That Special Taste of Mud: “Gout de Terroir”
At the house I grew up in, in Novato, California, there was a small, special spot under the dining room window where the soil was slightly less porous. It was without question the best location on our property for the production of mudcakes. I discovered this early on, somewhere around the age of 5.
It was a combination of soil composition, lack of drainage, and the aspect of the spot to the rising sun that kept the soil somewhat cooler that created the conditions necessary for making firm cakes. Also, because this special spot was just under the window it had the added benefit of being obscured from the view of my mother who, unlike me, was no fan of the mudcake.
But most of all what made this area most special was the remarkable "Gout de terroir" exhibited in my mud cakes.
Nearly every time I hear a winemaker or writer or anyone else refer to a "gout de terroir" they find in a wine I can’t help thinking back to my own production of mudcakes back in my youth and, more importantly, that I actually know what a "Taste of the Earth" really tastes like. The issue, however, is can wine actually impart the taste of the ground it was grown in? If you come across a wine that is discribed as having a "Gout de terroir" could you taste the dirt it was grown in and be forced to admit, "well yes, this dirt and this wine have a remarkably similar flavor profile!"
The answer is NO. There is actually no scientific evidence that the ground somehow transmits flavors up through the roots, through the vine and into the grapes. It is true however that humans are able to make a remarkable, even magical, association between what they see in a vineyard and what they taste in the wine.
If you want a wine that is more "Minerally" then pick it very slightly under-ripe…that is, keep the fruit from dominating. If you want a Pinot that is somewhat "earthy" then pick the right clone (stay away from the Dijon clones) and also pick it before it becomes too ripe. The other way to get a wine with a "gout de terroir" is to pour it in a glass, go outside, scoop up a 1/8 teaspoon of dirt, and dissolve it in your wine.
Yet, even though wine can not take flavors from the soil, the idea that a wine might have a "gout de terroir" that originates in the soil, is one that is firmly ensconced in our collective minds. In fact, Websters Dictionary, the place we go for official meanings, has a "Gout de terroir" entry that defines the phrase as, "Taste of the earth".
The hint that "Gout de terroir" might note be a true flavor of the soil comes when you hear how people describe the phrase’s meaning. Be wary when you read things like, "it’s difficult to describe, but easy to recognize."
The fact is, a "gout de terroir" is a real set of aromas and tastes that are easily described, but they are not flavors and aromas that come directly from the soil. Some wines, and I find it most evident in red Burgundy, some Northern Rhones and in my experiences with Northern Californian made Italian varietals, exhibit a mushroomy or even "dank" aroma. Sometimes it comes through as "wet road". This is what people usually are, or should be, referring too when they use the phrase "gout de terroir". Yet it is a tricky phrase to use because it can be confused with the notion that the wine smells or tastes like my home grown mudcakes for the same reason that my home grown mudcakes tasted like mud: they were mud. The wine tastes like it does predominantly due to the inherent taste of the varietal, the degree to which the grapes are ripe, and the additional flavor additives (such as oak) that the wine is given during production.
I like this earthy component in a wine. But then, I also like the smallest bit of Brett in my wine.
My mother eventually always discovered my production facility outside her dining room window in her flower bed. She never appreciated the work it took to craft fine mudcakes, the resulting cake material that ended up on my clothes during the heat of production, nor I suspect the gout de terroir that I took a liking to in my youth.
Today, I cannot deny that some wines do exhibit a "gout de terroir. Yet neither do I deny that some wines possess a "brambly" quality. However, neither the gout de terroir nor the gout de bramble resulted from flavors or aromas that existed in the ground before the grapes were grown.