Shaky status makes wine country what it is

The Grapevine

October 06, 2011|By Lisa

I touched down in Gisbourne, New Zealand, on a flying "cigar tube with wings." The placards to that town read "First to see the light" and "First to see the New Millennium."

Having crossed the international dateline while in a more sizable bird and "lost a day" while flying, the signage seemed even more disorienting. This was the locale to which international observers flocked on Dec. 31, 1999, to see how the Y2K bug would strike because Gisbourne is the first place to see the dawn in the world every year.

I had seen huge tracks of evergreen forest from the air and asked my host about the greenery. Come to find out the trees were a direct result of government forestation efforts. Millions of acres of radiata pines were planted during the last depression to keep the men working.

The government chose areas of the country where the soil was too poor to support any other type of agricultural product, so they cleared the thick tangle of tropical brush and planted pine forest.

I asked about the impact that such huge tracts of forest had upon the ecosystem and my host gave me a blank stare. We had driven by miles and miles of pastureland, grassland and paddocks, none of it indigenous. The native gorse had been burned and replanted.

Only when crossing the roadway bridges over mountain gorges could one see the native flora: palms, ferns and tropical vines.

I was given no answer to my ecology question. New Zealand looked like England. And that suited the Kiwis.

Except that there were other anomalies.

New Zealand is a hotbed of geothermal and earthquake activity as the island country rests on two separate and distinct techtonic plates: Australasian and Pacific. The Pacific plate is being subsumed by the Australasian plate in the north and the Australasian plate is being subsumed by the Pacific plate in the south.

The fault lines run lengthwise through the country and all motion is occurring simultaneously to the tune of 14,000 (no typo) low-grade earthquakes a year.

The senior winemaker of Brancott told me that all the great vineyards of the world lie on fault lines. As he explained, fault lines act as drainage basins for rivers, and rivers bring alluvial deposits, which are largely sands and gravels. Sands and gravels have excellent drainage properties. Grapevines do not like "wet feet." Ergo, you'll find great vineyards along fault lines.

His case in point was Napa and Sonoma and the myriad California wine-growing regions along the San Andreas Fault.

Since my visit, I've found that once you start delving into the geological history of the wine regions of the world, you see that many are on fault lines: Alsace, Baden-Baden, Rhone, Burgundy, Jura, Provence, Oregon. However, not all are these regions are sandy or gravelly.

The soil composition seems to be less important than the soil structure. Fault lines mix soils that were formed during various geological epochs. And this seems to be a good thing where the vine is concerned.

Both the Master of Wine and the Master Sommelier exams expect candidates to be able to taste a wine and be able to identify its progeny blind. This would not be possible if the grape did not give voice to the soil and the environment (climate) in which it is grown. The French label this concept "terroir."

Researchers at Britain's University of Lancaster have already proven that a grapevine produces a certain set of metabolites based on the micro- and macro-nutrients present in the soil, and that that same grapevine produces a different set of metabolites based on a different set of micro- and macro-nutrients in the soil.

All we need to do is connect the specific metabolites to flavor compounds and we can prove terroir.

The Kiwis claim that the signature flavor profile of their wines are the product of a living earth. One certainly can't fault them for that!

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