Minerality and geology
Aromas and MINERALITY in winesThoughts on reading David Lefebvre’s interview
During a recent evening in Colmar, one of my young colleagues and friends had me taste a Gewürztraminer wine from the 2011 vintage without giving me, of course, any indication as to its origin. After having tasted it, I didn’t make any immediate comments. He then talked about the tactile beauty of the wine and its airy freshness which were both in evidence.
I replied that the tactile dimension, which has always been important to me, is only one dimension of the wine. I added that I am surprised to see the tactile aspect, in the recent evolution of perceptions and judgments, becoming more important than the others; as if, in the long term, the aesthetic pleasure of wine was to be oversimplified to the tactile aspect.
It is as though, after the past preoccupation with aromatic analysis, whose descriptions were often grotesque and interminable, we had a new fad: the tactile approach. Going back to the 2011 Gewürz; while I agreed with my host’s opinion on its freshness and its subtle touch, I remarked that I was by however underwhelmed by its taste dimension: I found the aroma quite coarse, a bit fruity, a simplicity a bit insistent, and marked by the inevitable sugary note. Even though he might not have been convinced, my colleague nodded his agreement, but the fact remains that at first sight, we were not at all sensitive to the same aspects of the wine.
Talking in his garden the next morning, between rain showers, I commented on some passages of the long interview with the oenologist David Lefebvre that LeRouge & leBlanc published in the 2014 issue. I had read this closely and was quite supportive of his comments. The research and approach it presents run counter to industrial oenology, and I too faced some of these problems about twenty years ago.
David is someone linked to a small group of winemakers in Alsace to whom I also feel very close: those who want to grow organically, and who try to make wine without the slightest use of oeno-industrial pharmacopoeia, who use sulfur only rarely and at very low doses. We are starting to see that this dosage could even be considered homeopathic.
As I understand it, David Lefebvre is working on a theory of mineralization that tries to define aspects involved in the growing, fermentation and aging of vines, grapes and wine. From this point of view, mineralization is seen as the fermentative decomposition of organic matter, which would account for the transformation of the grape into wine. In other words, without oversimplification, the wine -at the stage where it is drunk - is the result of a complex sequence of successive mineralizations which originate in the minerality of the soil. This sequence varies in intensity; and therefore at the end of the process, some wines are more mineralized than others.
In particular, certain oxidative phenomena during winemaking, if they are encouraged and not chemically inhibited, would be part of this general dynamic of mineralization. This runs counter to conventional oenology - which has a real phobia of oxidation - and would encourage scientific recognition of the taste value of certain oxidative evolutions. While we are on this point, we can note that industrial oenology has also integrated a certain concept of mineralization; it offers nothing less than mineral powders intended simply to be added to the wine-making process! A sort of "dietary supplement".
We thus have an approach (it doesn’t happen often,) which combines oenological theory and scientific research; this aligns with healthy methods of growing and wine-making which best capture minerality (or elements) from the underlying rock and bring them through to the berries, and ultimately to the wine.
David Lefebvre wants to introduce an “index of mineralization ” incorporating methods tested late last century such as chromatography of crystallizations . These would be seen as an indicator of the wine’s biological quality and authenticity. This seems like a good approach, though I haven’t the background to evaluate it scientifically, and I eagerly await further developments.
It is important to note that David Lefebvre approaches this domain from a unique point of view. Unlike a techno-scientific expert steeped in the certainties he was taught, Lefebvre envisions his project as one of wide-ranging observation and continued dialog with regional winemakers who vinify "freely". Their methods are often in opposition to the conventional methods - in particular to the use of Sulphur to block malolactic fermentation which became standard practice in the first half of the 20th century.
On a different level than the purely scientific, the concept of mineralization also seeks to account for the evolution of wines over time - before and after bottling. The concept thus includes an aesthetic and taste dimension which leaves me a bit perplexed.
I have no difficulty in agreeing with the idea that a wine, once it has passed its juvenile or infant phase - having thus lost its grape taste, its "varietal aroma" as we say - does not lose its singularity but preserves it in another form.
For my part, I would even go so far as to say that, in the case of wines from geologically characteristic terroirs and which are well cultivated, the loss of "varietal" taste truly opens the door to their real taste. We should, however, note that between youth and maturity a comparatively inexpressive phase and a varying duration are often present, especially in red wines.
I confess, on the other hand, to not understanding why David Lefebvre looks at the post-varietal evolution of the wines from the angle of their increased mineral taste and their predominant tactile aspect. This would lead us to a point where wine, aged in the cellar and having reached maturity, would finally be just a saline and tactile object. As far as my experience is concerned, this picture of a wine confined to salty flavors and tactile sensations is rather a fairly faithful portrait of what I call a "middle-aged" wine, one that has lost its youthful fruit and not yet acquired the complex perfumes of its maturity; a phenomenon of taste withdrawal which, in the case of a number of red wines and certain vintages, can last for a long time. For example, some Burgundian crus of the great 1990 vintage, whose "fruity" taste of youth volatilized between 1993 and 1995 and which have not quite reached their plateau of aromatic maturity. I say aromatic, as it seems to me that it is nevertheless a landscape of this depth, as rich and complex as possible, that one is entitled to expect from what is called the "aging" of the wine, but which, at the level of perception, is first and foremost a process of maturation and development of its most singular perfumes.
If, after aging in the cellar for two decades or more, all we get in addition is tactile sensations and saline impressions, why wait so long ? We might as well drink the wine "on its fruit" as many wine lovers say these days.
Still if they were to be “drunk on their fruit", a number of wines considered great given their terroirs and which are quite expensive, actually show little individual character. For example, the Burgundy Premiere or Grands Crus of 2011 or 2012 offer only " Pinot Noir “fruit” with some differences which are mostly due to the taste variables linked to the type of aging barrel (editor’s note: as of 2014, when this interview was done) . At this “fruit” stage, the singularities that distinguish a Volnay-Cailleret from a Pommard-Rugiens, or a Richebourg from a Clos-Vougeot or Chambertin etc. ... are expressed only weakly.
If we limit our discussion to vintages of the last decade, the taste and aromatic singularities of such wines have only started to show in the vintages of 2000, 2001, 2002, 2004 and even 2007; but rarely in the 2003 and 2009, let alone in the 2005, 2006, 2008 and 2010 which are still in the phase where "they lost everything and have yet gained nothing". One might say that I am talking about wines that are becoming the monopoly of the world’s financial oligarchy and which no longer reach a large number of real wine-lovers. I regretfully agree, but my point also applies to less expensive Burgundy terroirs, for example those of North Beaujolais, which can be vinified without aiming for immediate consumption and “varietal taste". In the current trend of over-rapid development , few people know – including many of the winemakers! - the beauty and pleasure that can be offered by well-made Moulin-à-Vent, Morgon or Côte-de-Brouilly wines after one or two decades of bottle aging.
I believe that there are many more wine terroirs capable of producing wines which go beyond the grape varietal and metamorphose over time than those terroirs currently hyped by the wine industry. Twenty years ago, who would have thought that the vineyards of Buzet were capable of producing, with natural methods, wines which age so beautifully? I emphasize the importance of origin: the local soil and climate and the “year of birth” - the vintage as it reflects that year’s weather- exert a significant influence on the taste. These factors are giving way to an undifferentiated space-time, stored in the cloud, scanned by GPS, attracting the non-local drinker to a nearby store that sells “natural wine”. Wine labels increasingly reflect this trend: the geographical indications and vintage are de-emphasized, we are more likely to find the name of the winemaker, one of his children or a simple catchphrase or commercial logo.
Coming back to Alsace, I have a winemaker friend there , Patrick Meyer in Nothalten, whom David Lefebvre also seems to know well.
Let’s compare two of his wines, a simple Riesling from the Saint-Pierre plain and his Grand Cru from the hilly Muenchberg parcel. Tasted very young, they are hard to tell apart, the contrast is more by the tactile aspects and their stony and mineral notes (these are much more intense in the latter) than by aromatic differences. If the simpler Riesling is stored, it does not metamorphize: after a while, it simply ages in the sense that it wears out. The Muenchberg, on the other hand, is transformed over time and yields, usually after ten years, an aromatic landscape incomparably wider and more interesting than it was at the start; I don’t really see how to account for this using only the language of minerality and tactile sensations.
On the perceptual level, this phenomenon seems to be a real evolution and not just simple aging.
Admittedly, David Lefebvre’s perspective on aesthetics and taste would be a rather radical reversal of classic oenology. The traditional approach treats the presence of flavors and tactile sensations only as a vague "support", a simple structure which plays no part, other than highlighting aromas, which are already being amplified and exacerbated by a lot of œno-technical tricks. Looking at these flavor and tactile aspects as simple tactile support for hedonistic aromas is a model consistent with wines as conceived and manufactured by conventional oenology.
However, while it is highly desirable to recognize the diversity and tactile singularities associated with the mineral wealth of wines, it should not be at the expense of the aromatic dimension.
An approach which defines aromatic difference as situated between the taste of the grape and its minerality may not reflect the full spectrum of a wine’s unique character.
As things now stand, a wine defined only by its tactile and mineral aspect, like those which, while aging, have lost their youthful fruit and have not yet reached their mature aromas, is unlikely to please anyone. Often, when the wine lover enthuses over the mineral and tactile aspects, it is because the wine in question is still, at least partially, in its fruity youth, which may limit what can be appreciated. However, when a wine capable of further development starts to manifest a complex aromatic landscape then the mineral and tactile characteristics, important as they may be, are no longer in the foreground: they aren’t perceived in the same way, as they are part of a larger set of tastes.
In my opinion, the question is not so much the downplaying of the aromatic dimension in favor of a mineralization approach, which on an aesthetic level, makes us think of a lifeless desert; it is more about the nature of the aromas that the wines are likely to offer.
Oeno-technological aromas which are rigidified and amplified by SO2, structured and simplified by an arsenal of yeasts or aromatic enzymes, which are developed using a “cuisine”’ that cools at one point, warms at another then adds fining agents, filters, stabilizes ,… till anything goes; these aromas are simplistic and have a sensory violence; they echo the canons of modern agri-business. However, wine elaborated without these constraints, which is spared these pernicious perversions, can bring us the aromatic landscapes we love.
On this point, as on many in this area, I propose that we base our perceptions and their phenomenology on real life rather than on the positivism of neuroscience and its associated lab experiments.