It would only seem natural that the inaugural blog post would begin in the soil, amongst the limestone, shale and schist. Yes, this is how my mind logically operates. It is, at times, frightening. And yes, I do realize this is likely not a failsafe strategy for garnering a loyal readership. But hey, rocks matter. Even the best climate, most favorable slopes, or ideal sun exposure do not necessarily translate into fabulous wines. The bedrock and soils must contribute just the right combination of minerals, acidity, alkaline balance, and drainage. To justify my geological infatuation, journey for a moment through the wonderful and diverse terroirs of France.
A friend recently decided to devote the year to exploring the French AOC of Savennières. A brilliant choice for white wine enthusiasts, one might conclude, due to the region's frequent accolades as the “King of Chenin Blanc.” While indeed true, that was not his primary motivation. His choice of appellation was instead based on the fact that Savennières contains the oldest geological formations in France. Finally, a mind more disturbed than my own. Or is it? What exactly sets apart Savennières, and other French appellations, as the preeminent sites in the word to produce the finest wines?
At least part of the answer lies beneath the surface, in a soil composition millions of years in the making. Take Savennières, for example. This appellation, located in the Loire Valley of Northern France, is presently blanketed with beautiful sprawling orchards and vineyards that benefit from a warm and amiable continental climate. Five hundred million years ago, however, this was a very different place; an ancient ocean basin with subsurface volcanoes dominated the continent's then northernmost shore.
As tectonic shifts occurred, the basin’s shores converged with violent volcanic force, eventually resulting in the northern and southern portions of present-day France being welded together along a fault line now recognized as the Loire Valley. The remnants of Loire Valley’s ancient beginnings can still be found amongst the soils. Fossilized bones and shells of long-vanished sea life from the basin along with ocean basalt, siliceous lava and other volcanic sediment produce well-drained, mineral-rich terroir that has consistently translated to exceptional mineral flavors famous to Savennières. The region's most distinguished and recognizable characteristics are borne out of its rocky beginnings.
One more example from one of France’s most famous regions: Côte-d'Or, within the larger appellation of Burgundy. Covering a relatively small geographical area, Côte-d'Or's climate and terroir are uniquely positioned to produce some of the most outstanding and expensive wines in the world. One distinctive feature (of many) of Côte-d'Or is the remarkable diversity of terroir located in such a small region. The soil composition in one vineyard can be markedly different than even its closest neighbors. But why? Part of the answer again lies submerged in an ancient sea. The region, now a warm continental climate, was for a time covered by a shallow tropical sea, dotted with islands, shoals and coral reefs. For this reason, the variety of soil and bedrock, both horizontally and vertically, are extraordinarily diverse. One consistency, however, does run throughout the AOC: limestone and marl sedimentation slowly accumulated from small shells and plankton that had sunk to the bottom of the prehistoric lagoon. This limestone bedrock is foundationally one of the most distinctive characteristics of the wines from Côte-d'Or. The combination of limestone bedrock and deep, relatively damp, pebbled soil is a perfect combination for yielding full-bodied, age-worthy Pinot Noir. The most sought after wines in the world can, quite literally, trace their roots to marine sediment built up from this Jurassic Burgundian sea.
I told you. Rocks are riveting. Every bottle you uncork has been influenced by them. I naturally presume you are now ready to jumpstart your journey to geological euphoria. Let me assist. Charles Frankel, a French geologist and wine aficionado, published a fascinating book on the topic of terroir: Land and Wine: The French Terroir. It is an exceptional book; short, approachable (yet still a bit wonkish), and moderately priced. A more expensive and wonkish geological exploration of Napa Valley's terroir is The Winemaker's Dance: Exploring the Terroir in the Napa Valley. One final recommendation: Volcanic Wines: Salt, Grit and Power by John Szasbo.