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.

Marlborough Wine Country

Since I have already gotten way behind in posting about my travels around the South Island, where I went to 3 different wine regions and spoke with a bunch of different producers, I thought I’d just start posting some photos.  Here are some from Marlborough, New Zealand’s most well-known wine region (especially if you’re talking about Sauvignon Blanc).  While the scene in Marlborough can seem dominated by big producers such as Brancott Estate, Villa Maria, Cloudy Bay, etc., the variety in Marlborough is actually quite impressive, from smaller family-run wineries such as Auntsfield (whose vineyard was originally planted  by ‘Marlborough’s original winemaker’ – David Herd – making him, I suppose, the other Marlboro[ugh] Man…), fully organic and biodynamic enterprises such as Seresin, to heavily European influenced producers such as Fromm and Hans Herzog.  Though notorious for Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough has started to branch out a bit, with many different varietals planted there, perhaps best exemplified by Forrest, who make around 50 different wines (though some are made from grapes grown in other parts of NZ – still, an impressive feat for their size!).

Minerality in wines… what is it?

Though I’ve talked a lot about science and art coexisting quite harmoniously in the wine world, I knew this wouldn’t be the case in every scenario.  And indeed, I have found an issue where science and nonscience butt heads.  This just happens to be the issue I have set out to study with Dr. Chris Oze at the University of Canterbury.  Dr. Oze is interested in the concept of ‘minerality’ in wine.  Geologic references, including minerality and others such as ‘slate,’ ‘quartz,’ and ‘wet stones’ are pervasive in tasting notes (including my own), but while many wine aromas and flavors can be traced to specific compounds in the wines, the story is not so simple with minerality.  The scientific community remains largely unconvinced that it is possible to taste the soils in any direct way, as they (rightly) point out that whole minerals cannot be taken up by the roots and end up in the grapes, and then somehow manage to stick around during months or even years of processing and maturation until they reach your glass.  Metal ions are surely taken up from the soil, but the mechanisms for this aren’t well understood and contributions of metals from exogenous sources, such as pesticides, metal tanks, and bentonite clays used for fining, complicate source allocation.

So it seems like the science here is at odds with what many people commonly believe about the taste of their wine (remember the importance of the soil to winemakers in Priorat??), and the importance of vineyard geology and soil composition on the quasi-mystical concept of ‘terroir.’  But then, after reading upwards of 50 scientific articles on the subject, it has started to seem like maybe the problem is that no one actually knows either way.  My latest conclusion is that there simply hasn’t been enough work done on this issue to know whether or not you really can taste some version, albeit highly modified and likely indirect, of the soil in your glass.  Amazing how scientists are so good at using a lack of conclusive evidence to support arguments on both sides (though in defense of all the scientists who have looked at this issue, it is ridiculously complex and very possible that we may just not be able to get a conclusive answer because controlling the variables enough to produce a valid study may render the results completely inapplicable to real winemaking – but there are always different ways of thinking about problems, so perhaps all we need is a novel approach…)!  So it is not necessarily that science and winemaking/tasting lore are at odds here, but we just don’t yet know enough to say.

Pegasus Bay – Science and Wine in Action

Yesterday I went up to the Waipara Valley with Roland Harrison (Director of Lincoln’s Centre for Viticulture and Oenology) and Olivia, an intern from France. Though only 5-6 km from the coast, the valley is protected from the cool easterlies that characterize the climate of the Canterbury plains by hills, keeping the valley significantly warmer than Christchurch, only 40 minutes south.

(Vineyard planted on the Teviotdale hills that protect the Waipara valley from cool easterly winds)

We visited Pegasus Bay, where winemaker Lynette Hudson gave us a tour and a tasting of their wines.  The decor in the cellar door and restaurant suggests a nod to European influence, and sure enough this influence isevident in the wines, which display a decidedly refined style.

(Tasting room at Pegasus Bay, with winemaker Lynette Hudson at right)

Though Waipara is not the most well-known of the wine regions in New Zealand, the industry has sunk its teeth into the area, and Riesling and Pinot Noir grapes do especially well here, and Pegasus Bay makes fine examples of each.  I have not found myself to be much of a Riesling fan, but I loved the Bel Canto late harvest dry Riesling that they make, as it has a much more delicate nose than many Rieslings I’ve  had, strongly characterized by orange blossom and even orange rind, but despite this delicate but poignant nose it is smooth and even a little rich in the mouth.  I also particularly enjoyed their Pinot Noir, as I have found many New Zealand Pinots to be far fruitier than I’m used to (mostly having tasted Pinots from Oregon and Burgundy, which tend to display more earthy tightness – particularly those from Burgundy), but theirs struck a lovely balance between fruitiness and structure, with a good balance of tannic characteristics.

(The gorgeous grounds at Pegasus Bay) 

The team at Pegasus Bay has worked with Lincoln Universtiy on research projects, one of several collaborations that allow Lincoln researchers to study wine in a commercial context.  This type of approach introduces a lot of complexity because of the inability to control all variables, but can provide an important perspective when approaching a variety of questions, giving useful and direct applications for the industry.  At Pegasus Bay, they have incorporated findings from the trials into their winemaking practices, and also conduct their own experiments in the vineyard and winery.  This type of relationship between winemaker and researcher seems to provide benefits for both sides, giving the researcher a constant stream of questions and samples, and giving the winemaker ideas of what they could be doing differently.  What I found most interesting in my visit at Pegasus Bay, however, was the way in which they actually apply these results.  It wasn’t just a blind acceptance of whatever the scientists told them was good, they still continue their own experimenting and make their wines in as small of batches as possible to be able to preserve any differences they have, and then utilize these differences in the blending process to best suit the particular style they are going for in individual wines and in the brand as a whole.

(Bathroom wall at Pegasus Bay)

Celebrating Wine

On Saturday I helped pour wine at the Wine and Food Festival in Christchurch. I was stationed in the Riedel-sponsored seminar tent (and for a wineglass nerd like me, it was quite a spectacle just to see the sheer number of glasses used for this event – and knowing their retail value this made my head spin a bit – but I do believe we went the entire day without a single broken one!), which played host to several New Zealand wine experts, including Bob Campbell, Jo Burzynska, Yvonne Lorkin, and Garth Gallaway.  The seminars were intended to be fun and informal, with themes ranging from playing up New Zealand whites other than Sauvignon Blanc to learning how to pair wine with music (interestingly, the only time I heard scientific studies mentioned at any point in the day was in this seminar taught by Jo Burzynska – the juxtaposition of music- undisputably an art, with science in this seminar was certainly not lost on me, though in this case the science was used in an attempt to lend validity to the assertion that music can affect the taste of a wine.  Honestly though, to me, trying it out for myself* was far more convincing than hearing about a tiny smattering of scientific studies on the subject).

(“Riedel Seminar Lounge”)

Over 50 South Island wineries were also represented at the Festival, and I had a chance to briefly meet a few of these people (including people from The Crater Rim, Pyramid Valley, Neudorf, The Third Man, Pegasus Bay, and Allan Scott) though most of my day was spent pouring wines for the seminars (this also meant that I did not have the chance to hear any of the Kiwi bands that played, but getting a bit of a behind-the-scenes look at an event like this was worth it).

*Possibly an interesting experiment to try at home?  The idea is basically to taste a wine in silence as well as with a few different styles of music, and see if you get different aromas/flavors/associations from the same wine in the different auditory environments.

**Of the couple bottles of leftover wine that I brought home and took to a friend’s birthday BBQ the next day, the favorite actually happened to not be a New Zealand wine but a Portugese bottle called DouROSA from the winery Quinta de la Rosa in the Doura region.