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20 October 2021

Wine’s secret ingredient? Slowly crumbling rocks

Studying what’s beneath the surface of the soil can tell us a lot about wine – and ourselves.

By Nina Caplan

The prehistoric era known as the 1980s was a terrible time to be attempting an education, at least for me. I can’t accept full blame for the garish lipstick – a shade of electrocuted magenta – that got me thrown out of one geography class, but I must take responsibility for opting to keep the war paint and bunk the rest of the lesson, and for my failure to remember almost anything of  those I did attend. On the other hand, I could still pick that lurid lip-slap out of a line-up.

The pity of it is that the fragments of geography I did retain have come in useful since my passion for hot pink mellowed to a preference for Burgundy. It  turns out that vines really care where they live: how much sun they receive and how cold they get, whether they are cooled by high altitudes or ocean breezes, and what the difference is between nocturnal and daytime temperatures. The crucial importance of location should have come as no surprise to a first-generation Brit, but I failed to take into account the relevance of another area of the syllabus: geology.

“What could be more boring than the varying composition of different patches of earth?” hisses the ghost of my 14-year-old self, through carmine lips. But the answer, it turns out, is almost anything. The right kinds of rocks, crumbled by friction and time, have an obvious effect on the grapes they nourish, but also a more mysterious one.

I fell in love with the black-cherry, almost chewy Gamay grapes made by serious Beaujolais producers such as Château Thivin in Brouilly and Jean-Marc  Burgaud in Morgon; with the Alsatian Rieslings grown on the Grand Cru vineyards of Sommerberg and Schlossberg; and with the rich, bombastic dry reds of Portugal’s gorgeous Douro Valley. When I searched for the links between them, I found that their common ground was made of granite.

This was my first inkling that geography is as much about narrative as is the literature or history my schoolgirl self preferred. Vines favour mineral-rich soils that are porous, so that water doesn’t inundate their roots, but not so porous that they die of thirst. Stones are welcome, as they help regulate heat – as does colour: the lighter the soil, the more it reflects back the sun’s warmth; darker soils stay warmer.

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But those facts, while useful, leave out a lot. How close is the connection between the crushed remains of ancient sea creatures that form limestone and the refined acidic purity of Champagnes from those chalk soils? Or that between the dramatic mineral buzz from volcanic vineyards – the black soils of Lanzarote, the white pumice plains of Greece’s Santorini – and the intense drama of the molten lava those vineyards once were? It seems more than possible that some of what we taste in great wine is the work of our imagination, filtered like rainwater through this ancient rock, but how much is impossible to calculate.

Even in Burgundy, where tiny differences between one row of vines and the next result in startlingly varied wines, nobody can quite figure out exactly how much influence the soils have on the liquid in the glass. But that doesn’t stop anyone from trying. It is by looking beneath all kinds of surfaces that we learn about the world and about ourselves – a truth that was lost on my adolescent self, who wasn’t terribly interested in surfaces, except in so far as she could layer them with paint.

Still, with time, we all change, in shape and behaviour. Granite, coming from the Precambrian era more than 600 million years ago, has the advantage on me there, but in both cases, the resistance was stubborn and its erosion comes with substantial benefits. Into my glass, via vines just sufficiently nourished, come the stony flavours I love best. And I enjoy them all the more because I understand something of their provenance, and because the grinding years have, slowly but inexorably, bestowed on me at least a modicum of that vital human nutrient: good taste.

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[See also: Our approach to Australian wine – and history – needs to change]

This article appears in the 20 Oct 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Twilight of the West