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Tasting Soil And Rocks

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I’ve always thought the influence of soil and rock is vastly overstated by some people in their discussion of the flavour and style of wine. So I had a hearty chortle when I read a tasting report in the latest edition of The World of Fine Wine in which writer Tom Stevenson set out to see if three expert Alsace tasters could tell the difference between riesling wines grown on limestone and on granite.

In a controlled blind tasting, the three tasted, rated and described 64 2009 dry Alsace rieslings produced from single soil types. And they were asked to pick the soil type.

Result: they were all at sea. There was little or no correlation between their perceptions and the truth. As well, before the tasting, two Alsace authorities were asked to define the taste differences, and none of the three tasters agreed with these statements, nor were they supported by the tasting itself (To over-simplify: granite wine is lean and racy; limestone is fatter and richer).

Having just returned from Alsace and the Mosel, where soil and rock are talked about endlessly, I was even more interested in this than usual. I find it very distracting when tasting large numbers of wines with a winemaker to have him or her rabbit on about the rocks, when I seldom perceive any real significance in the wine I’m tasting. I do take note, of course, but the main thing to focus on is the taste and quality of what’s in your glass.

None of this is to say that Stevenson, his panelists or I are non-believers in the concept of terroir. I don’t think there are many wine professionals who would disagree point-blank that soil (and the rock from which it derives) influences the taste and chemical structure of the grapes and hence the wine. It’s just that such differences are very, very subtle, and it takes a lifetime of experience working with the vines and the terroirs to be well versed in such esoterica.

A fascinating follow-up would be to get highly experienced Alsace winemakers to do a similar blind tasting. www.worldoffinewine.com

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