Wine's dirty truth

Warren Winiarski, former University of Chicago lecturer and iconic founder of Napa Valley's Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, was fond of stating that good wine depends on three G's: "the grapes, the ground and the guy." (The aphorism dates to the 1970s; today, no doubt, he would include "the gal.")

In his day, Winiarksi's wines won many awards, not the least of which was the blue ribbon for his 1973 cabernet sauvignon at the famed 1976 "Judgment of Paris." The grapes, made into wine by this guy, came from hallowed ground, his Stags Leap District vineyard, about which Winiarski also was fond of saying that the vineyard brought together both "the fire" of volcanic soil and "the water" of alluvial soil.

His cabernets captured that amalgam, he felt, so that you could experience and taste both the fire's "concentration and intensity," as well as the water's "supple pliancy."

The ground did that. It did that to the grapes, and then it did that to the guy.

And thus accumulate, over time and across the globe's winemaking regions, claims for the power of the soil in which wine grapes grow.

This week and next, I sketch six soils that figure prominently around the world as foundations for wine grape vineyards. The aim is to see what effect each soil might have on the grapes that grow on it and then the wine that the grapes make.


Because it is so widespread over the earth's surface, granite is also common in vineyard sites. It achieves star status in some. "You'll find it in the good Muscadet," says sommelier Shebnem Ince, "and in the northern Rhone and the top crus of Beaujolais."

"Granite is the main characteristic of all great Beaujolais," says Stephane Aviron, a producer of several top crus. "It is a poor soil, therefore with low yields and consequently opulent wine." Koos van der Merwe, a viticulturist in South Africa, says that the granitic soils of the mountains of his Swartland vineyards "are the main reason we can retain good acidity in our white wines."

Oftentimes, because "granite is thermodynamic," says Ince, and also "darker in color, it keeps daytime heat and releases it during the night in what can be a cool, continental climate. Rocks help viticulture."

2011 Leeuwenkuil Lion's Lair White Blend "Family Reserve," Coastal Region South Africa: A blend of five Swartland white grapes for a different white fruit flavor (Honeycrisp apple, say, or Bosc pear) at every sip; with razor's edge acidity, hints of minerals and a rich, creamy texture from lees stirring; great value for all that. $15.


The soils of many of the globe's finer hillside or mountainside vineyards are volcanic. Examples include the entire region around Etna in Sicily, all of Santorini in Greece, most of Napa Valley off the horizontal and the great slope of Rangen in Alsace.

"Volcanic is an old soil," says Pedro Parra, a viticultural and terroir specialist from Chile. "Younger soils like alluvial (soils eroded and redeposited by water) make more simple wines with less complex tannins or minerality. But soils from mother rocks like granite or volcano, they are hard and their wines are full of minerals and tight in structure, more linear in profile and long-lasting."

"My best pinot noir wines are volcanic," says Luisa Ponzi, winemaker at Oregon's Ponzi Vineyards. "But 'best' is based on the age of the vines. Our younger vines work off soils that are sedimentary in character, wind-blown soils that lay on top of the volcanic.

"When the roots on the older vines, though, 15 to 20 years old, begin to hit the underlying basalt (volcanic soil), they completely change. The wine shifts from fruit-driven to structure-driven; the tannins become chewier; and the fruit goes from red fruits to black fruits. The older soils give a wine that's more complicated."

2011 Ponzi Vineyards Pinot Noir Aurora Vineyard, Willamette Valley Oregon: Lean and incisive (a function of a very cool season) with refined, furry tannin all around the palate; dark red and blue fruit aromas and tastes, with piercing, cleansing acidity; for cellar now. $100


"It's becoming a common observance now," says Christopher Howell, winemaker at Spring Mountain's Cain Vineyard and Winery in Napa Valley, "that certain locations make distinctive wines. Differences in soil make differences in flavor."

Howell is speaking of "the benchlands" in Napa Valley, which are alluvial fans that spilled into the valley by water that had run off its mountains and hillsides.

"You see them all along, especially the western side of Napa," says Howell. They grow grapes that make wine that has captivated the world, wines from the Rutherford Bench, for example, or the Oakville Bench, famous wines, expensive wines.

Their secret? "It's water availability," says Howell. "Better grapes grow where water is limited; they reduce the overall growth of the vine. Not many leaves means more berries, but not too-big ones. Good fruit."

2010 Round Pond Estate Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford, Napa Valley: Nearly more about texture than taste, although no faulting that; black-red fruits, ample aroma, dusting tannins; fantastic, seductive length. $48

2009 Sequoia Grove Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley: Classic Napa cabernet, for its come-hither scents of cassis and damp black earth, hint of anise and sage; and long, persistent, moderately tannic palate; great price for center of the Valley cabernet from top maker. $38

Next week: slate, limestone, schist

If your wine store does not carry these wines, ask for one similar in style and price.

Bill St. John has been writing and teaching about wine for more than 40 years.