WineInk: Dirt in wine — When filthy is a good thing
2016 Wynns Black Label Cabernet Sauvignon
Awhile back, the winemaker from Wynn’s Coonawarra Estate made a stateside trip to show off some of the outstanding wines from the region. Sue Hodder poured the Black Label Cabernet to a group of us and explained how the rich, red dirt helps to define not just the wines, but also the entire region. While I drink a good bit of Napa cabernet, as well as the varietal from other regions, this earthy but elegant wine was a revelation. Softer on the palate but bold and, well, again, earthy, this wine was a delight.
Last week my Rocky Mountain driveway and road were slammed with the snows of March that we alluded to in last week’s WineInk. I had noted that Santa Rosa, California, had received 5.66 inches of rain in a 24-hour period and made the point that it would be the equivalent of around 4 feet of snow if you used a 10-to-1 ratio of snow to rain.
Well, we got over 5 feet of wet snow, high-water-content snow, not in 24 hours thank god, but over a week. Methinks that is the equivalent of about 6 inches of rainfall. It was enough to keep me snowbound in my house for three days, during which time I consumed three-plus bottles of wine. Stir crazy for sure.
Anyway, when we finally got a super-sized Caterpillar front loader to push all that heavy snow away, I was surprised to get a noseful of the smell of fresh spring dirt as the blade of the big CAT dug deep into the road, attempting to clear a path for my escape. And I noted what a joy it was to get that dirty smell. It felt so new and, ironically, clean, like the turning of the seasons.
Now, we all know that smell of fresh dirt. We may get it when we plant some flowers or turn a shovel in a field. But sometimes we can get that aroma, that scent of dirt, when we put our proboscis into a glass of wine. And it can be a glorious thing. “Earthy” is what someone who is a bit more refined may say when getting a whiff of dirt or soil in a sniff.
I’m not talking about actual dirt here. There is no scientific evidence that the “earthy” flavors that enhance a wine are a direct result of the soils in which they are grown. That is to say, the dirt below does not end up in the wine. But ask those who enjoy the smell and taste of wines with dirt or earth aromas and flavors, and they will swear that those attributes are earth-born.
There are those who say wines like Châteauneuf-du-Pape from the Rhône wine region of France, which is made from a number of different grapes grown in rocky soils, has a component on the nose that evokes dirt. And dirt, after all, is just rocks in a more advanced form. Other folks get the earthy character from Argentine malbec, and even some high-priced and refined Napa Valley cabernets display the earthy/dirt influences. You have heard of Rutherford Dust? And I have both smelled and tasted what I would classify as dirt in wines as diverse as pinot noir and zinfandel, which were enhanced by the notes of soil.
When you think about it, dirt may be the most important component in wine. It is what supports the vines that grow the grapes. It is what feeds the vines with nutrients and provides moisture and nourishment as vines grow heavy with fruit. It is the core of what the French call ”terroir,” the unique traits that make a place special.
I have been in many vineyards and kicked my share of dirt, but the place that really defined the role earth plays in wine was a tiny line of deep, red dirt in South Australia in a place called Coonawarra. Coonawarra is an outpost midway between Melbourne and Adelaide (about a four-hour drive from either). The region sits on something called the Limestone Coast, and if you know anything about wine you know that limestone is a good thing.
And there is something truly special about Coonawarra. The secret is in the soil they call “terra rossa.” This strip of red dirt runs along the top of an ancient limestone ridge and is about a mile wide and 10 to 15 miles long. It is prized by many of Australia’s most significant winemakers as being the Holy Grail for Aussie cabernet sauvignon. The Coonawarra winemakers describe it as such: “Terra rossa (Italian for red soil) is a type of red clay produced by the weathering of limestone over many thousands of years and colored by iron oxide. Free draining yet complemented by the water holding capacity of the limestone, the unique soil influences vine vigor, ripeness and wine flavor.”
To walk the terra rossa strip and see the dark, red earth is to make a connection about just how impactful the dirt is in the production of a wine. And whether it is the power of visual suggestion or not, when one has seen and then tastes a fine cab from Coonawarra it is impossible not to smell that red strip, that terra rossa.
While it’s a long way from the snowy slopes of Old Snowmass to the raw red dirt of Coonawarra, about 8,900 miles to be exact, the smell of the earth under the blade of a CAT took me there in but a moment.