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Studying wine from the ground up

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Lawrence Meinert can’t help looking at the hills as he drives through the countryside. South-facing? Steep slopes? Might be a good site for a vineyard. He can’t be sure, though, unless he gets out of his car and starts digging. Meinert is a wine-loving geologist who has made a career out of analyzing and defining the most indefinable concept of wine: terroir.

Terroir is a French term without precise definition. It refers vaguely to the environment of a vine, a vineyard or a wine in a way that helps explain a wine’s quality with an added soupcon of je ne sais quoi. It’s easy to pronounce (tare-WAHR) and sounds sophisticated. Its usage in vinophilic conversation implies a certain level of expertise. Yet winemakers, marketers and writers use the term differently. A winemaker might say two vine rows have markedly distinct terroirs because of the difference of a few feet in elevation. Marketers and writers will attempt to divine the very meaning of life.

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Meinert, 59, sees terroir simply, firmly rooted in a vineyard’s soil. “Imagine two adjacent vineyards,” he explained in a phone interview. “They share the same climate and they experience the same vintage conditions each year. But Vineyard A produces a wine that sells for hundreds of dollars a bottle and is sought by collectors the world over, while Vineyard B produces vin ordinaire sold by the jug in the village cafe. Why?”

For Meinert, coordinator of the Mineral Resources Program at the U.S. Geological Survey in Reston, the answer goes back thousands of years. He has explored and written about top-performing vineyards in the Columbia Valley (he previously taught at Washington State University), as well as Argentina, Chile, Colorado, Italy and South Africa.

He co-edited “Fine Wine and Terroir: The Geoscience Perspective” (Geological Association of Canada, 2006). His findings, he argues, help explain why some vineyards produce wines that are better and more expensive than others. He will make that case tonight in a public lecture titled, “The Science of Good Taste: Geology, Wine and Food,” at USGS headquarters in Reston. 

The terroir of the world’s most famous vineyards can be explained by their geologic history, Meinert says. “People are surprised to learn that the glacial history that makes Washington state’s best vineyards so successful is the same glacial history that makes Bordeaux so special. For a geologist, it’s easy to understand and easy to illustrate.”

The finest vineyards challenge vines by making it difficult for them to grow. This is counterintuitive from an economic perspective and helps explain why wines can be so expensive. “Grape vines left to their own devices will overproduce, which dilutes the quality,” Meinert says. “In fine wine you want intense flavors, so you look for conditions that will reduce the natural vigor of the vines.” That means poor soils, typically rocky, with good drainage to carry water away from the vines. The rest is up to the vigneron to choose the right grapes, rootstock and vineyard techniques to suit the vineyard.

And that soil underneath? Meinert says you can taste it in the finest wines, something wine lovers call minerality. “Not that you can actually taste the rocks. That’s a common misperception,” he says. “But you taste grapes that reflect the environment in which they are grown. You’re not tasting the minerals, but the minerals control the factors that affect the flavor of the wine.” 

So when Meinert enjoys a fine vintage, he’s not just tasting the history of the year the grapes were grown, but also the origins of the vineyard thousands of years ago.

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McIntyre blogs at WineLine. Follow him on Twitter: @dmwine. Meinert will speak on “The Science of Good Taste: Geology, Wine and Food,” as part of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Science in Action public lecture series Nov. 7 at 7 p.m. in the Dallas Peck Auditorium at USGS headquarters, 12201 Sunrise Valley Dr., Reston. Admission is free. 

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