Wine Geology 101: A Book That Needs to Be Written

Piles of blue slate in the Graacher Himmelreich vineyard. Mosel Valley, Germany.
Piles of blue slate in the Graacher Himmelreich vineyard. Mosel Valley, Germany.

You’ve probably heard of vineyards covered in slate or schist. But did you know that slate can turn into schist? Or that shale can transform into slate, then schist, and later into gneiss?

I didn’t. And I wish I’d known this years ago.

Wine lovers like myself are in DIRE need of a bare bones guide to geology for wine. Someone needs to do for geology and terroir what Karen MacNeil did for wine with her Wine Bible — make it user-friendly by extricating needless jargon. And that’s a tall order, because unfortunately, geology starts off intuitive, then grows hopelessly complicated with an unending barrage of esoteric terms.

I’ve alerted Kevin Pogue, a wine geology expert specialized in Washington terroir. Unfortunately, he has a book on the Columbia Basin to write first, and admits that the project would prove daunting.

Meanwhile, I’ve found an excellent resource: an online geology course crammed with explanations and visuals at GeologyCafe.com. Creator Phil Stoffer is an ex-librarian and geology professor in MiraCosta College in California, and is committed to open-source science education … what a beautiful humanist.

I’ve culled the essentials from his site that seem useful to wine lovers.

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Image courtesy Geologycafe.com
Image courtesy Geologycafe.com

So, yes: shale, when under pressure (via both heat and friction), will transform into slate, and with greater pressure, into (Click to Read more)

Didier Barral: The Gentle Voice of the Earth

Didier Barral, winemaker and steward of the ecosystem in Faugères.
Didier Barral, winemaker, winegrower, and valiant defender of the ecosystem in the town of Lentheric, in Faugères (Languedoc, France).

Listening to Didier Barral — the most careful and loving steward of nature — speak from among his vines in Lentheric is a religious experience.

But even if it feels religious, and even if Didier is a noted advocate of organic, Fukuoka-influenced hands-off farming, nothing about Didier’s discourse feels preachy. There are no exhortations; no imperatives. His persuasiveness flows from the stunning beauty of his 35 hectares of vines, and from the freshness and purity of his wines. He speaks for himself, and tells his story: one of observation, of trial and error in his vineyards.

At some point in your experience of wine, you grow interested in terroir. Rocks; slopes; drainage; expositions.  Later, like it or not, you become interested in farming. Careful farming enables great wines, and is often the most reliable predictor of a wine’s ability to transmit terroir. 1

Didier is quick to contrast his neighbors’ vines with his own as a starting point to understanding his wines. What follows is my translation from French, with interjected bits of Didier’s English interwoven.

Didier: “Look at the difference in the grass between the neighbor’s vines and my vines. The key to soils is vegetative diversity. And what’s most important (Click to Read more)

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  1. This is not to say all organically-farmed vines go on to make great wines; some taste like a horse’s ass. Skillful, responsible farming simply enables terroir-driven wines to rise from a cellar. []

The Wildness That Courses Through Languedoc Reds

There’s a 400 lb monster that rustles through the garrigues of the Languedoc, a snarling, horned beast with an appetite for grapes.

It can destroy an entire vineyard in a single night. And each vigneron is convinced it only wants their grapes. “It LOVES Vermentino!’ “Ah, but it doesn’t just eat Vermentino, I can assure you! It destroyed 75% of one of my vineyards in one night — 15% of my crop!”

Surrounding your vineyard with electrified wire helps a bit, but ultimately, you can’t be present day and night to protect it. Only solution? Call in the hunters.

A great deal of the Languedoc is still an untamed, wild place, especially near the Cévennes National Park, where these wild boars roam.  Unsurprisingly, the wild boars wander down from the forest into vineyards; and perhaps equally unsurprisingly, this wild side of Languedoc terroir wanders into the wines — particularly the red blends.

Consider Jean-Marie Rimbert’s Saint-Chinian ‘Le Mas Au Schiste’. I’ve consumed cases of this wine over the years, and always wondered exactly what accounted for the unique, savage aromas that course through it.

2010 Domaine Rimbert Mas Au Schiste and Provençal rabbit with garlicky beans.
2010 Domaine Rimbert Saint-Chinian Mas Au Schiste, with Provençal rabbit and garlicky beans.

The 2010 Rimbert Saint-Chinian Mas Au Schiste brings to mind fading roses, bitter chocolate, sweet candied fennel, (Click to Read more)