Aside from a geologist whose livelihood is completely dependent on all things subterranean, no other profession I can think of involves a compulsive desire to collect rocks, even dirt. But wine geeks do exactly that. When on the road in some distant wine locale your average wine geek will reach down to scoop up bits of soil and rocks of varying sizes (sometimes ludicrously large) only to deposit them (rock joke) into jeans pockets and backpacks ultimately to be hidden in luggage to make the long trek home.
Why rocks? Better yet, why would anyone in their right mind drag a bunch of rocks thousands of miles home in their suitcase? There is no one answer. Once in the deep end of the pool wine geeks can and often do get a bit carried away--even compulsive--about the great wine places they visit. A rock from an important region can be a powerful connection to a time and place where hopefully one really “gets” a wine. And for many wines there is no more meaningful symbol of place than the rocks that make up part of the physical landscape. In effect, a single rock can be a very effective memory and learning device.
I’m also convinced there are wines and regions that one can never truly understand unless one actually spends time in said place; that unless you physically stand in the vineyard with a glass of wine in hand you’ll never fully get the place much less the wine. Jerez and Sherry are a perfect example as are Burgundy and obviously Germany. A lot of it has to do with looking at the ground not to mention the aspect of the vineyard, the region’s altitude (Mendoza, anyone?), the intensity of sunlight, and so on. Rocks once again are front and center.
In a recent post I put forth the notion that certain ancient vineyards—as in vineyards that are centuries, even millennia old—could be considered sacred spaces. By that I mean vineyards whose history and singularity qualify them as world heritage sites and beyond. I feel strongly about this. Take the Wehlener Sonnenuhr vineyard in the Mosel which has been cultivated sans interruption for over 2,000 years. Rieslings from the Sonnehuhr site with its bluish gray Devonian slate formed over 150 million years ago are arguably the most delicate and refined of all the wines produced in the Middle Mosel. The “soil” which is composed entirely of crumbling slate, is not only a major factor of the vineyard’s history but a vital part of the wine’s character as well.
Like others I have my own collection of rocks. Here is a trio—and their stories--from my personal collection. All hold great significance and wonderful memories for me.
I. Santorini and Volcanics: Paris Sigalas and His Remarkable Assyrtikos
II.The Middle Mosel and Slate: Electric Rieslings from the Bernkasteler Doctor
III. Red Hills AVA and Obsidian: The Future of California Cabernet?
Lunch the first day of our tour was hosted by Andy Beckstoffer at his vineyard house. Beckstoffer needs no introduction. One could argue that he is the most influential individual in California viticulture over the last several decades. The Beckstoffer name is closely associated with some of the industry’s top wines and vineyards. Over ten years ago Beckstoffer became convinced of the potential of Red Hills. He was the force behind the AVA’s genesis and made considerable investment in the area to the tune of 1,200 acres under vine all planted to Cabernet. To meet him we drove through dozens of acres of Red Hills Cabernet where the soil is a bright reddish-brown and littered with countless pieces of obsidian ranging in size from pebbles to a Fiat 500.
Before lunch Beckstoffer sets up a blind tasting of a half dozen Cabernets, 50/50 from Napa Valley/Red Hills. We quickly taste and take notes. When the wines are revealed the Napa bottlings are generally more polished but the Red Hills wines more than make up for it with an intense mid-palate mineral quality, something I infrequently experience in California Cabernet. Other common denominators for the Red Hills wines include intense varietal fruit, high natural acidity, restrained alcohol, and the just-mentioned tsunami of stone-mineral quality. My conclusion? With a few notable exceptions the winemaking isn’t quite there, but the raw material is exceptional—even world-class. It’s only a matter of time.