Saturday, May 12, 2007

On Minerality

From a Chablis Vaudesir to a good village cru Macon to the $13 pinot grigio recently recommended to me in my local wine store, there's nothing I love more than a wine with a great mineral cut. And I think (or at least like to think) that I can and do differentiate between different minerally tastes. On the other hand, I've never gone in for the "list all the fruits you can think of" approach to describing various fruit flavors in wine. That's always seemed silly and reductionist to me. I justify the dichotomy on the ground that, when talking about different minerals, there's something real there--grand cru chablis is actually grown in soil from kimmeridgian limestone, and that's what I'm tasting. On the other hand, grapes are not actually grown out of boysenberries, huckleberries, or whatever other fruit happens to spring to mind at the moment a taster wants to describe the fruit flavors in the wine he's drinking.

That's why I was temporarily disheartened to read in Eric Asimov's post on Friday that a recent NYT magazine article "refutes the most literal meaning of terroir – that grape vines can somehow transmit the mineral components of the vineyard soil directly into a wine." Asimov adds that "Of course [one does not literally taste granite in the glass], just as you’re not literally tasting road tar and violets in a Barolo, or gooseberries and cat urine in a New Zealand sauvignon blanc, to take a few common wine descriptions." He then goes on to defend wine lovers' appreciating the aromatic and flavor experience of drinking wine despite the lack of scientific evidence behind them.

I entirely agree with the latter part of Asimov's post, and I think he does a great job of expressing why we shouldn't allow science to undermine our appreciation of the beautiful flavors and aromas that wine evokes. But, on reflection, I think he gives up too much to the scientists when he concedes that we're not actually tasting the kimmeridgian limestone in that Chablis Vaudesir. Certainly, large chunks of limestone are not being incorporated into chardonnay grapes just because they were grown in the soil. As McGee and Patterson point out in that Times magazine article, the vines are soaking up rock particles dissolved into the soil. They read that to mean that the grapes are not incorporating the actual limestone, and so when we think we smell or taste limestone in the glass, we cannot actually be doing so. The problem with this logic is not that it misunderstands how rock is incorporated into Chablis, but rather that it misunderstands how we experience limestone in other contexts. When we say that Chablis flavors remind us of limestone, we're not comparing those flavors to the experience of biting off a chunk of rock. Rather, we're comparing them to the smell of limestone, in other words to the experience of those limestone minerals that dissolve in water and/or evaporate and/or decompose into dirt so that we can smell them--which are the same ones soaked up by vines.

I'm not a scientist, so perhaps the above is totally wrong-headed. But it makes sense to me. And I just can't believe the notion that soil qualities have nothing to do with how a wine tastes. There's just too much empirical evidence. Wines from different places taste so different. Admittedly, other factors such as climate, local practice and culture, etc. play a huge role and are obstacles to duplication. But I'm sure there is somewhere else in this world with similar climate conditions to Chablis, and if you could make a wine taste like Vaudesir in that somewhere else, people would be doing it by now.

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