Terroir terror and storytelling

Probably all the wine lovers have had contact with them at some point: stories about the influence of the soil on the taste of the wine. Winegrowers tell them during tastings and interviews. Wine experts use them for extravagant and captivating taste descriptions. In marketing, they are used to charm us romantically and to get us to spend more money on wine.

And what shall I say: it works! The idea that a chalk base is responsible for the creaminess of champagne is captivating. The same applies to the smokiness in Pouilly-Fumé due to prehistoric flint or racy minerality from Nerello Mascalese or Carricante, caused by the volcanic soils of Sicily. And what is it now? The world of wine gives innumerable examples where certain regions, due to their soils, produce their very own typicality that is well recognizable for connoisseurs.

Professor Alex Maltman is a luminary in the field of geology and has studied the influence of rocks on the taste of wine for many years. A lecture and a few emails later, he convinced me: the soil does play a role in the growth and development of the vine. The rock in the ground, however, cannot bring any taste “into” the grape or the wine. The answer sounds simple, the explanation is very complex.

Based on countless books, studies, publications, and of course personal experiences on my part, it seems to contradict the general state of knowledge of the wine world. Definitely not! Science works with presentable evidence and is always open to questions. Proof has been provided of how vines work with the soil, what they withdraw and give off. Climate, soil microbiology, viticulture, and winemaking are the influencing factors for taste. The soil ensures the availability of nutrients and water. What is certain is that rock is tasteless. As a child, I also licked the odd chunk and was absolutely convinced that some smelled and tasted differently. Science shows that the perceived difference is based on microbiological factors on their surface. So strictly speaking, I was licking bacteria. According to Alex, a nice experiment is to freshly cut different rocks and "taste" them directly. This fresh cut is free of organic substances and as a result, it brings identical results: it tastes like nothing.

You can't taste the rock, but the region!

How can it be explained that regions with certain rocks produce typical styles that are logically and directly linked to them by people and marketing? The scientific fact that rock is a tasteless object does not mean that the rock and the covering soil have no influence on the taste of the grapes. Depending on its density and texture, rock can store water, act as a barrier or simply allow draining. On the one hand, it is responsible for how much water can be stored in the soil and helps the vine to survive in drought periods. On the other hand, in rainy areas, the soil can literally be washed out if the rock does not prevent this.

Research results show that trained tasters can spot differences between identical grape varieties on different soils and that acid and aroma perception change. There is no evidence that this is directly related to the soil. It is more logical that the climate and microbiology of the soil play a role because the quality and taste of wines differ over vintages but the soil stays the same.

What does this mean for wine marketing? It is a real challenge to enter the race for customers' favor with topics such as climate and microbiology or viticulture than to use the mundane romance of soil. They are used to it and a change is neither easy nor sensible, as this can quickly lead to the loss of loyal wine customers. Rather, we should learn to bring romance into the other, actually influencing areas such as microbiology, viticulture, or climate. One could conduct interviews with winemakers whose marketing is strongly oriented towards terroir and find out how they change communication and marketing based on the knowledge of science and what they consider useful from the customer's point of view.
An experiment would also be conceivable in which wine customers (unconsciously) try the same wines after they have been told different stories and measure the success of the stories on the basis of their willingness to buy and the associated price.

In his masterpiece “The wing and the thigh”, Louis de Funès has already described a wine that “grew on the southern slope and was picked at dawn”. At the moment, a wine with its fine minerality and complex world of aromas, which was evoked by the black volcanic soil of Sicily, can still be brought to customers better than a Carricante aged in wooden barrels that was grown using Guyot and without the use of fungicides. Although the vine has seen many beautiful sunsets.

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