Monday, October 13, 2014

Jamie Goode's "Rescuing Minerality" Post as viewed through the lens of my research: Part I

Jamie Goode, one of the most prolific and respected wine writers of the day, recently wrote a post on his blog ( titled Rescuing Minerality. As this is a topic in which I have great interest, I have read the article a number of times since its publication and finally decided to write a review piece which examines Jamie's post through the lens of the research which I have conducted and reported on in these pages. The original post can be viewed as having three major components -- terroir, soil science, and minerality -- with the latter two being tightly coupled. I will review each of the components in separate posts beginning with terroir in the current instance.

Jamie begins the post with four definitions of terroir which comprehensively capture the major streams of thought that swirl around the topic today. Based on my past work, I have developed the below timeline which shows the evolution of sense-of-"placedness" as it relates to wine.

                                                        Terroir Timeline

"Terroir-Advancing" Event
Classical Greece
Preference for wines from Aegean Isles
Rome (Early)
Preference for wines from the south
Rome (Late)
Preference for wines from the sub-regions of the Bay of Naples and Latium
Middle Ages
Burgundy -- “First wines prized for their ability to display ... individualized aromas and flavors”. Cru as a vineyard plot
Arnaud III de Pontac doubling the price of Haut Brion wines because -- he said -- they were “special”
Word terroir -- which originally meant territory or land in France -- was extended to describe “an area of land valued specifically for agricultural properties”
Quality being extended to tradition first mentioned in Julien’s Topographie. Cru as a Chateau
Barolo, Gattinara, Asti, Montalcino, and Rioja begin to adopt Bordeaux principles
Bordeaux proprietors define quality as cru (estate) + grapes + tradition
Word terroir used as a designator for a vineyard’s natural environment and to characterize the wines from the grapes grown therein
French Frauds and Falsification Law -- French wines sold commercially had to indicate its origin on the label
1906 - 1912
Bordeaux, Cognac, Armagnac, and Champagne demarcated
Law made it illegal for an unauthorized producer to use an appellation name
Champagne boundaries finalized to include Aube
Law restricting the varieties and viticultural practices that could be used for appellation wine
Law creating the AOC system. It combined earlier legislation and stipulated regions, varieties, minimum alcohol levels, and maximum vineyard yields

Based on the foregoing, terroir, as construed today, differs significantly from its origins and intent. The Cistercians demarcated their vineyards to show differences in grapes grown there and, as a result, established a tradition of Burgundian wines. I maintain that they initially established a tradition of Burgundian vineyards -- because the wines should have been indistinguishable from others due to oxidation and sourness -- and that evolved into a tradition of Burgundian wines. Somewhere along the way there was a successful marketing effort to monetize that tradition. Bordeaux recognized the pecuniary benefits of traditions and sought, successfully, to establish its own. They did not spend the hundreds of years getting to understand the characteristics of their vineyards -- as the Burgundians had done. They just claimed it. The AOC system, set up to deter counterfeit wines, evolved into a "deviser" of taste and quality. It was not set up around terroir. Rather, terroir was devolved upon it. To my mind, terroir is all about tradition and monetization of same.

That being said, it must be noted that there are differences in wine depending on where the grapes are grown. Jamie refers to these as macro- and micro-scale effects and uses differences within a vineyard and similarities across a region to illustrate his point. I will use differences across a region and differences between vineyards compared to a model to illustrate the same point.

According to UC Davis, regional differences in grape quality are evidenced by:

  • Earlier maturity in warmer regions
  • Lower tonnage in cooler regions
  • Less color, acid, and varietal flavor in warmer regions
  • Lower price in warmer regions

The color and acid assertions are shown in an Amerine and Winkler (1938) study which reported on similar varieties grown in each of the degree-day Regions (I - V) and showed a decline in both measures as the study progressed from cooler to warmer regions. The regional differences are further borne out by the table below which shows grape production and price in each of the California regions (The state of California can be divided into 5 broad regions -- North Coast, Central Coast, Northern Interior, Central Interior, and Southern Interior -- with the coast being cooler than the interior.).

2003 Total Grape Crush
2003 Percent
Cabernet Sauvignon Ton/Acre
Cabernet Sauvignon $/Ton
North Coast
Central Coast
Northern Interior
Central Interior
Southern Interior

Data Source: UC Davis

The table shows the highest production in the warmer central interior but the lowest prices per ton of Cabernet Sauvignon fruit. Cabernet Sauvignon fruit from the North Coast are widely perceived to be some of the best Cabernet Sauvignon fruit in the world. So, an example of a macro-scale difference in quality depending on where your grapes are grown.

In terms of the micro-scale, I have recently developed a viticultural architecture model and then sought to flesh out the elements of an ideal vineyard based on this architecture. My contention here is that differences in the variation from this ideal would reflect "terroir" differences between vineyards. The architecture and model elements are provided below.


The ideal climates for vitis vinifera are Mediterranean and marine west-coast climates, both of which are characterized by mild, wet winters and warm, dry summers.

Vitis vinifera requires a minimum of 1250 hours of sunshine to provide ripe fruit.

In cool climates, slopes with southern aspects (S, SE, SW) allow vines to accumulate the maximum amount of sunshine as they pursue growth and fruit maturity. In continental climes, on the other hand, eastern, northern, and northeastern exposures are preferred.

In cooler regions a vine needs approximately 500 mm water/year while the need increases to 750 mm/year in hotter climates.

Planting at or near the highest feasible points in the vineyard allows the viticulturist to meet the grapevine's need for good air and water drainage.  A slight to moderate incline is desirable for air and water drainage.

The optimal soil type also has a moderate content of low cation exchange capability (CEC) clay.

The best vineyard soils "permit deep and spreading root growth" and provide a moderate supply of water year-round.  Wine grapes do best in moderately fertile soils that are unsupportive of vigorous vine growth. 
Vineyards sited on convex land patterns are preferable to those on concave landforms.

Soil pH between 6.0 and 6.8 is considered optimal for vine plant growth as most of the needed nutrients and micro-organisms are available in that range.

The most effective means of combating diseases are (i) a good canopy management program and (ii) a rigorous preventative fungicide treatment program.

It is important that there be a balance between the vine root system and its canopy. In that regards, vines should be planted with higher density in poorer soils and less-densely in fertile soils. Many of the high-quality European vineyards are planted at between 5,000 and 10,000 vines/ha.

A well-managed canopy should have one grape cluster per shoot --assuming an average size of 5 to 8 ounces per cluster -- and 10 - 15 leaves per shoot in order to ensure proper ripening.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

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