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June 03, 2009

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Nick,

It really was a pleasure meeting you at Taste Camp last month. I am extremely disappointed however to read such specious statements that make up the bulk of your "special pleading" concerning Long Island wines. Your assertion that our wines are "vastly overpriced" is particularly dubious and in fact has been debunked numerous times, especially on this blog.

I do hope you'll visit us again to try and learn more about us. Just let us know ahead of time so I can "dress up" my soil and make it more "interesting" for you...

Perhaps Nick can clarify his characterization of Long Island as having "uninteresting" soil. I look forward to my first visit later this year, and thus I can't respond to this. Nick, are you speaking about soil composition? Slope? Something else?

Rich, I don't blame you for taking offense to this characterization, but I hope Nick will offer more detail.

I think the unbiased feedback by some of the bloggers that attended TasteCamp is very refreshing, especially from one in the retail business. Not all feedback is going to be good and some constructive criticism is needed (in any aspects of life) to keep progress moving forward.

When the issue of price came up in one of the early TasteCamp blogs, I concurred that LI has a price image issue but also made the following observation:

"LI seems to be doing fine in terms of selling out their product, even with prices that exceed $20 way more often than they dip below $12. Therefore, the issue with price wouldn't necessarily impact their ability to sell, but rather their ability to compete nationally against hoards of $15 and under bottles that flood the shelves."

My take seems to be similar to the argument that Nick was presenting. The price issue isn't going to hinder LI's cashflow, but it will hinder their nationwide (and worldwide) distribution and growth. Maybe LI doesn't make enough product to ever worry about external growth - - - and that could be a good thing considering the prices.

Dave, I think your observations speak volumes about the lack of economies of scale.

In theory, one can be wildly successful on a "local" level with price points that keep the winery very profitable at its maximum sustainable output. When dealing with a macro level, however, the prices charged for a certain type of product might not translate to a broader consumer group.

I don't know enough about LI wines or their prices, but the business aspect of this quandary intrigues me. In some respect, I guess it's possible that an emotional desire to be recognized nationally conflicts with the business model that has been developed.

At the risk of being accused of blindly supporting the Long Island wine region, I think Nick's comments are a symptom of the wines we were poured and how many we were poured in a short period of time.

There is NO DOUBT that plenty of Long Island wine are overpriced. No one can argue that fact. BUT, that's true of many regions.

I'm confident that if I can get Nick (and Jessica) to come out here again sometime that we'll find some other wines he'll enjoy and find to be good values.

Why do I know this? He liked Channing Daughters' Scuttlehole Chard! I"m not saying that they are the 'same' (that would just be silly) but there are many other chardonnays made in that same style at around the same price point. I can also think of several $15ish reds that he might be intrigued by.

When you taste 150+ wines over the course of 2 days, when many of them are merlot, they will tend to 'taste the same'

But at a higher level, if they can charge X for a wine and sell it direct at the winery (where they make all the profit), why would they lower the price? Basic economics.

I also know that MANY local wineries do drop the price significantly to get their wines into wine shops (particularly in NYC). Remember, wines are almost always the most expensive AT the winery.

Lenn,
I think the wineries you visited during TasteCamp farily represent the wineries worth visiting with only a few omissions.
Having said that, if you lined up ALL the wines of the TasteCamp participants I would venture a guess that none sold for under $10, maybe 20% sold for less than $20, and more than half exceeded $40.
From a pure retail perspective, that is not a comparable range to what the market bears, even in or around NYC.
I am a huge supporter of LI wines and I probably buy at least 4-6 cases per year (mostly from the places you visited during TasteCamp). However, my purchases are rarely based on bargains or price/quality ratios; I make most purchases becuase I appreciate a different style of wine that LI delivers and/or the wines have sentimental value to me from my bi-annual visits.... and for those reasons I'm willing to pay a premium. With people like me (and with other LI visitors who have large disposable incomes), LI is able to keep prices high and still sell out their product locally without the need for competing on store shelves. Economics would only dictate that they lower price if there was excess inventory that wasn't selling - - - and that doesn't appear to be the case with their limited production. Therefore, they don't have to compete with national/global brands on retail shelves to get their cash.
Its kind of a Catch-22 for them in terms of marketshare and image. They sell out now and make a good buck without a large (or even average) marketshare. To increase marketshare they would somehow have to increase production, spend more on marketing and distribution, AND lower prices to compete on store shelves. It seems easier (and probably more profitable) to stay small and local and forego a global presence.

While pricing is the elephant in the room at many wineries in L.I., I don't think it should be the focus when discussing L.I. wines.

We are wine drinkers, not economists. Supply and demand is not my gig. There are thousands of "old world" wines over $30 that aren't worth the cash too.

I enjoyed meeting Nick and was impressed with his sober evaluation of the wines we tasted. It's very easy to get caught up in the moment (especially when we're tweeting across the table) and lose site of evaluating the wine in hand.

Bryan: A very good point. In a setting such at TasteCamp, it's easy to get caught up in the moment -- the people, the places -- and not be able to evaluate the wines with focus. Nick is certainly good at that.

Lenn, Bryan, et al,

I've yet to hear an explanation for his description of the soil as "uninteresting." Did he discuss this with you guys during Taste Camp?

Ok, I did the interview with Lenn right after coming back, and it seems since then it has come to light that we did not really taste a broad spectrum of long island wines. I assumed that the wineries would let us taste their whole spectrum of wines, because that's what I'm used to when I taste wines in the store. Distributors usually bring in the whole range of price points. So I'm willing to admit that there are some less expensive LI wines I haven't seen that might compare more favorably. But I stand firmly by my stance that the upper tier of wines we tasted do not compare favorably at the price points we were given that weekend. They are way over-priced.

As far as uninteresting soil, I was referring the alluvial soil that seems to predominate out there. It's basically sand. It's not gravel like in bordeaux, and it's not sloped for better sun exposure like in Alto Adige. All the vines are planted on totally flat land. Which probably explains why I liked Shinn a lot, because they seem to have done the most to enrich their soil with minerals and nutrients, all things that can add complexity to the wine.

I'm not the first to say that the soil on Long Island is like this. I love a spirited debate though, and I'm totally open to someone explaining how I'm wrong.

Nick,

We enjoyed the visit that Lenn organized for you and your colleagues and we would do the same all over again and taste more wines and spend more time if necessary comparing notes. We never expect knowledgeable tasters to like every wine that they taste, even if we hope that they do.

If our prices are too high, that is too bad for us and for those who who will be deterred from purchasing our wines. Our area is unfortunately perhaps the most expensive viticultural area in the world, and we must recover our costs. If that means some will not want to buy our wines, we regret that of course. Thankfully, as was said by others, enough people seem to be voting with their dollars.

Our soil may be uninteresting to you Nick. Which is a conclusion I would be curious to know how you arrived at, given how little time you spent here.

Here is what someone else said.

In 1985 we hosted 7 personalities from Bordeaux, including Paul Pontallier from Chateau Margaux and May de Lanquesaing from Chateau Pichon Comtesse de Lalande, and her winemaker then, Mr. Gaudin. In the group there was a professor from the University of Bordeaux, Mr. Seguin. At that time we had very little knowledge of soils and geology. So we dug a trench about 6 ft deep, at Bedell Cellars, to show Mr. Seguin. As you said, the soil was quite similar to anyhwere on the North Fork. To me at the time it appeared uninteresting too. Mr Seguin went into the trench and spent nearly 20 minutes examining layers and stratifications. It consisted of an upper layer of top soil of sandy loam, followed by about 12 inches of sand followed by a layer of pebbles about 8 inches thick and followed by some more sand. In fact if you go to the beach in Jamesport there are plenty of pebbles and in some places hardly any sand.

In conclusion he said, our soil reminded him a lot of the soil of the Graves. ( Graves has the same root as gravel ). The point of all this is that the principal quality of the soil that is essential to successful grape growing is drainage. Now if our soil compares to that of the Graves, according to an expert that has no dog in this contest, now that is interesting to me.

Charles,

This is the point where my wine making knowledge is limited. When someone starts talking about subsoil and things like that, I don't know too much about that. I mean I know that limestone tends to add minerality and I'm familiar with what that tastes like from Sancerre. But I don't know if the limestone is just a layer on the top, or if it runs all the way down, or what. So I can't say much about your comment. I've never been down in the trenches anywhere, so that's all foreign to me.

But, from my studies, I do feel that good soil is about a lot more than just drainage. Drainage is definitely a good thing, but soil is also about minerals, and the complexity different minerals add to wine. You here lots of people talking about Kimmeridgian clay in Chablis, or chalk in Champagne, or volcanic this and clay that. I haven't heard anyone talk about anything like that in Long Island. It seems likes it's a bunch of sand without a lot of minerals. Please correct me if I'm wrong.

And... we've arrived at a hugely important and fascinating part of this discussion. Do actual minerals impart "minerality" in wine? Can a wine from soil that are not heavy in minerals carry a sense of minerality? Do the grapes actually drink up the minerals in the soil and transport their characters to the wine?

Calling Ithacork! Or Cornell! Or Peter Bell! This should be interesting.

I already know all the answers you seek:

1) Yes;

2) No;

3) Maybe.

As controversial and inconclusive as these terrior meets science issues can be, my own opinion is that there has to be something about the soil and its minerality. We all instinctively know that we can plant genetic copies of the same vine in all different kinds of soil in different locations and will, ultimately, find different results in the wine. Why this cannot be proven by breaking down the chemical and physical properties beats the heck out of me, but I can sure taste it.

BTW, isn't the geological makeup of the soil and subsoil on Long Island shift dramatically from north shore to south?

I'm pretty sure that they have tested to see if the minerality from the soil chemically ends up in the wine produced from that soil, and it doesn't. Meaning they can't find any actual elements of chalk in champagne. The roots don't suck up the chalk and spit it into the wine. That would probably be gross. But flavor is a whole 'nother question entirely, and most experts agree that the flavor is imparted. Of course, flavor is super subjective and un-scientific, and we don't scientifically understand nearly enough about how it works to say how it gets in the wine, but that's ok with me. You can taste the difference, it's pretty obvious.

Great dialogue with winemakers and winery owners chiming in? Sounds like a classic LENNDEVOURS thread.

I would say that flavor IS scientific, i.e. it reflects the chemical makeup of the substance. It is the perception of flavor that IS subjective and, to this point, not scientifically well-understood.

As for minerality, Nick is right. Part of the problem is that "minerality" is hard to define. Rocks? Metallic? Steel? Dirt? The amount of trace elements in berries is very low, and larger organic molecules (i.e., taste and aroma compounds) do not get transported into the berry through the roots.
This article by Tim "Blind Muscat" Patterson says it better than I can.

http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m3488/is_12_87/ai_n17093915/

Jason, the reasons that genetic copies of vines produce different wines in different places are manifold, and certainly not limited to soil. There are many more variables involved. I wrote about this a little while ago.

As for the rest of the comments, I am always wary of generalizations. Anyone with a little wine knowledge knows that wine quality does not correlate with price (even though price _does_ influence perception of quality!). Having tasted only a small fraction of the wines of Long Island on that short visit, I'm not sure I could comment on anything vis-à-vis its t*****r. I think TasteCamp was a great introduction to the wines of LI, but certainly not a comprehensive study.

Nick,

I'm not sure why you felt the need to explain that roots don't physically suck up chalk and spit it into the wine; indeed that's obvious, and no one was confused about that. I'm simply pointing out that I've spoken to winemakers who don't believe that roots growing in certain soil types will automatically carry that soil type as a flavor.

"Minerality" is a classic wine conundrum. What does it mean? It has, for many reviewers, become a kind of catch-all. I spoke to Gavin Sacks at Cornell about this and, while I would never attempt to speak for Gavin, he said that there is not a minerality ester in wine chemistry -- nothing to indicate we know what we're talking about when we refer to a wine's "minerality." Does that mean a wine doesn't have minerality? Certainly not, at least not to me. One of the chief characteristics of many Finger Lakes Rieslings is a backbone of minerality, and to my taste it evokes the smells and, assumedly, the taste of gorge water and river rocks. But if there is no corresponding ester in wine to confirm our experience, where does it come from? Are we making it up psychologically? Is it present in the wine, transferred in some way from the soil, and simply not detectable by science as yet?

Put another way, if Long Island soil is nothing but sand, why have I never heard a Long Island wine described as "sandy?"

Again, I'm learning along with the rest of us. My apologies to Gavin if I'm mistaken in recalling our conversation. Perhaps he can join us here with more. Cheers everyone.

Tom,

Just read through the article to which you linked, and it lines up quite well with what Gavin told me. In fact, when I told him that Rieslings can evoke the distinctive scents of river rocks, he said, "But do you actually smell and taste rocks? Rocks don't have much odor or taste at all. The minerality you think of in that stream comes from a combination of scents."

I'm open-minded to the science and honest about the potential psychological impact. To wit: The Ravines Argetsinger Riesling has instantly evocative aromas of the rough stream that cuts through that property. I've hiked it with the grower. It smells gorgeous. That wine transports me back to that spot. Is it possible that I'm using some sort of confirmation bias in that assessment, even subconciously? Sure it is. But I like to think that wines - and Rieslings especially - are quite effective and showing off their place of origin. Can science and romanticism co-exist?

Tom: Thanks, as always, for chiming in with the science behind what is going on. I always love hearing from you on stuff like this.

Evan: I think that science and romanticism co-exist every single day in the wine world. No matter how much we want to romanticize winemakers, they are much chemist as they are artist!

Let me relay another idea similar to your Argetsinger stream-wine connection. In many Long Island wines, particularly sauvignon blanc, I notice a minerally characteristic that strikes me as saline, you know, like the salt water that surrounds Long Island. Is it carried on winds off the ocean/sound/bay and onto the grapes? Does it actually stay there and survive through harvest/crush/fermentation/filtering/etc? I dunno, but it's there.

Lenn and others,

Do you think the readers of wine reviews know what "minerality" means? Is there enough of a uniform understanding to use it without qualification? Or should a reviewer clarify more specifically what minerality means to them or in that wine?

Evan,

I think that very few reviewers could agree on what constitutes minerality, let alone their readers. It is an east term to toss of to show either your erudition or your fake erudition.

Here’s another great article that doesn’t just deflate but destroys the soil/minerality myth:

http://zinquisition.blogspot.com/2006/04/minerality-mythos-and-reality.html

I had an interesting conversation this week with Olivier Humbrecht, of Domaine Zind-Humbrecht in Alsace. He has vineyards on all kinds of soil types, but never used the word Terroir in describing his wines (till I asked him to, just for the record).

He told me that “different flavors from different soils are governed by how the soils warm up.” That’s it. Dark soils (blue shale, what have you) absorb more heat from the sun during the day and keep the vines warmer at night. Paler soils stay cooler. No sucking up of minerals.

I also asked him about my theory that site effects depend mostly on hydrology, which is what we are finding here at Fox Run (water-retentive soils make better grapes in dry years, while well-drained soils make better wine in wet years – keep in mind that these are non irrigated vineyards). He said that this was essentially true.

[Also – a bit off topic – he said that Riesling is best suited to well-drained soils, because it needs warm roots and cool leaves; while Gewurztraminer needs a warm canopy and cold soil to thrive.]

People have often noted that many Long Island grapes are grown in conditions that are very close to hydroponics. The soils are merely a physical support for the vines, and vines are often kept growing by fertigation. I am not taking a cheap shot here, so don’t get mad! I know not all vineyards there could be described this way.

Next up on the list of myths I want to expunge: "citric acid tastes like lemons". But that's for another time.

Peter: I know this is a difficult question (because it forces some level of generalization) but how many different "soil types" are present in the Finger Lakes in your experience?

The comments about the needs of riesling vs. gewurztraminer seem to support the idea that the years that are best for riesling may not be the best for gewurzt...and vice versa.

Your "hydroponic" comment is an interesting one. And one that I'm sure a few of our readers will want to respond to :)

Lenn and Peter,

I had the same snap reaction to Peter's description of the needs of Riesling v. Gewurz. We're finally starting to understand why an "ideal" vintage for Riesling might yield different results for Gewurz. Fascinating, and worth exploring another time in more depth.

Peter, one more question: I've tasted with you enough to know that you appreciate the acidity and strong backbone of Finger Lakes Rieslings. Often, those wines tend to show off what I describe as that river rock character, but I allow the possibility that I might be delusional. Do you eschew the term "minerality" at all times, or does it occasionally make sense as a descriptor?

The soils we steward at Shinn Estate Vineyards are known as Haven on the Geological survey. They are well drained and formed as very fine sandy loam. The topsoil is underlain by glacially deposited gravelly rocks and stones. It is these unique ancient soils that provide the “breadbasket” for feeding the vines that produce our distinctive wines.

Lenn,

You could easily find seven or eight soil types in Finger Lakes vineyards, keeping in mind that most soils are not a single type but are admixtures of several.

Evan,

I do use the term "minerality" among people who are on the same page about what it means, meaning mostly winemakers. The term also has PR value when we taste with the general public, but mostly because it sounds so cool.

I do think it's appropriate to use the term (after all, that slight chalkiness is not astringency, and needs some kind of term).

Gavin is the man. He is a huge role model of mine. Your description of his opinion sounds pretty accurate.

I think that part of the issue is that when you smell, say, grapefruit in wine, it is because the wine shares aroma compounds with actual grapefruits (volatile thiols). So in a way, you actually do smell grapefruit, because it's (at least partially) there.

However, when "mineral" is used as a descriptor, there's a bit of a disconnect, since "minerals" don't have a smell. Maybe the organic compounds produced by organisms living in crevices in rocks have a smell, but "organisms living in crevices in rocks" isn't going to show up as a tasting note anytime soon.

Do descriptors have to be that accurate? Synesthesia is absolutely my favorite part of wine tasting. When I smell cotton candy, I immediately visualize block parties/carnivals. So a wine could smell like the Friedensburg block party. But for me, it's important that at the end of the day I understand WHY I smell the things I do. Probably not so much for others.

So can you tell a reviewer that describes minerality "No, you don't. You can't smell minerals!"? While that's literally true, a taster isn't an gas chromatograph. The output of a tasting note will never read "a mixture of ethyl esters (predominantly ethyl decanoate)." They are getting something that reminds them of a certain experience, but simply using a term that is unfortunately broad and sometimes misleading, and one that is omni-present in tasting notes.

Then again, we could base a whole other discussion on the language and vocabulary of tasting notes.

Peter

I know Sheldrake has touted its "Howard" gravel in the FL, is this a common soil in your vineyards?

Are there any clay heavy vineyards in the FL?

Cheers

There is little doubt that terms like minerality are meant to evoke a certain combination of sensory and psychological impressions since, as Tom points out, minerals really don't smell.

And yet we all know those olefactory responses we have when presented with water running through a cool limestone gorge, or the smells we that eminate from a hidden patch forest, or what have you. Those smells relate to those experiences in our mind, but it is nearly impossible to break down the entire experience scientifically. At some juncture our mind synthesizes what it encounters, makes leaps of association, and leaves us with an impression.

That fermented grape juice can trigger these impressions cannot be a fluke in that it seems absurd, at face value, to expect such a result from some random liquid in a bottle (unless we are all crazy). Something from the growing site is imparted to the wine, and for whatever reason our brains can pick up on it.

Excellent comments, everyone!

Bryan,

We don't have Howard gravel at Fox Run, and I can't think of any clay-predominant vineyards in the Finger Lakes. But I certainly have clay soil in my back yard!

There is a joke going around that if you are a vegeterian you should eat beef as it is a highly concentrated form of recycled vegetation... :)

Sometimes I wonder if we do not carry our imagination a little too far when we try to overanalyze what we think we know about wine.

(Too bad there are no emoticons on this site!)

If I may chime in on minerality, I tend to go with what French soil specialist Claude Bourguignon - whose Laboratoire d'analyse microbiologique des sols (http://www.lams-21.com) consults with the likes of Beaucastel, Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, Vega Sicilia, Ausone, Hugel, Mas de Daumas Gassac, to name but a few - says about the interaction between minerals in the ground and vines and grapes.

He contends that the link between soil minerals and the taste and aromas of grapes has to do with the enzymes present in the grapes. These enzymes, which allow the various carbon components to be synthesized, have metal cofactors that vary according to the soil type. Morgon soils have more manganese, which favors manganese-bound enzymes in the grapes, resulting in a different taste in the grapes and wines produced in that particular terroir.

This is ONE of the numerous factors he points to. He insists that flora, microbial activity in the soil, soil fauna (earthworms, insects, etc.), and the presence of clay, which binds the components and helps the plants interact with the soil, are crucial factors. The clay, on Long Island, would likely be in the sandy loam. And as for soil life, work like what is being done at Shinn, Macari and others who take on an organic/biodynamic approach certainly works to increase it. To this, of course, we would have to add the climate, sunlight, wind, precise soil characteristics of each site, etc. Complex stuff.

You can hear or read a whole, fascinating interview of Claude Bourguignon and his wife Lydia on this subject (in French) here: http://terreaterre.ww7.be/questions-de-terroir.html

In that perspective, considering the soil as a mere physical support for the vines, as Peter Bell writes, is a much too-limited view. There are complex interactions at work that have been understood by instinct and observation in old wine regions, but that we are barely starting to understand in a biochemical sense.

In the end, Long Island soil may not be as awe-inspiring as the steep hills of schist in Roussillon and Priorat, but I'm not sure I would call it uninteresting. Sandy loam with a layer of gravel, as Monsieur Massoud describes, holds possibilities, I'm sure, when combined with practices that favor healthy soils and ecosystems in the vineyard.

Besides, from what I've tasted, it's clear that there is very interesting stuff going on in Long Island vineyards. And I personally found that merlot did quite well, as I said to Lenn in my interview on this site, even in tougher vintages. So perhaps it is suited to that particular soil - and climate, of course.

Remy: eloquent as usual. I have never heard the cofactor explanation but, not knowing too much about the enzymes themselves, it sounds like a good enough hypothesis to me. There's no question that plants suck up ions from the soil, they need them to do things!

Now, I'd really be convinced if somebody determined what
those enzymes are and TESTED if adding, say, manganese to supplement soil results in a change in aroma profile.

There's a whole research project right there, Tom. Get us a grant, and I'm in!

Back to the question of soil, if there is a layer of gravel way underneath the surface in LI, is it possible that the vines are not old enough, and the roots have not penetrated deep enough into the ground to coax out the more subtle terroir based flavors yet? In Bourdeaux the gravel is right on the surface correct? What is under the surface in general there? How does that difference (a difference between topsoil I guess you would call it?) affect a wine's flavor?

Evan,

Maybe it is obvious to this crowd what minerality is, but when I write, I write for my clients, who know very little about wine. They are always confused by the term. I mean every time I type the word my spell checker tells me it's misspelled so I don't think it's actually even a word in the dictionary yet! :) But after I teach people about the importance of vines being stressed and the roots reaching deep into the ground for nutrients and minerals, they usually assume that some of those minerals wind up in the wine. So I'm in the habit of correcting people on that.

I try to teach people what minerality means, and what it tastes like, because I feel like it's a very good way to communicate your tastes when you're talking to someone who knows about wine (like a retail clerk or a sommelier). But I teach people to refer to minerality in white wines, and earth in red wines. Once in a while I'll talk about a red wine being minerally, but that's more ina lighter red with white wine characteristics, something like a red Sancerre or Cru Beaujolais, as opposed to a dark husky Cahors, which I think of as earthy.

Actually the gravel layer on LI is within 2 feet of depth in general, well in the root zone.

However as has been well documented in this thread by others, it is unclear that the vine metabolizes any minerals in a way that one can taste them in a wine. And as someone else said the weather trumps most other aspects. Otherwise why is there vintage variations in areas, such as Long Island and much of Europe, where the weather is different every Summer.
As to the idea that roots go deeper to search for water that is also more a romantic notion as roots actually need water to grow so that they can go deeper. And if they are starved of water there is no mechanism that allows them to stretch further underground in search of water.

Finally how roots grow depends on the rootstock selected. There is rootstock that grow laterally near the surface, there are others that grow like a ball and finally there are some like 110 R that grow straight down. These are intrinsic qualities of the rootstock and may debunk the notion that rootstock go searching for water.

There is unfortunately a lot of notions in the wine world, perhaps well intended, but nevertheless frequently inaccurate, even if it may sound good.

Please read the comments of the great Gavin Sacks, assistant professor of enology at Cornell. I emailed him and asked for his feedback; he was kind enough to send the following reply.

>>>>>>

Hi Evan,

I think you did a pretty good job representing my views... and I also think that Tom and Peter have a done good job tackling the problem. Also, Dr. Anna Katharine Mansfield at Cornell has thought about this topic a great deal, and some of these comments reflect the outcomes of our informal discussions.

There seem to be several questions that are being discussed simultaneously on the blog under the larger issue of "minerality":

1) Can different soil types (e.g. chalky vs. clay) influence wine grape chemistry, and eventually influence wine sensory properties?

I don't believe there is any serious doubt among the research community that growing conditions, including soil type, can affect winegrape chemistry. As you, Tom, and Peter pointed out, there is no evidence that this is because of direct assimilation of flavor-active compounds from the soil via the grapevine roots . . . plants (including grapes) can assimilate very few compounds from the soil, and the levels of these compounds that end up in grapes are generally well below sensory threshold. One exception is potassium + sodium, which can be found in excess of their sensory thresholds in wine, and could contribute to salty-bitter perceptions. Of course, high levels of potassium and sodium also correlate to high pH, which is not a common phenomenon in New York State Rieslings.

There are several indirect means by which soil composition can influence wine grape chemistry, however. Water availability appears to be of particular importance, as Peter mentions. As a simple example, low water status pre-veraison will result in less vegetative growth and thus more cluster light exposure. More light exposure results in greater production of precursors to TDN ("petrol"), a compound which can frequently exceed threshold in Riesling. Of course, there are more compounds contributing to Riesling aroma than TDN, and how soil water status, nutrient availability, reflectance/temperature, etc.. affect these compounds and eventually the holistic wine experience is a challenging and active area of research.

2) What do we mean when we say "minerality"? Is there minerality in wine?

As Peter Bell mentions, there appears to be inconsistency among wine professionals about when the term "minerality" is applicable, especially in comparison to terms likes "jammy", "smoky", and "tropical fruit". This may be because of a lack of a well-agreed upon aroma or taste standard for "minerality", in contrast to "jammy" where a jar of Smuckers does a pretty good job in demonstrating the concept. This term has generally not been included in sensory evaluations of wines, and there is some variation in how the term is defined in the few studies that use the term.

I have also noticed a divide between those who claim that minerality can perceived by direct orthonasal smelling, vs. those who claim to only perceive minerality in the mouth. I am agnostic on the matter, but I will divide my response into two parts.

2a) What do we mean by an aroma of minerality?

Minerals (e.g. limestone) are not volatile. Our olfactory system is designed to detect volatile compounds. Therefore, if we claim that a river rock has a smell, we are almost certainly smelling something volatile formed by contact of the rock surface with water (say, the remnants of decomposing algae). The chemical nature of aromas associated with wet rocks, etc.., is not known, but could be determined. Of course, even if "mineral-like" odorants were present in wines, that does not mean that they were absorbed from the soil, any more than grapes with high levels of methoxypyrazines are grown next to green bell peppers. Finally, I would point out that in some cases "minerality" may reflect an absence of certain compounds, in addition to the presence of others. Generally, the wines I hear described as "mineral" do not possess strong fruity, floral, reductive, or oxidative characteristics. So, practices that increase the levels of compounds associated with these characteristics could also decrease perception of minerality.

2b) What do we mean by a taste of minerality?

I can't give a good answer to this question. Again, I think part of the problem is a lack of a universal standard and common definition. Anecdotally, I have heard winemakers describe minerality both as a true taste (i.e. a particularly pleasing type of acidity) or as a tactile sensation, or as a combination of the two. As previously mentioned, it seems unlikely that metals in wines are directly modifying taste, considering their concentration, but that does not mean that there could not be other small molecules responsible.

One question I pose to people who claim that a wine tastes mineral is "what happens if you drink the wine with your nostrils pinched shut"? I ask this because the metallic taste of iron salts is associated with oxidation of fatty acids in the mouth, which generates odorants that are then perceived retronasally. If you pinch your nose while tasting iron salts, the metallic "taste" diminishes.

In conclusion, if the "minerality" term is useful in conveying information about a wine to a particular audience then by all means it should be used, regardless of the underlying chemistry. However, considering the diversity in usage, I think "minerality" is being used to describe several sensory attributes. Hopefully, future work at Cornell or elsewhere can start to make sense of this term both sensorially and chemically.

Oh come on now, a little unique flavor from the soil never hurt anyone ;)

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