The taste of rocks


Several of the wines we have recently recommended have a notable “minerality” as part of their flavor profile. At first glance, minerality seems to be a strange example of wine jargon since no one really expects a grape-based drink to taste like rocks. But one of the wonders of wine is the way it can express its local growing conditions, what the French call terroir, including the composition of the vineyard’s soil. Thus the Kimmeridgian limestone and fossilized seashells found in the ground of Chablis are perceived within the region’s wines.

While we all know what an apple or cherry smells and tastes like, minerality is vaguer unless you have spent some time licking rocks. (As wine geeks we actually have, or at least one of us has – and neither of us necessarily recommends it.) Because most of one’s sense of taste is actually determined by olfactory receptors (our sense of smell), it is largely those sensations that we appreciate in wines that taste “mineraly.” Minerality thus includes the aroma of crushed seashells, stones and chalk or the smell of a sidewalk after a storm.

And while it may sound unpleasant, minerality is not a predominant enough characteristic, even in Chablis, to be off-putting. It is more like a good bass groove to the lead guitar of fruit and other flavors. Research consistently shows that there are no actual increased minerals in these sorts of wines, but nearly all of them display notable acidity. This suggests that there are other compounds in the wines that are mimicking these “mineral” flavors, which are enhanced by the low pH. Or perhaps it is the high acidity that gives the sensation of minerals.

While pondering these mysteries, consider enjoying the Dalton Reserve Sauvignon Blanc 2012 ($16), a wine whose minerality predominates in the finish and is preceded by grassy and tropical fruit aromas and flavors along with nicely balancing grapefruit-like acidity. A delightful summer sipper.

Spirits-wise, the applicability of the notion of terroir to distilled alcohol is actually a bit of a stretch, especially in the modern era in which commercial division of labor and specialization has separated farming from distilled spirits production.

For starters, exactly what is meant by the term terroir is sometimes sketchy, as we’ve noted here before. It is a concept that encompasses the influence and inter-action of soil, sub-soil, exposure, orientation, climate and micro-climate on the growing of a plant – really, any plant – whether vine, tree, flower or grain. In the world of wine, this concept of terroir – though still debated – is generally revered, as it is said to produce and bestow subtle nuances of traceable character and flavor, a certain poetic sense of agricultural lineage and thus a people-of-the-earth sort of integrity and authenticity.

In the world of distilled spirits, however, it is less clear to what degree, if any, terroir could be said to apply. Distillation is a hugely transformative process, for one thing, and those spirits that undergo maturation in oak are subject to even further flavor evolution and development. Further, most producers vat or blend various barrels or batches of whisky to create a more uniform, reproducible, high-volume product.

Traditionally it was a common practice for farmers to convert their own excess grain into a nonperishable product like whisky, and some of these made whisky on a more commercial scale, as simply another of the farm’s commercial products. But times have changed. While there are still, globally, a handful of working farms that also commercially produce distilled spirits, and there are a handful of distilled spirits producers that grow a portion of their own raw materials (fruit, grain, sugar cane, etc.), by and large these are distinct commercial fields.

Now those distilled spirits that are more tightly bound to their agricultural foundations – like Tequila, Cognac, Armagnac, Calvados, and the like – might be said to have a stronger foundation from which to argue for terroir. But for any distiller whose regulated regionality is limited to the point of production, rather than requirements of farming, and whose fruit or grain or sugar sources are essentially sourced on the open market – it seems rather a stretch.

In strict legal terms, for example, Scotch producers do not even need to use Scottish barley. In a good year, more than 85 percent of the barley being used for Scotch whisky has actually been grown somewhere in Scotland, but the rest is frequently English or European. Post-farming production factors like the shape of the still, the skill of the stillman and the type of cask the spirit is matured in are what give the product of each distillery its unique character. Agricultural notions of terroir simply don’t enter into the picture.

As regards the barley, distillers are focused on distillery yield while farmers are more naturally focused on agronomic yield. All distillers care about is the supply of quality malting barley with low nitrogen content, low moisture content, high starch content and a low dormancy period. The lower the nitrogen in the grain, the more sugar is available to use, producing plenty of alcohol. The industry doesn’t care whether that barley comes from Scotland, Germany, Denmark or England.
However, there is at least one Scotch whisky producer – Bruichladdich – that is actually trying to bring terroir into the picture. The results have been pretty good, but remain highly limited and not embraced by the industry at large.

Since its re-opening in 2000, Bruichladdich uses 100 percent Scottish barley, and since 2004 roughly a quarter of this was grown on Islay. On balance, we like the concept better than the results, but it’s early days yet and the whisky is still mighty tasty. Here’s our take.

Bruichladdich, Islay Barley, Rockside Farm, 2007, Unpeated Single Malt Scotch Whisky (50 percent abv; $60): with rich yet sturdy aromatic notes of honey and vanilla cream, sweet malted barley, some floral characteristics, and perhaps a hint of pear, this six-year-old whisky exhibits a sweet and creamy palate of malted barley, muted honey, a touch of ginger, some distinct oak notes, developing on the finish with butter and toffee. Does this unpeated whisky offer the terroir of this slice of Islay? Not sure – but it is remarkably complex, with some alcoholic heat, and the overall effect is delicious, and somehow both muscular and refined. L’Chaim!

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