I have written a lot about the topic of 'terroir' and was recently asked by Max Marriot, landscape photographer and specialist writer, to offer some thoughts about geology, wine and the like. This was to help with an article he was commissioned to do for the New Zealand Grape Grower.
I thought it might make this rather dry topic rather more fun if I just published in sequence the exchange between us and to finish with Max's article which I think is outstanding. Three quite long emails I sent have not been edited and I've left them that way as they seem to capture a bit more of the urgency and pressure I felt under to send a meaningful reply.
Sent: Wednesday, 13 May 2009 5:54 AM
Subject: soil, geology and wine that rocks
My name is Max Marriott and I'm a friend of Dave Brookes (Teusner) who passed on your email address to me. Dave posted an interesting topic on the Winestar Forum some months ago that involved soil - but particularly geology - of the Barossa and surrounds. He stated that he'd been traipsing around with your good self, an ex-geologist whom he said was now in wine retail. I'd just be really keen to have a chat over the phone (do you have a landline I can contact you on today?), only briefly, about geology and such for an article I'm writing for NZ Grape Grower magazine. If you're available, that would be terrific, and if not perhaps we could even just correspond over email.
Thanks David and look forward to hearing from you,
To: 'Max Marriott'
Sent: Wednesday, 13 May 2009 11:28 a.m.
Subject: RE: soil, geology and wine that rocks
I'm at my desk now so fire off what you have in mind and we perhaps can talk later in the day. I need to know your 'angle' so I can help if possible. If you go to our site Glug -hit Wine-then scroll down to 'regional studies and terroir' you will find quite a lot on NZ regions-also elsewhere on the site some observations I've made about the Gimblett gravels have enormous relevance to this debate. All of this may help you. First let me know your specific ideas.
Thanks for the prompt response. I've had the chance to quickly peruse your website and skim some of your articles.
The angle of the article is an attempt to explain the validity of how soil and geology influence the quality and character of grapevines and the wine produced from their fruit. Firstly, a statement from yourself about how you interpret soil and geology having an effect on the grapevine/wine would be great. Also, a quick summary of your background would also be beneficial.
As you mention in one of your articles, the soils/geology romance is often used more for the purpose of marketing and mystique than anything else. People like Richard Smart and David Saayman are skeptics, proclaiming that there is no scientific evidence for soil/geology having any direct influence on wine and, while this may technically be true, the lack of scientific evidence doesn't mean that there is no influence; simply that we are yet to understand it.
I'm a huge rock hound and I love this sort of stuff, so I'm biased in favour of soils/geology, though my discussions with other people already seem to have concluded that unless the geology and/or parent material has had some role in the formation of the soil, than it's unlikely the geology has an effect in that circumstance. Men like Seguin and Pomerol conducted research in the late '80s that concluded the physical properties of soil in particular are responsible for a vine's character and habit, and I tend to lean in favour of the hydrology argument too. Then there is the minerality buzzword too, which invokes all kinds of different responses from people - Andrew Jefford smashing rocks in France and smelling the exact compounds released from these rocks as those aromas in the wine.
So I'd be interested to hear your response to that discussion as well and anything else you would care to add.
PS. The nature of the discussion doesn't need to be focused specifically on NZ, for what it's worth.
13th May, 2009.
Thoughts for Max Marriot on Geology and Soils. Part 1.
This is the start of some free flowing thoughts to open up discussion. Some of this will be repetitive and is uncorrected etc and has arguments leading nowhere. I have been inching towards writing what I currently feel and really the questions you ask are for the first time forcing me to explain where I currently sit. Here goes.
I find it helpful to imagine back to when vines were planted in new colonies with root stock from old Europe (mostly France I imagine but cuttings would have come from Spain , Madeira, Portugal and I suppose Italy, possibly Germany). The vines were planted around the first settlements and while the new colonists were aware of the climate where the cuttings perhaps came from they took what they found. Thus in Australia we planted in the Hunter which has no counterpart in Europe. We planted not on finding a similar climate but on where they settled. There was no other way. And certainly no thought was given to similar soils or geology though they may have thought there was a link. The idea of terroir probably goes back a long way but as modern usage I think it is quite recent and books prior to the 1939 and indeed later into the 1960-'s do not refer to this concept (as a word). But they would have had some notions from the old world about some areas being better for vines than others. Many quite learned books relate back to 1850-1880's etc
So in Australia the result is naturally vines planted in warm climate areas as most of the country is warm. So what is, is what happened. We have the Barossa-unique flavours, ultra hot Swan Valley, Hunter, McLaren Vale etc. They did as well plant some cooler areas, the Yarra, Geelong and small amounts in the Adelaide Hills and Eden Valley. Clare is the all time great oddity. Only much later after say 1960 did we consciously set out to imitate old world areas with climate data such as degree days. We started with Padthaway, Drumborg, the Great Southern etc. Later still Tasmania and high altitude areas.
I suppose the point is that with todays knowledge if Australia was just being founded and we went rigidly with old world data some of our best regions would not be planted and we would not have Grange. So there is a huge limit to what can be transferred. Certainly old world geology tells us nothing. The thin crust in which plants grow -the soil, and the regolith-is very different to the old world because the surface is in general so much older (no glaciations being the principal reason). Thus to look at Champagne and say let's find a site like that in Australia cannot be done as we have no limey chalk deposits in the right climate zone. Yet we make quite good sparkling wines off radically different rocks and thus soils-this tends to move me to think that the geology and the soils of Europe do not help in where to plant a vineyard in Australia. This I know is the bleeding obvious but lets see where this goes.
Only in the most general terms is old world data useful. For example in France many good to great wines are associated with chalk and limestone's. This has enthused some Californians to look for vineyards with a limestone geology-also a few in New Zealand. We now see this is too restrictive, useful if it's in the right climate Zone but not to worry if it's not. Thus the influence of geology must be very minor or be zero.
Now we can do the reverse and say if the new world was the old world and we were now planting Europe for the first time with all the knowledge we now have where would we go. In my belief it would be a long time before someone said-what about draining the cobbled marshes along the Gironde.
This reasoning is what makes me so enthralled by New Zealand. Before our eyes we have watched in the last 20 year or so three or four world class areas open up. We have a tiny scrap of country deep down in a vast ocean making great wines. The soils are for the most part derived as glacial outwash and are young. There is no evidence of a geology influence, and I argue much of it is an experiment - one step removed from hydroponic farming. The Gimbletts are a very special experiment in this. For me NZ explains very well what are the major reasons for complex grape flavours. Major weather patterns, variable local patterns such as heat being trapped (eg Gimbletts), with what the plant is growing in having a very minor role. See the vines at the ocean end of the Wairau-they are on beach deposits.
So its how water is delivered to the plant-that's important, and in some cases to do this in the most favourable way a slope is important eg Burgundy. Not too much not too little- must be just right. Again what has been learnt in the Gimbletts is profound as the plant needs supplements to grow.
13th May, 2009.
Thoughts for Max Marriot on Geology and Soils. Part 2
I start part two with some background about how I developed my interest in this debate about terroir. I graduated from the Univ of Tasmania in 1973 as a geologist (and botanist) and worked for about 10 years travelling the world as a base metal geologist (versus oil geologist). Anything to do with soils or the regolith, or landscapes was never on my mind - as a working geologist the stuff that covered the rocks was an irritant. I began to see otherwise when working in WA in 1972-1974 but the current interest dates to much later and I really had to relearn my geology.
In the great collapse of the first oil boom 1973? I left geology and started with my brother a wine business in Canberra called Farmer Bros (June 1975). All thoughts of geology were gone and books packed away. Many times I went to Coonawarra and was wined and dined, and sometimes they showed me vineyards and talked about the soils. Most of what I was told about the soil and how the rocks were formed seemed wrong to me and over time I developed a resolve to one day go to Coonawarra and map it all. I also thought I could perhaps make a contribution to the rocks, soils, wine, taste debate (terroir) and at the time would have believed that there was likely to be a connection back to geology.
I did some work on Coonawarra from about 1996 on but it was in 1999? that I mapped it in great detail and this paper was published in 2001. (see Glug where there is a copy) (The red soils of Coonawarra-Aust and NZ Wine Journal). I enjoyed that so much that I continued mapping the great south east of SA and into Victoria trying to further understand rocks and soils. This is an ongoing project.
About 2002 I wanted to apply what I was learning to a new area and selected the Barossa Valley because it is vastly different and far more complex than what I had done. I presented a paper about what I had learnt last year and Brooks picked it up. Work continues on this project. All of this is done as a hobby and I find it fun. I moved to the Barossa to start a new business in 2004.
So to attempt to answer one of your questions in a short way, "The angle of the article is an attempt to explain the validity of how soil and geology influence the quality and character of grapevines and the wine produced from their fruit. Firstly, a statement from yourself about how you interpret soil and geology having an effect on the grapevine/wine would be great." - I find difficult to do apart from saying that the cornerstone of terroir [I was refering here to the meaning of terroir as it is defined] is wrapped in soils yet as I said in part 1 the connection is very vague and to date I have not been able to relate it back to geology.
Probably there is no connection back to geology. I have wanted to believe but the science of my own observations has led me in the opposite direction. What we can say is that the vine will produce finer grapes in this environment here than that environment there. Part of that is how it is growing so the soil texture will play a role and how it accesses water. (I return to this later) Thus I must disappoint by saying "You cannot say if we have this bedrock with this soil we will get this taste anywhere in the world-I actually think every vineyard area is unique. Some are so unique that the flavours make great wine". So I think you should be very careful about exposing yourself to a definite stand.
"The angle of the article is an attempt to explain the validity of how soil and geology influence the quality and character of grapevines and the wine produced from their fruit."
With that said I found at Coonawarra that the red soils make better wine than the adjoining black soils. There was a paper studying this published in 2000? Which showed berry sizes altered from the black to red soils. So this is due to how the plant grows. The red soils drain differently. I also made some observations about sherry district but have not been there to verify what is commonly believed. I wrote the following; And lastly the emphasis on the special soils and underlying bedrock that are needed to make sherry is quite striking. It is not only this book but all those about sherry who make a strong connection between the white chalky albariza soils and the highest wine quality. While many contemporary books relate the importance of rocks and soil to wine quality the evidence for this is meagre and only two instances come to mind where the connection may be proven these being the white soils of Jerez and the red soils of Coonawarra. ( in a review of Jeffs book on sherry)
I also do think there are other areas where the connection to the soil exists-thus in some regions of the Barossa sandy soils relate back to better wines often Grenache. They also believe this in McLaren Vale.
15th May, 2009.
Thoughts for Max Marriot on Geology and Soils.
I hope the first two parts have helped get you thinking. I work out of the Veritas winery in the Barossa owned by Rolf Binder. He makes three or four quite famous Barossa reds. Two of these come from vineyards just behind the winery and they are Hanisch and Heysen (these are the vineyard names as well)-both shiraz from vineyards about 50-100 metres apart and they are very different wines. For all intents and purposes made the same way although they have different oak treatments. There are differences in the soils and Heysen is further up the hill though they were both planted at the same time from the same clone. Why are they different? Not in some vast dramatic way as they are after all warm climate shiraz but enough to make you puzzled. Is the change in climate from that small distance apart and how the plants get water and nutrients because of small soil differences enough to explain why they taste different or is there some important piece of the puzzle staring back at us and we cannot see it? Alas the rows of vines are 90 degrees different so I reluctantly come to the conclusion that there are enough changes for the wines to be different even though the vineyards are close together. Look at it another way. Hanisch comes only from the last 12 rows of shiraz vines at the northern end of the block-so lets say 1-12 rows make the grade but rows 13 on going south do not make the grade. Rolf worked out decades ago that the shiraz at the northern end made the good stuff but even he will concede that there is no line between row 12 and 13 it's a gradation of quality. So the science to me shows more and more that soil as such and geology fades more and more into the background. If we see this soil over this sort of bedrock we can be certain it will have this sort of taste just does not happen.
You know in a funny way this is even more exciting than an absolute such as the comment above as it leads me to the remarkable conclusion that there are so many subtle variables that every vineyard and parts of vineyards are indeed unique-and think of all the places still to be planted with vine (across Asia etc) Who knows what wonderful tastes will be found. And with 10,000 varieties of vines imagine finding just that perfect setting for a variety that at the moment we see as undistinguished.
That is why I'm in such awe of New Zealand. Marlborough and sauvignon blanc just linked together in some special alchemy and drinkers across the globe now get a fabulous pleasure at a very fair price I might add. NZ is the most important growing experiment we have ever seen and to have so many world class regions is a remarkable phenomenon. And it tells me that weather -which after all offers a million variables across a growing season is the prime source of taste differences. (I exclude for the moment genes etc) Look how chardonnay changes its flavor profile as it moves from hot to warm to cool climates-simply remarkable.
Back to soils-I've mentioned Coonawarra and Jerez. We know sand effects quality in the Barossa but my thinking then shifts to why and the conclusion I have come to is as follows. When it rains in the Barossa the red clayey soils cannot absorb the moisture quick enough and it starts to run off. What you want is regulated light rain just at the pace it can be soaked up-well this mostly does not happen-but with the sandy top soils (these are wind blown in origin) the rain is soaked up easily and has more of a chance to filter down into the red earths. Its also why I like cobbled soils as they are porous and I suspect when a rain drop hits a rock it busts into a thousand tiny drops-mist like- which are more likely to soak into the soil.
It's funny too how we cultivate our land as we destroy terroir as well but make a new one with deep ripping and contouring. They do this in Coonawarra to bust up the subsurface calcrete layer and I accuse them of busting up their terroir.
Andrew Jefford came to see me the other day and I'm not sure what he thinks now. We all want to believe the soil geology thing as it makes such a good story but when you think about it that is to easy. What we have is infinitely more subtle. Then I came across an article about some blokes in WA at the Uni. who are fingerprinting each vineyard district by using mass spectrometry for 60 trace elements in wine and say they can tell each district apart as these would have to depend on the soil composition to end up in the grape. They say; "They are now building up a database of wines from around the world. Once completed it will be possible to identify the origin of an unknown wine sample by comparing its fingerprint to those in the database. 'We aim to reliably place a wine within 20km of its origin,' said Watling."
I bet they cannot but it offers the intriguing possibility than some taste elements come from different soils. Are we missing something? Then of course can we possible taste these tiny changes -probably not. We kid ourselves most times anyway when we taste wine. Part of the fun really.
Hope some of this helps
16/5/09 Hi David,
I've been waiting anxiously for each installment as they've come through!
Thanks for your input. It's been a good read and you bring up some sobering issues and points.
I know the Veritas winery well. Rolf Binder is a bit of a legend in your parts. One of my best mates was working at Turkey Flat and now works at Kabminye (Craig Butcher - married to Ilona Glastonbury) and, funnily enough, another one of my best mates has just finished vintage at Henschke and is making his way over to Central in a few days. I've only been over to the Barossa a couple times in the last two years, but it's a great place (the salt chocolate at the farmer's market holds a special place in my heart…).
I will spend the weekend compiling a draft and I'll run any quotes (and poetic license I use…) by you to check your quotes for grammar, accuracy, etc.
In the meantime, I don't suppose you have any pertinent photos you think would be relevant to the article that I could reference you for?
Cheers for now,
3/6/09 final from Max
From: Wine Technology New Zealand, June-July 2009
Soils Geology -and wine that rocks. Max Marriot.
Grapegrowers like to preach about it, winemakers think they
can taste it, and wine marketers write hyperbole about it.
But is there really a tangible connection between the unseen,
underground world of rocks and soil and the characteristics
and qualities in wine? There is considerable anecdotal and
empirical evidence worldwide that would suggest a strong correlation between the
type of soil grapevines grow in and the corresponding flavours, textures and
aromatics of the wine. However, little research has been conducted (partly due to
the scope of such an undertaking) and there is certainly no scientific proof. Yet.
It's the sort of topic that polarises opinion and yes, before you start knowingly shaking
your head, there is overlap to the terroir debate. There are Old World vignerons who
swear on their ancestors' graves that 'site specificity' is real and you only have to walk
their vineyards to actually see the change in soil type within identical blocks and then
taste the difference in the wines they craft. On the flipside, a selection of wine
scholars around the globe argue that soil
plays only a secondary role, placing much
more emphasis on climate and canopy
management. They certainly lend no
credence to the premise of geology having
an impact, nor the notion of mineral
characteristics or any such thing being
derived from rocks.
Mike Weersing of Pyramid Valley
Wines in the Waikari district of North
Canterbury has had the privilege to work in
vineyards and wineries all over the world.
As a proponent of soils and geology having
a strong influence on wine, Weersing has
drawn on his experience to make some
"Everything in the Old World from good
producers is predicated to letting the soil
speak, letting the soil show. In the New
World, we say 'yeah, but if you change
winemaker, yield, viticulture, etc, the soil
becomes such a small part that it's probably
"I think that the single biggest difference
- the reason why Europeans know and
believe in the influence of soil - is based on
their desire to express their sites. In the New
World we want to express varietal character,"
"There are some very basic patterns; there
are certain kinds of soil that have a consistent
imprint on the wines grown from them. You
can defy that imprint if you choose to. This
is why most New World winemakers and
grape-growers think that soil has no impact;
because it can be overridden. But that doesn't
mean it's not there. The reason soil shows
more precisely and convincingly in Europe is
because that's what they want to show."
"I've worked around Europe with a lot
of growers who emphasise terroir and who
work deliberately to allow differences of site
and soil to show in their wines. Patterns
then emerge. From my time in the Mosel,
Alsace and Burgundy, you see consistent soil
types and consistent impacts on the soils
grown from them. The European sensibility
is that limestone provides structure - not
just more tannin (though it can be), but a
kind of density; a rigour that takes time to
soften. There is absolute agreement that
wines grown on limestone take longer to
come round. They age better, or age longer,
or require more time to show what they have.
Pinot is a thin-skinned variety where the
seed-to-skin ratio is tipped towards seed;
because it makes light, perfumed wines,
the extra structure that limestone confers is
valuable," Mike says.
The idea of a winemaker's intent to
allow the soil and geology to talk is an
interesting one. This is the approach that
Mike Weersing takes, ensuring that his
winemaking is invisible and transparent, to
fully expose the pure expression of place.
It's hard to ignore the fact that even though
men like Weersing may be a minority, their
products speak louder than words, with an
uncannily high, exponential ratio for some
of the most interesting wines in the world.
Surely that must count for something; you
think, you act, you are.
I spoke to Professor Robert White of the
University of Melbourne; the author of "Soils
for Fine Wines" and "Understanding Vineyard
Soils", hoping that he could shed some light on
some of the more technical mechanics of what
really goes on under the ground.
"We have the 'wine technical' approach on
one hand, and the wine marketing approach
on the other. The more popular idea is
that soils can influence wine character.
There is quite a lot written by wine writers
and vineyard managers or owners, but it's
usually not based on any scientific analysis;
it's usually based on their assessment of the
flavour and aroma of the wines. I'm not an
expert in that area - I don't have very good
sensory tasting and I'm no Master of Wine
or anything like that - but people like Max
Allen write quite confidently about the soil
influence and the sense of place. I've been in
correspondence with David Schildknecht,
one of Robert Parker's team, who certainly
believes that there are soil influences on
wine character in the Old World."
"The reason why there isn't a lot of
progress lies with the abundance of variables
and their interactions. If you want to look
at a particular factor - like manganese or
calcium - you have to eliminate the other
variables. This is easier said than done.
I prefer, as a working hypothesis, that
adverse mineral nutrition may give the
wines different characters. I also support the
French view that water in the soil - its rate of
release and drainage - has a very important
effect on the maturation of the grape and the
character of the wine."
This French view that White refers to
has its roots with two French researchers
some thirty years ago; Seguin and Pomerol,
and more recently van Leeuwen. They
concluded that the chemical properties of
soil failed to demonstrate any links (though
recent experiments show that soil chemistry
can in fact trigger gene expression and
hormonal responses in grapevines), but the
physical properties - namely the structure
and inherent hydrology of the soil - were
determining factors across different vineyard
sites. Countless papers over the past half
century have been published that support
Thus, the geological influence is
somewhat obscured and indirect because
it acts through the soil forming process.
David Farmer, a geologist who now lives in
the Barossa Valley working in wine retail,
presented some pragmatic arguments on the
"The cornerstone of terroir is wrapped in
soils, yet the connection is very vague and to
date I have been unable to relate it back to
geology. In all likelihood there is no connection
to geology. I have wanted to believe otherwise
but the science of my own observations has led
me in the opposite direction."
"What we can say is that the vine will
produce finer grapes in this environment
here, than that environment there. This
relates to how the vine grows, so the soil
texture and water access will play a role. You
cannot say that if we have this bedrock with
this soil we will get this taste (anywhere in
the world). I actually think every vineyard
area is unique. Some are so unique that the
flavours make great wine."
Farmer also added some sobering thoughts
to the Old World and New World discussion.
"I find it helpful to imagine back to when
vines were planted in new colonies with
rootstocks from Europe. We planted in the
regions where we settled and no thought
was given to the climates or soils of the
Old World. With today's knowledge, if
Australia was just being founded and we
went rigidly with Old World data, some of
our best regions would not be planted and we
wouldn't have Grange.
"Now we can do the reverse and say if the
New World was the Old World and we were
now planting Europe for the first time, with
all the knowledge we now have where would
we go? In my belief it would be a long time
before someone would suggest draining the
cobbled marshes along the Gironde.
"This reasoning is what makes me so
enthralled by New Zealand. Before our eyes
we have watched in the last 20 years as three
or four world class areas have opened up.
We have a tiny scrap of country deep down
in a vast ocean making great wines. The
soils are for the most part derived as glacial
outwash and are young. There is no evidence
of a geology influence and I argue much of
it is an experiment - one step removed from hydroponic farming. The Gimblett Gravels
are a very special case in point. For me, New Zealand explains very well the major reasons
for complex grape flavours; major weather patterns and variable local patterns (such as
heat traps like the Gimblett Gravels), rather than the soil."
"So it's how water is delivered to the plant that's most important, and in some cases to
do this in the most favourable way a slope is important (like in Burgundy). Not too much,
not too little - it must be just right," says David Farmer.
The common theme here focuses on water within the soil profile; not only rates of water
storage and drainage but how water moves - the effects of suction, gravity, porosity,
permeability and so forth. So, does it then stand to reason that two soils with identical
or very similar hydrology could have totally different mineral constituents and still
engender wines of like characteristics? While there is wide acceptance that
hydrology is a determining factor, it's but one piece of a larger puzzle affording only
a glimpse of clarity for a question that may very well remain unanswered for the
duration of our lives. In closing, let's go back to Mike Weersing
who aptly summarises the status quo and his desire to let sleeping dogs lie,
"There is no scientific proof that soil type or geology directly influences or impacts the
way that a wine tastes or smells. In general when we talk about the influence that a soil
has, we're often talking about shape in the mouth, or architecture, or the ability of the
wine to age. Nobody has made a massive effort to try and understand why a wine
that grows on sandstone next to a wine that grows on limestone is so different (when the
winemaking and viticulture are the same).We don't know whether it's vine
physiology, whether its root physiology, whether it's the chemical makeup of the soil,
the physical structure of the soil, hydrology, or whatever.
But it doesn't really matter to me that we don't understand why it happens - just because we don't understand it, doesn't mean that it doesn't happen. It almost pleases me that there are still great mysteries in the world of wine."