The taste of the soil

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Chateauneuf du Pape.

Every grapevine has its own story to tell.

In Chateauneuf du Pape, we stop the car along a narrow windswept street and snap a few pictures of the waveform landscape, vineyards all the way to the horizon.  At the feet of the vines’ trunks are smooth stones the exact sizes and colours of potatoes.  They must have been put there by hand, I think, the way they butt up against every trunk.  But then again, maybe they were here before the grapes were, maybe the people who planted them moved away just a few stones, dumped in just enough fine soil for a young plant to take root, and let the plants find their harmony amongst the terrain.  No tilling could take place here.

It is something I have never seen before, these big rocks covering a place where things grow.  I can’t figure out why it would be done.  I walk over to the edge of the vineyard, the place where it meets the road, and pick one up.  It’s surprisingly warm in my hand.  The wind here, the Mistral, is strong enough to blow regular topsoil away, and it has led me to pull the hood of my jacket around my face.  Underneath its russet surface, in a place where the rock is broken, the rock has an alabaster quality that reflects the light in flecks.

Grapes are traditionally planted in poor soil, explains Joe O’Connell, the proprietor of Domaine ‘O Vineyards in Languedoc. The lack of nutrients forces the roots to wander far and deep in order to eke out sustenance, and the result is more concentrated, smaller grapes with a higher proportion of skin to pulp.  The terroir at Donaine ‘O different than it is in Chateauneuf du Pape.  It is fine and familiar looking, recognizable as soil, though on close inspection it is all silt or clay, a pale colour with fine sparkles.

Each of the vines at Domaine ‘O – hundreds, maybe thousands of them – is pruned by hand.  Some, like Grenache, are able to stand on their own and pruned in ‘goblet style’.  Others, like Merlot, are trellised, with a new fruiting cane selected and trained each year, a laborious process.   Joe is in the process of making his first batch of Chasan, a mostly forgotten white grape that local experts told him would be watery, flavourless and unable to hold any acidity.  He planted it anyway.  Perhaps it’s the natural outcome of being an American winemaker in France.

In the fermenting room, Joe pours us a taste of the Chasan straight from the stainless steel fermenter.  It’s only half-way towards the finished product, cloudy and unfiltered.   I stick my nose into the glass and smell ripe, fresh pineapple.  I take a sip, and the pineapple flavour is even more prominent, along with a tickle of carbon dioxide and a perfect acidic bite.  It’s followed by a hit if fresh hay.  I want more.

How does a grape that is grown in France acquire the taste of pineapples? How does a varietal that others predicted to be tasteless acquire such a delicious flavour?

Gallets Roules stones.

Gallets Roules.

Joe pours us a taste of Syrah from the fermenter, another work in progress.  It tastes of pepper and cranberries.  I like these half-formed wines, their cloudiness and their carbon dioxide kick.  Then we try a reserve syrah from a few years ago, the same grapevines but a different year and this time a finished and aged product.  It tastes like lavender and leather.  Both wines have French syrah’s peppery undertone and smoothness, but from there the flavours diverge.

Wine tasting is an art form that relies on symbolism.  The smells and flavours of wine don’t have their own names.  Instead, they depend on comparison to other, more definite references.  Pineapple, lavender, leather, pepper, diesel, grass, tar.  But judging a scent or flavour on its own, without any real context, is an imperfect process.  At wine shops I often play the game with the little vials of scents, trying to guess what each one is.  I usually get them wrong.  What is it that we are actually smelling or tasting with wine, where there is no visual context, where the flavour and the smell sometimes have little in common with each other?  Does the wine actually taste like pineapple, or is this the approximation we choose because there is no other way to describe it, no musical scale or colour palette, because taste and smell and the touch texture created by tannins are so evocative and concrete, more difficult fit onto a scale than sight or hearing; pineapple is pineapple, leather is leather; they exist in a real space that enters our bodies in a more obvious way than colours or sounds do.

If I tell you that the wine tastes like peaches, when in fact I am tasting pineapple, will you agree that it tastes like peaches?

In Chateauneuf du Pape, at Ogier winery, I finally learned the names of the large stones. They are called are called Gallets Roules, the remnants of the ancient bed of the Rhone.  The stones retain heat during the day and radiate it at night.  Ogier makes four kinds of wine from four of the distinct terroirs of the region, each with the same mix of grape varieties.  Along with Gallets Roules, there are Eclats Calcaires (limestone rock), Safres (marl) and Gres Rouges (degraded red sandstone).  Each soil type causes the roots to grow differently, wide and shallow or deep and narrow, and these differences are reflected in the tastes of the wines.  In each case, the soil is poor enough to make the vines work hard for their nutrients.  We bought a bottle of Safres and are saving it for a special occasion.

From our October 2012 trip to France. 

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