La Belle Salive

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.

(Limestone outcroppings visible in the Pyramid Valley)

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.

The taste of passion

(What clearer sign of wine passion can you ask for?)

It’s official – there’s a lot of passion going around in New Zealand.  And not just the passionfruit flavor in NZ’s all-important Sauvignon Blanc.  The intense passion so poignant in the Old World winemakers I met in Europe is rampant in New Zealand as well.  I started to notice it when I met Tim Finn, owner of Neudorf Vineyards (sorry – no photos of Neudorf because of the torrential rain, but I promise it’s gorgeous!) near Nelson.  We sat down to chat over a glass of Chardonnay (and then a glass of Riesling… and Pinot noir… and Viognier… yes, it’s hard work but someone has to do it!), and had quite a frank discussion about terroir.  Tim told me that he notices that his oldest vines show a more ‘authentic’ expression of their terroir, and posited that maybe this is due to the time they’ve had to establish a comprehensive network of microflora (namely, mycorrhizal fungus which develops a symbiotic relationship with plant roots and can help vines obtain nutrients – especially phosphorous, but others are under investigation – from parts of the soil that the roots otherwise wouldn’t be able to access).  We agreed that there are a lot of ‘conclusions’ out there that are just based on associations, but that there is great value in doing the work to demonstrate a cause and effect relationship, if one exists.  This is a huge issue in the world of terroir, as there are so many ideas derived from centuries of tradition that it can be difficult to tease them apart and determine those that actually have logical bases.  But Tim told me that he feels the best wine comes from people who are actually out in their vineyards watching what is happening all of the time.  He really stressed this, and to me, it is an interesting embodiment of art and science in wine.  Because really what this is all about is keen observation – and that is a trait that is often attributed to both scientists and to artists.  For both, the closer they keep an eye on the world around them, the better they can do their job – for the scientist, it’s a way of finding answers, and for the artist, a way of finding inspiration.  And if you’re making wine, both rational answers and creative inspiration are of the utmost importance.

(Woolaston Estates Vineyards)

While in the Nelson area I also met Cam Trott, Cellar Hand at Woolaston Estates, a gorgeous gravity-flow winery that was built with Pinot Noir in mind (Woolaston’s owners brought in Larry Ferar, a winery architect from Oregon to design the building).  The idea behind gravity-flow is that each step of the winemaking process occurs at a level lower than the previous so that musts and wines can be transferred using the power of gravity rather than pumps, which can be damaging to the wine, particularly when dealing with grapes as delicate as Pinot Noir.

(Top floor of Woolaston’s gravity-flow winery)

Cam and I talked about a lot of things (particularly about minerality, as that is kind of my pet project at the moment, and what I’ve been spending a whole lot of time thinking about with Chris Oze at University of Canterbury), but he was particularly excited to talk about biodynamics, as he had just spent a week doing some work at Seresin in Marlborough.  Though they’re not biodynamic at Woolaston (they are fully organic though – and Neudorf is moving in that direction), Cam appreciates the biodynamic treatment of the vineyard as a self-contained, self-sufficient entity – really, as its own organism (though in regards to the cosmic aspects of biodynamics he said “I’m not quite there yet” – a perspective that reflects many I’ve heard, even from fairly strong supporters of the methodology).  The key here, for Cam, is working with the land and harnessing all it can do for the vines.  He said that there are people who work with the land because they believe in it, and people who just use ‘sustainable,’ ‘organic,’ ‘biodynamic’ etc. because they see it as a good marketing tool, and that the latter are the ones who run into trouble.  And though I’d be the first to admit that there’s plenty to debate about whether or not you can taste the minerals in the soil, I must say that I’m pretty convinced you can taste passion in a wine.  And it’s delicious.