The Grapes of Math most conveniently fits. As with the learning curve of any beginning student of a complex subject, the consumer can only grasp fundamentals, hence the appeal of dividing ‘manipulation’ into a simple dichotomy of pro and con. But whether this serves the consumer or merely encourages obscurant marketing practices is an open question.