On Friday I was lucky enough to tag along with Drs Roland Harrison and Phil Tonkin on a visit to Pyramid Valley Vineyards in Wakari, just northwest of Waipara. We spent several hours tasting and chatting with owner Mike Weersing, an American expat who trained in France and elsewhere before coming to New Zealand to work at Neudorf and then eventually starting his own, fully biodynamic, vineyard. The purpose of the visit was to have a bit of a dialogue about the effects of soil type on wine, and Mike presented us with some wines to demonstrate his views on the subject. He stressed that he feels that soil exerts its most profound effects on the ‘architecture’ of the wine in the mouth – how it feels and is structured (something that, coincidentally or not, for better or for worse, would likely be challenge to pin down and analyze scientifically). (Soil profile display in the Pyramid Valley tasting room)
Particularly interesting was the way that Mike described the effects of soil acidity. He explained that the French refer to certain wines as inciting “la belle salive” a particular way of salivating that feels as though it is coming from the back of the mouth, at the back/bottom jaw line. They are particularly fond of this sensation, he said, because it is similar to the way we salivate when we are hungry, thus wines that cause la belle salive are good to drink with food because they keep you eating. And apparently, la belle salive results from wines that are grown on more basic soils – like the calcareous or active limestone soils that the French are so fond of. He had us taste two wines, one made from grapes grown in a block containing much more active limestone (active here just refers to the availability of the calcium carbonate – the more crushed up the rocks are, the more surface area, and the more points in the crystaline structure where ions are exposed and therefore able to interact with the surroundings), and one from a block with less. I could definitely notice the distinction, but he had also just told me what to expect, so I still feel the need to do some blind tasting to test the theory for myself. But it is certainly interesting, nonetheless! (Try it out and let me know what you find!)
Mike told me about a tasting of Waipara wines that he organized where wines of the same varietal, one grown on clay and one grown on gravel, were compared blind. He introduced the tasting by describing what Europeans would expect to find in each of the wines (the wines grown on clay would be expected to have a more ‘slippery’ feel in the mouth), and found that people were overwhelmingly able to identify the soil type for each wine. It is the empirical evidence such as this, that is so frequently cited and pervasive in the wine world, that keeps me interested in this issue despite all of the debate and lack of evidence in the scientific community. And certainly a major difference point of contention that drives a wedge somewhere in the industry.
I am happy to finally see somewhere where art and science are not coexisting harmoniously, side-by-side, especially in this instance where there is division, but ‘art’ and ‘science’ aren’t necessarily the two sides of the issue. Mike threw another wrench into the neat little picture of art and science existing harmoniously. When I first described my project to him, he responded in a manner different from anyone I’ve met so far. He insisted that wine is, in fact, not an ‘art,’ per se, because such a label implies some inborn talent on the part of the winemaker. He prefers the term ‘craft’ as it better encapsulates the idea that winemaking is something that can be learned through lots and lots of experience.