Wines with a Sense of Place

Rocky limestone vineyard

Wine lovers, the press and winemakers themselves like to talk about “terroir-driven” wines, a vague expression that I transcribe as “wines with a sense of place”–only slightly less vague–but at least it gives us a starting point. Many of us are used to “varietal wines,” or wines that are made predominantly from one kind of grape and therefore boast the signature aromas that we’ve come to associate with it—fruity aromas for the riper vintages and herbal or vegetal notes in less-ripe ones. Take Cabernet Sauvignon’s black currant nose with notes of green pepper: familiar and reassuring, we take a whiff and know what we’re drinking. But what’s the difference between a wine that can be recognized as Cabernet Sauvignon and one that can be recognized as Cabernet Sauvignon from the Médoc or from Napa Valley, from Barossa or Bolgheri? Therein lies the definition of wines with a sense of place.

“Terroir” is more complicated, subtler, harder to pin down than varietal characteristics are. What’s more, terroir is a collection of parameters having to do with where the grapes that went into the wine came from: climate, exposition, elevation, soil type and so on.[1] The first three of these parameters impact how much sunlight reaches the grapes and how hot it gets in the vineyard, in an almost infinite number of combinations, which are, however, reasonably straightforward to recognize. Sunlight is not exactly correlated to sugar production in grapes, but it’s closely correlated, and so wines that taste like ripe fruit come from warmer climates, Southern exposures and vineyards that are neither so high up that they’re subject to mountain air currents neither so low down that cold, damp air collects around them.

But what of soil type? Right away, it sounds even more abstract, and, indeed, it’s the element of terroir, of a sense of place in wines, which is least discussed and least understood. For me, understanding the link between the type of mother rock and soil under a vineyard and the taste of a wine made from grapes from that vineyard is a kind of Holy Grail, exactly because the link seems so abstract, so elusive. We know that sub-soil type impacts taste more than aromas. For example, generally speaking, acidic soils produce less acidic (not as tangy, sweeter tasting—even though there is no actual sugar) wines and more basic soils produce more acidic wines. Acidity gives wines a feeling of length or persistence in your mouth—it lingers on your taste buds. Fanciulle Vini was born to explore just this: what tastes and textures in wine are determined by the sub-soil and conversely, what tastes and textures do some of the main Tuscan vineyard sub-soils produce?

Three vintages in, here’s what we can observe:

Blue clays (“argille azzurre”) are not-necessarily-blue, very-fine-grained sub-soils formed 1-2 million years ago from deposits accumulated in deep ocean areas the last time the sea covered Tuscany. Wines made from grapes grown on these soils produce densely-fruity wines. Even in hot summers, these soils usually maintain reserves of water, which promotes even ripening and thus balanced wines. These sub-soils are common in Chianti Classico, Montalcino and Montepulciano. See our 2019 Villaggio and Vigneto Primo.

Marine limestone (“calcare marino”) was also formed in deep sea areas, however much longer ago, 35-55 million years and from the settling debris of living organisms. These sea bed areas were subjected to underwater landslides and thus formed compact layers. Now exposed, these rocky, well-drained sub-soils force vine roots to grow down looking for moisture. The wines made from grapes grown on these soils have a savory quality to them as well as marked persistence. See our soon-to-be-released 2020 Vigneto Grande.

Freshwater clays (“argille lacustri”) are fine-grained sediments formed in the rivers and lakes that were present in Tuscany 5-7 million years ago. They are found throughout Tuscany at lower altitudes, especially bordering rockier soils. These soils are usually acidic, so they impart softness and juiciness to the wines made from grapes grown on them. These wines are not necessarily persistent but can be pleasantly easy-drinking and relatively low in alcohol.

When you next taste a wine, think about how tangy or soft or persistent it is, and make a guess on whether it could have been from grapes grown on clay or limestone.



[1] Many wines are made from grapes that come from a variety of different vineyards, wine estates or even production areas, in which case it’s even harder to pin down a sense of the place they come from.



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