Where grapevines are planted often reveals a sadistic streak. As a rule growers want them to “suffer” a little and work for a living. Call it tough love: there’s no use spoiling vines with an easy life on fertile soils. When the plants are forced to dig deep for their nutrients and water it makes them stronger, focusing their energies on what really matters, the grapes, rather than sending out billowing canopies of leaves.
And so you have rule number one for wine soils: they tend to be poor, the kind in which other crops may not thrive. Not just any poor soil will do, either: differences can have an enormous effect on a wine’s character. At least as much influence as climate, topography, grape variety and the various techniques the winemaker uses back at the cellar. For many wine producers, the notion that soil trumps all other variables has become a kind of credo. The first line on the back label is often a reference to limestone, schist, granite or slate and this increasingly creeps on to the front, too. Once, the most in-demand wine-producing consultants, such as Michel Rolland or Helen Turely, were employed for advice on when to pick and what to do in the cellar. Today’s big names are as likely to be soil specialists and terroir experts, such as Pedro Parra or microbiologists Claude and Lydia Bourguignon.
No one, or at least no one serious, thinks you can taste igneous or sedimentary rocks in wine, as if particles were being transmitted into the wine by some magical force. But the way specific soils interact with certain grapevines in particular climates does produce certain stylistic effects. It makes sense to talk about a limestone wine or a schist wine, just as it does to talk about a cabernet sauvignon or a grenache.
A classic experiment to show the effects of soil would involve lining up a pair of chardonnays, one apiece from the neighboring terroirs of Petit Chablis and Chablis in chilly northern Burgundy. To narrow down the variables, make it the same vintage and producer. The chablis, grown on the appellation’s famous Kimmeridgian limestone, formed in the upper Jurassic and rich in fossilized seashells, will have an extra degree of depth, intensity and verve; the lighter, brisker, simpler petit chablis is grown on younger Portlandian limestone.
Once you have the dirt bug it’s hard not to test other theories: that the schist in Catalonia’s Priorat and Portugal’s Douro leads to wines of distinctive depth, power and mineral complexity. Or that the highly prized limestone of Burgundy, Champagne, the Loire and Jerez makes for wines of unusual elegance, balance and fine-tuned definition. And the volcanic soils of Etna or Santorini often have an extra electric crackle of acidity. Although it soon becomes clear that, when it comes to understanding what goes on beneath the vines, we’ve only just scratched the surface.
Six wines that reflect their vineyards’ soils
Tesco Finest Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon, Coonawarra South Australia 2018 (£ 9, Tesco)
South Australian region Coonawarra’s famous terra rossa soil (a red, iron-oxide-rich topsoil over limestone) has proved itself ideally suited to producing superbly balanced cabernet sauvignon. Tesco’s example offers an ample serving of the region’s trademark fresh ripe blackcurrant.
Basilisco Teodose Aglianico del Vulture, Basilicata Italy 2019 (from £ 12.50, thewinesociety.com; corkingwines.co.uk)
One of a number of fascinating volcanic terroirs in southern Italy. This aglianico red is grown on soils derived from the extinct Mount Vulture, and has a pronounced vibrancy, a charge of fresh acidity, to go with its tumble of intense dark, fragrant cherry-berry fruit.
Marco Abella Loidana, Priorat Spain 2020 (from £ 18.95, nywines.co.uk; reservewines.co.uk; ampswinemerchants.co.uk)
Catalonia’s Priorat is famed for its llicorella soil, a crumbly mix of red and black slate and quartz that is thought to bring distinctive, freshening mineral pulse to the region’s powerful, rich, deeply flavored garnacha-based reds. Marco Abella’s Loidana is a perfect introduction to the style.
Domaine Sébastien Dampt Chablis France 2020 (£ 19.95, bbr.com)
A textbook example of the clean lines, steely acidity and mineral freshness of chardonnay grown on Chablis’ famed Kimmeridgian soils. This is an incisive, luminous dry white, a squeeze of salted lemon to serve with any smart fish or seafood dish.
Château de Cérons, Graves Blanc, Bordeaux France 2020 (£ 19.95, leaandsandeman.co.uk)
Reflecting light and heat to aid ripeness, and with good natural drainage forcing vines to dig deep for water, the gravel-rich terroir of Bordeaux’s Graves region excels in full-flavored, naturally balanced reds and, in this case, gloriously expressive, grapefruit- citrussy, sauvignon blanc-based whites.
Trinity Hill Gimblett Gravels SyrahHawke’s Bay New Zealand 2019 (£ 22.50, thegoodwineshop.co.uk)
A relatively recent discovery by New Zealand’s growers, the deep gravel soils of the Gimblett Gravels, combined with the local climate, help provide the perfect slow-ripening conditions for the syrah grape, with wines such as Trinity Hill’s a marvel of freshness mixed with flavor. intensity.