Relationship Status: It’s Complicated

There is definitely a relationship between the wine you’re drinking and the soil the grapevines grow in. The exact nature of that relationship is, well, kind of complicated. This soil debate is swelling up in the undercurrent of wine academia. In April of last year, the Guild of Sommeliers aired a podcast entitled “The Problem with Minerality: Wine Soil and Geology”. Even as I write this, my super-fancy computer doesn’t recognize this shiny new word: minerality. Nonetheless, it is a commonly used term to define aromas and flavors in wine that we associate with soil in a sense, for where else indeed could these magical minerals come from but the soil wherein the vines reside.   In the podcast, the general consensus is that there is no direct relationship between what you taste in the glass and the type of soil the grapes were grown in. In other words, you can’t really taste the dirt in the glass.

OK, that’s actually fine! Personally, I’m over this urgent need to make direct perceptible correlations that serve our senses. The Vineyard Soil Expedition will not attempt this, just to be clear.   While we will do a bit of work drawing correlations between soil and wine quality, this will involve much more than just the dirt itself and the wine itself. In actuality, in the soil – wine discussion, we have to talk a lot about that little hyphen between them. What is it that connects these, the origin and the end?

The most important connector, given the fact that there are other variables (weather conditions, for example) that can be navigated as need be to coerce a specific outcome, is the people. We can look at the list of over 40 different vineyard soil types listed on Wikipedia, which grape varieties have made their happy homes in what soils, etc.   But at the core, the connecting element, the deciding variable is the human variable.

For example, in the wine community, we have come into agreement that Chardonnay grape vines thrive well in limestone-based soil, as evidenced by the prominent vineyards on the Kimmerigian plate that stretches from the white cliffs of Dover in southern England through the Champagne and Chablis regions of northern France. In Champagne, Chardonnay is the reigning white variety, while in Chablis, she is the sole sovereign.   So based on this, based on the centuries of success that wine producers have had with this variety on this soil, it stands to reason that limestone is Chardonnay’s preference… right?

Of course, the answer is that it is not that simple. Remember our little hyphen? We need to discuss that. We need to discuss what kind of a relationship each vineyard holder has with the portion of that soil he has been blessed to steward.   What is the overall farming philosophy? Is the land cultivated in monoculture (only one crop all the time) or polyculture (two or more different crops on the same beds, rotated periodically)? What inputs are used – manufactured products to control pests and promote growth? Herbal teas and other biodynamic treatments made onsite? Irrigation? Is vegetation allowed or prohibited at the vines’ feet and between the rows? What wildlife coexists in the region and are they welcomed, discouraged, inhibited, besieged?

There’s a lot to consider. The first indicator of wine quality at the end of the day is how the people who grow the grapes manage the soil-wine relationship.German Vineyard on a steep slope

I recently tasted some of the Rieslings from the esteemed Weingutt Dönnhoff, which is in Nahe, Germany. The distributor, Michael Skurnik Wines, gives some background about this the Dönnhoff family on their site. After a brief introduction to the family, the rest of a long paragraph details the soil type in each of their vineyards – volcanic rocks with fancy names like porphyry and melaphyr, slate in some, a layer of pebbles over loam subsoil (loam is the brown stuff we know as regular ol’ dirt) in others.  Of one, the author writes “Due to the water table that flows beneath the vineyard’s soil the Krötenpfhul (vineyard) has always been farmed organically, even before it was held by Dönnhoff.” At the tasting, they had photos on the table, one just of a patch of soil. Evidently these are wine people who understand the importance of dirt.

Here are some of my notes, which I quickly typed into the SevenFifty Digital Tasting Book while I was there:

Dönnhoff Riesling Trocken Kreuznacher Kahlenberg 2014 – Aroma like fine expensive lavender handmade soap. (On the) palate (there is) a tension to it, pineapple and kiwi fruit, hints of petrichor #wow

Dönnhoff Riesling Trocken Roxheimer Hollenphad 2014 – This has some energy on a long palate as well, with very little fruit but a hint of lemon, and wet stone. The energy is intense!

Dönnhoff Riesling Kabinett Oberhauser Liestenberg 2014 – Here is a bit of sweetness that (subsides) on the back palate and leaves you with lovely mango, guava, papaya fruit. This is classic Riesling!

At a recent wine tasting, pictures of vineyard soil adorn the Dönnhoff table

At a recent wine tasting, pictures of vineyard soil adorn the Dönnhoff table

Needless to say my mouth was rather happy overall. What was fascinating was that the wines had an energy that was hard to explain. Although I am newly reluctant to look for direct connections between soil types and wine characteristics, I couldn’t help but wonder what role the soil played. But again, the question is not just what role it played, but how the Dönnhoff vineyard managers and winemakers leveraged it.

I called my company wineLIFE partly because of my belief that wine is alive. It continues to age after bottling, evolving and maturing until at some point, it actually dies. No other beverage behaves that way. If it’s true that wine is a living thing, then we have to also believe that soil is alive, because life has to come from life.   So perhaps this Vineyard Soil Expedition becomes a biography of sorts. The Biography of Soil. The untold story of a life-sustaining being.


About Dirt: The Vineyard Soil Expedition

and the dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it. Ecclesiastes 12:7

Been thinking a lot about dirt lately.  Recently married a farmer in Trinidad.  Started a garden on the terrace of my New York City apartment.  Thank goodness my dad is here, because I’ve never had much of a green thumb.  He’s showing me now how to really get the tomatoes, green peppers and herbs to flourish.  My terrace garden last year paled in comparison.  Having said that, last year, we had something that this year we have yet to establish: worms.

Classic Siam Basil, pointy leaf Sweet Basil and the pretty purple Osmin Basil.

Classic Siam Basil, pointy leaf Sweet Basil and the pretty purple Osmin Basil.

Last year, I helped my daughter (then 5 years old) do a science project about worms.  At our local farmer’s market, we talked to a woman who spent her time there educating shoppers about how worms make humus from food scraps.  She was even collecting compost for use in NYC Parks.  I had always known that food scraps were worth more than we thought!  My rationale was that I paid by weight for the food, and yet had to peel and cut away inedible pieces that I had paid for to discard.  So I started collecting food scraps many years earlier, using onion and garlic skins, carrot ends, and other bits that we wouldn’t eat but were clean enough for us to boil at some point to make stock along with the carcasses of whole chickens and fish heads and spines I had butchered in previous weeks.  This kind of food currency is safeguarded in my freezer for use.  Other scraps, like egg shells, banana and citrus peels and the like, went into a pot on my terrace for compost.  Then when we decided on the princess’ science project, we dug up worms in a nearby park and brought them home to feast on what we had collected.

I recently watched a documentary about dirt and now I have a bunch of questions.  In the documentary, Gary Vaynerchuck (of Wine Library TV fame) mused about vineyard soil standing next to a vine with a glass in one hand and dirt in the palm of the other.  He licked the dirt!  It was pretty awesome!  At the beginning of the documentary, the narrator quipped that children don’t go outside to play in the “soil”, they go play in the “dirt”.  I remember playing in the dirt.  I loved the dirt!  Then, later on in the film, an inmate at Riker’s Island who was participating in a program planting gardens said a phrase that conjured up so many memories from my Brooklyn childhood: GOD MADE DIRT AND DIRT DON’T HURT!  We kids would say that phrase if a piece of candy fell on the ground.  We would pick it up and say that and then we would eat it anyway.  And you know what?  The dirt didn’t hurt!!!

In my journey deep into wine academia, we were always taught that Vitis Vinifera (the wine grape species) vines flourish in poor soils.  In contrast, learning about organic and biodynamic farming has taught me that soil must be rich to sustain life.  Dirt is alive.  Dirt is life!  I need answers!

At a recent wine tasting, pictures of vineyard soil adorn the Dönnhoff table

At a recent wine tasting, pictures of vineyard soil adorn the Dönnhoff table

So I’ve decided to embark on a vineyard soil expedition.  I’m going to start locally and I’m going to wineries that farm organically and, if possible, biodynamically.  I have gardening gloves, but I’m going to take them off to touch the soil if they’ll let me.   Follow me, watch the journey unfold.  #wineLIFEExoterica #VineyardSoil #Wine