|Describing wines in terms of minerality has come into vogue. The term is over-used, not well defined and ambiguous. And yet, while I recoil whenever I hear the word I find it impossible not to use it when I taste Loire Valley whites, white Burgundy and Riesling from Alsace and Germany. Whether it's "stony", "wet rock" or "chalky" the sensation does exist; the problem is that the term suggests that its source is minerals in the soil. But plant physiologists say that minerals are not taken up by the vine. Then what are we smelling or tasting? Is it something the vine produces that by coincidence tastes like rocks? Unfortunately, there is no clear scientific answer. For some insight into the concept of minerality, terroir and Burgundy I interviewed Sommelier Christophe Rolland of Domaine Leroy.
JR: Tell me a little about your background.
CR: I’ve been working for Domaine Leroy for six years now. Prior to that I was a sommelier at La Bastide in Los Angeles, the only four star restaurant in LA at the time. We had 1400 labels, only French. Before that I opened the Bellagio in Las Vegas, I worked with Alain Ducasse in Monte Carlo, Auberge de l’IIl in Alsace and I worked in Germany and London; all 3 star Michelin restaurants. Working in these kinds of restaurants gave me a broader view of food and wine and clientele, habits, so it was very interesting.
JR: What is minerality to you?
CR: Minerality gets back to terroir….they are interrelated. You have a specific character that comes out of a specific soil. It shows on the structure of the wine. Also in the aroma and flavors.
JR: In what wines or regions do you find it most prominent?
CR: From the most northern vineyards where you have a single varietal - regions such as Alsace and Burgundy, the soil has a tremendous impact on the character of the wine. In Champagne especially with Chardonnay you have tremendous mineral quality. The carbonation I think brings out the mineral quality. But you have to work with a small grower who works in a particular area or with a negociant who works with a specific area. Champagne is harvested at low maturity and high acidity, which works in favor of minerality.
JR: Do you see a connection or a correlation between minerality and high acidity?
CR: Yeah, I think the acidity reinforces the minerality. When you have a high acid vintage like 1996 or 2002 in Burgundy they have such a high acidity they definitely provide more support for the minerals. When you downplay the acidity you lose a little minerality. When you do lees stirring, you try to enrich the wine you lose some of the vivid, crisp, pungent character that provides that edge and that is more in phase with the minerality of the wine and less with the buttery, rich, waxy, honey character.
JR: Mineral quality you say expresses itself in the structure of the wine. Do you mean acidity and tannin?
CR: Exactly! The type of soil has an influence on the palate of the wine. I know for a fact that when you have limestone it brings out a very distinctive character in the wine. I take one of my favorite wines, Clos Ste. Hune. It grows on limestone soil in Alsace. You can define right away the beautiful, pure, bright underlying acidity that starts right from the beginning, middle palate and finish and just underlines all the minerality. You know that the limestone is playing a key role here. And you have some marlstone in the Cotes de Beaune for the Chardonnay. But it’s a different composition. In Burgundy with the Chardonnay grape you get something a little more fat, a little more layers, a little more supple, a little more rich. But it’s also the grape that is translating this type of terroir. The Riesling may be the perfect equivalent to Pinot Noir as far as the expression of the terroir. Chardonnay is also a great way to introduce the terroir but depending on who is working this Chardonnay - at Leroy we tend to downplay the new oak and low toast levels and no manipulation like lees stirring that can diminish the soil character. You need to have a winemaker that is sensitive to the soil and his terroir than a winemaker that is trying to leave his signature on the wine, or work for a specific profile.
JR: Does this mineral quality come in different forms or expressions?
CR: You can find different types of minerality. I had a really strong experience that really turned me around was when I was working in Alsace in 1995 and for the first time I came across how striking minerality could be when I tasted a 1985 Riesling Altenberg de Bergheim Grand Cru from G. Lorentz. The minerality was really strong and really there despite the opulent character of the Riesling. And I said “Oh my god, I wish I could try some older vintages,” which I did later on and which really comforted me in this sensation. This was more a petrol style of minerality. It was not the most refined wine but it was striking. I found it very interesting as a sommelier having this strong, salty mineral character, which goes perfectly with great fish.
I had never experienced anything like that. It was a minerality that was not only generous as far as the characteristic but it was also very complimentary to the character of the wine, which was an opulent Riesling, very ripe, a beautiful vintage. So they were playing together perfectly. I was like ‘Wow’ this is a demonstration of somebody producing a harmonious balance between the structure and the mineral quality in his vineyard. I’m not saying it was the most pristine minerality but it was very striking and totally appropriate with the style of the structure. I think this producer totally accomplished what his vineyard could do and that’s what shocks me versus some producers when I’ve tasted this minerality and I say this is not a good balance.
JR: Does mineral expression improve or fade away with bottle age?
CR: I think ultimately the definition of wine is that there is age in it. If you don’t age the wine you’re just drinking fermented juice that’s been bottled but it’s not really wine. With time age reveals all the character of the wine. Because we’re talking about fine wine when we talk about minerality and terroir. They tend to be a little closed when they’re younger, you feel there is potential but it is not yet developed, all the components are not playing very well together. And after a while things are just starting to be put into place and the wine is much more harmonious, much more expressive. With age the true character of the vineyard comes out. We’re not even talking about the grape anymore. We forget about the grape that is growing here, we’re more looking at the expression of the soil and the terroir.
JR: Is that why French labels usually don’t talk about the grape?
CR: Yes, exactly. One wants to hear only the voice of the vineyard. We’re looking more about the identity of the name of a place. If you go in Burgundy and say to Ms. Bize Leroy “I like your Chardonnay” she’s not going to be happy because it’s very generic. You always have to be careful who you talk to. It’s a radical state of mind that has to be respected….it really represents the archetype profile of the top producers in Burgundy.
JR: For your Chardonnay, you mentioned you don’t do any lees stirring. How does that affect vineyard expression and minerality?
CR: Ms. Bize Leroy feels that as soon as you do something like this you manipulate the wine. After the manipulation, that’s it, it’s not your vineyard anymore….it’s your signature that shows.
JR: If you have a distinctive vineyard site it makes sense, if you have an average vineyard site then why not?
CR: Yeah, everybody is working on his own agenda. And the agenda of Leroy is to work only on the top vineyards and look for the best results. So you have to trust the vineyards. Burgundy has been established....we have traces just after the invasion of the Roman Empire so you have a tremendous background to respect. You have to respect this heritage, you have to really keep the philosophy of why and how this mosaic of vineyards is valid today. We are translating today what these vineyards should be representing with all the knowledge we have acquired, as well as incorporating a contemporary approach.
JR: Can you give an example of a ‘contemporary’ practice?
CR: A contemporary approach is temperature control. 2003 for example was a challenge all over Burgundy because you could have those plumpy wines with no connection to where they came from. You can’t believe a Savigny les Beaune could ever taste like this; that was the meaning of the vintage. The grapes were harvested much sooner than usual; we used temperature control to compensate for this. In Burgundy you don’t usually need it because when you are harvesting around September it’s cooling down tremendously and you have this natural cold maceration of 4-5 days until the fermentation starts. In 2003 the temperature was too high so we cooled down that grapes by circulating cold water around the tanks. We used a contemporary approach to try and recreate the Burgundy norm as far as the late season temperatures. Compared to other producers our 2003s were higher in acidity. Other producers treated 2003 like other vintages and....bada bing, bada boom. All of a sudden you have very soft, velvety, overripe character that you should never have on this kind of very precise terroir.
JR: Back to minerality, do you detect or identify it in your Pinot Noir?
CR: Minerality in red wine is defined differently. It does not appear like the white. A kind of undergrowth character, tar, smoky character….a refined touch of nuances such as tea. A light bitterness on the finish, so gentle and so nice it reminds you of very refined teas. And it becomes more refined or rustic depending on the elevation, the soil, temperature, exposition, etc. If you go to southern Burgundy you grab a little more animal character.
JR: You mean like Santenay?
CR: Santenay and next south is Maranges make very distinctive wine from their neighbors. Why? Because there is a very tremendous change in the soil. There is more limestone towards the Cotes de Nuits where it is a little cooler climate which works perfectly for the Cotes de Nuits versus the Cotes de Beaune. Then that limestone dips deeper and then comes back closer to the surface near Santenay and Maranges which gives a tremendous power to Pinot Noir. You have large-shouldered, rustic wines in the southern part of the Cotes de Beaune that don’t have the refinement of the cool climate Cotes de Nuits.
JR: This is a crazy topic.
CR: That’s what great wines are about. You’re trying to figure out something that it seems you cannot touch it. I think it is a very challenging topic. Trying to find out the answers scientifically to some of these questions is nearly impossible. Because it’s something we find mainly as tasting sensations, and it’s very hard to control the data that come out of tastings. The way we perceive things is different across different palates and different people living in different places, it’s such a puzzle.