Wine Science

California 2015 – early, small and distinctive

Sonoma Mountain CabernetAs I travelled across California this summer and autumn a few things proved consistent. Most vineyards – whether hillside or valley floor, North Coast, southern portions of the state or further inland – exhibited reduced yields via either smaller clusters, berry shatter or millerandage, and harvest came early. A warm winter followed by a chilly spring meant fruit set suffered. Reduced fruit set (this picture shows Cabernet clusters on Sonoma Mountain) and smaller berry size led to significantly smaller yields than usual, as well as greater concentration of colour, acidity, tannin and flavour. Weather conditions across the state, as well as California’s fourth successive drought year, created these common themes for America’s largest wine-producing state.

However, wine quality in a year such as 2015 will be highly dependent on the health of the vineyard. In regions with higher portions of shatter and shot berries, producer’s propensity to sort to avoid sharp acidity and bitter flavours will also be an important factor. When it comes to the release of California’s 2015 wines, we can expect to see a significant drop in single-vineyard bottlings, and in the boutique rosés from California that have been so popular these last three years. While we should expect much smaller volume in fine-wine sales specifically for the 2015 vintage, there will be little impact on the number of bottles of California wine available overall since before 2015 California experienced three good-quality, high-volume years in a row. As a result, many producers are still loaded with stock from 2012, 2013 and 2014. While fine-wine enthusiasts will have to work harder to secure their favourite producer’s cuvées from 2015, most consumers are unlikely to notice a drop in availability for wines from the state in general.

The role of drought in the quality of 2015 wines

As the drought continues, farming decisions have become progressively more important to wine quality, even in vineyards reliant on irrigation. The 2015 growing season was marked by temperature variability throughout. That combined with the drought meant that continual attention to the vineyard proved especially important. Along with increased vineyard attention has come a need for farming decisions made increasingly vine-by-vine. Brook Williams owns and farms Duvarita Vineyard just west of the Sta Rita Hills and Santa Ynez Valley appellations in Santa Barbara County. As Williams explains, ‘We were more aggressive with pruning in February since it had already been a very dry winter. …

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Exploring Wine Perception with Jordi Ballester

Black Wine Glasses for Sensory Deprivation Tastingimage found:

Jordi Ballester, professor at Université de Bourgogne, Dijon, led a special add-on seminar at International Pinot Noir Celebration (IPNC) that happened this weekend in Willamette Valley, Oregon. Ballester has devoted his career to studying the perception of wine, and the cognitive processes behind it. The session highlighted the intimate influence of visual cues on our experience of aroma and flavor.

To open the session, attendees were presented with the following task. We were to smell the liquids in each of three black wine glasses (thus removing any visual cues for the liquid themselves) and then vote on whether or not each of the three liquids was a white wine, a red wine, or a rosé using only the aroma of the liquids (no tasting).

The black glass tasting we participated in was purposefully designed to remove the advantages or influences of our other senses, and make us focus only on our sense of smell. In previous studies, Ballester explained, it was found that both wine experts and novices judgments of wine are influenced by the appearance of the wine they are tasting.

It has been shown in studies that adding scentless red food coloring to a white wine will radically change the descriptors used by a panel of wine tasters (“The Color of Odor” Morrot et al 2001). In 2001, a study was done with a panel of 54 enology students tasting wine that they then had to describe. The first flight gave them all the same white wine. The panel members’ descriptors tended to hover around notes like lime, pineapple, and pear. The exact same white wine, except with the odorless red color added, was then served to them for the second flight. In that case, the exact same panel described the wine with descriptors like strawberry, or blackberry. In other words, when the wine looked like a white wine, hallmark white wine descriptors were used. When the wine looked like a red wine, classic red wine descriptors were given.

With such a study in mind, Ballester asked us to identify the color-type of the three wines just based on aroma. In our group of 49 participants the wines were largely identified correctly. Wine 1: 6 voted white, 35 voted red, 8 voted rosé. The wine was a Crowley 2012 Pinot Noir. Wine 2: 28 voted white, 13 voted red, 8 voted rosé. It was a Wooing Tree 2012 Chardonnay. Wine 3: 15 voted white, 5 red, 32 rosé. It was a R. Stuart & Co 2013 Big Five Dry Rosé. In formal studies, it has been shown that wine experts tend to succeed at such a task, predominately guessing the correct wine color-type based on aroma alone.

Ballester used this exercise to explain two types of cognitive processing that relate to wine tasting — Top-Down Processing, and Bottom-Up Processing. In Top-Down Processing, previous knowledge leads our expectations. So, in the case of the Morrot “The Color of Odor” study, it is as if seeing what appeared to be a red wine in the glass activated the participants’ knowledge of red wines, thus bringing to attention the range of descriptors for a red wine category. The range of fruits they could use to identify the wine, for example, went from hallmark white wine fruits like pear and pineapple to classic red wine fruits like raspberry and blackberry. In Top-Down Processing already established knowledge guides our interpretation of an experience.

Top-Down Processing appears in other ways through wine tasting as well. Ballester also gave the example of a tasting of chardonnay. The first flight the panel members were asked to taste and describe a young pale chardonnay. In the second the exact same wine had scentless golden color added to it. In that case, the taster panel went from giving the descriptors of a young chardonnay — fresh fruits — to giving classic descriptors for an aged white wine — secondary and/or tertiary aromas.

The second cognitive process mentioned is Bottom-Up Processing. In that case, knowledge is lacking, and thus cannot get in the way of how one describes a wine. One simply has the experience to describe, without expectations being informed by already established knowledge. As Ballester explained, there is no pure Bottom-Up Processing because any of us are always informed by previous experience. Still, the black glasses tasting experience removed layers of sensory information to lessen the ways in which such information can activate and direct our expectations.

To push the experience even further, Ballester then had us score a flight of five red wines in a simple way. We were to smell and taste each one and vote on whether or not the wine was from Oregon. The experience proved interesting for me for a couple of reasons.

First of all, the group vote was predominately wrong for the first wine, split for the second, and then predominately correct for the final three wines. Wine 1: 31 voted as from Oregon. 19 not. It was actually an Akurua 2012 from New Zealand. Wine 2: 29 voted Oregon. 21 not. It was Adelsheim 2008 from Willamette (Oregon). Wine 3: 8 voted from Oregon. 42 not. It was a Domaine de l’Arlot Nuits St George 2007 Clos des Forrets St Georges (France). Wine 4: 16 voted Oregon. 34 not. It was Kosta Brown 2006 Amber Ridge Vineyard (California). Wine 5: 13 voted Oregon. 37 not. It was a Domaine Michel 2005 Laferge Volnay Les Mitans (France).

The fifth wine at first look stood out as strange while fascinating. Once the wines were revealed, however, and thus the fifth wine had a context behind it, it moved from merely strange and fascinating, to also pleasurable. The wine being given its appropriate context of information helped shift expectations for it to more pleasurable. Two of the wine experts sitting beside me described a similar sort of experience.

As Ballester explained, for this sort of tasting test, experts tend to identify wines correctly to broad location categories, where as novices are less likely to do so. This makes sense as experts have more experience to draw from in order to identify such wines.


Thank you to Jordi Ballester.

Thank you to Amy Wesselman, and all the people that make IPNC happen.

Copyright 2014 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to


In traveling through Friuli-Venezia Giulia, and tasting the wines of Colli Orientali del Friuli, I became fascinated with the fact that the region itself seems to support more natural approaches to vineyard maintenance and wine production. In closing my series on the #cof2012 visit to the appellation I want to indulge my own geeky tendencies and consider the way in which environment, soil, and specifically calcium intersect to encourage the possibility of this more natural approach, as well as the aging potential of the wines. Doing so will lead too to thinking on the controversial, and somewhat esoteric idea of minerality in wine.

Wine Growing Practices in Relation to the Surrounding Environment

Approaching Solder

Friuli-Venezia Giulia celebrates generally cool temperatures and drying bora wind that offer an ideal climate for growing grapes, plus the drying conditions that allow for maintaining healthy fruit. As a result, it is generally easier for wine makers in the region to use more natural practices in the vineyard since there is less need to intervene to avoid fungal or mildew infections on the plant. However, the region offers other natural supports for less interventionist and more chemical free wine production as well.

Many of the smaller wineries also take advantage of their other environmental conditions to develop a more natural wine making practice. As described to us by Ivan Rapuzzi of Ronchi di Cialla, by maintaining vineyards near forests, the pest-predator balance found in the forests is extended to the vineyards as well. That is, many of the pests that strike grape vines, causing detrimental effect for wine makers, can actually also be found among the plants and trees of a forest. The difference in the forest environment is that a balance of pest and predator is more readily maintained so that the overall health of the forest stands even in the face of including some various plant pests. Vineyards, on the other hand, are often designed in such a way that isolate grape vines from other plant life, and as such remove them from the kind of natural balance Rapuzzi describes of the forest. The result is that vines become more vulnerable to pests as they are also in these conditions isolated from the predators that would rid plants of their parasites. By planting grape vines in close proximity to forests the predator population of the forest is available to the neighboring grape vines as well, thus keeping troublesome pests largely at bay. Additionally, proximity to forests helps to keep temperatures well regulated for the steady ripening of fruit.

However, the overall environment found in temperatures, winds, and botanical balance are only a portion of the story for the wines of Colli Orientali del Friuli.

Considering Colli Orientali’s Soils

The View at Le Vigne di Zamo

The ponca of Colli Orientali originates from its years as an Eocenic sea bed. The waters reached almost to the southern rim of the Julian Alps, gathering a rich blend of minerals in their soils, and also a high concentration of organic materials as sediment gathered on the sea floor over time. When the sea retreated, the hills and valleys of the eastern side of Friuli (including both the appellations of Colli Orientali del Friuli and Collio) retained soils valuable for growing low yield grapes with concentrated flavors and rich mineral elements.

The wines of Colli Orientali del Friuli are known for having superb aging ability, with the whites in particular matching the aging ability of those from Champagne and Burgundy. In meeting the Rapuzzi family of Ronchi di Cialla, Ivan discussed with us their own production history testing various techniques and their effects on wine as it ages. What they discovered from the practice was that the less the family intervened in the cellar the more readily the wines lasted well in the bottle over time. Ronchi di Cialla wines are known for doing quite well over extended periods, whether the wine be red, white, or a sweet wine. In their view, this reality confirms that the reason for Colli Orientali’s age-ability originates in the soils themselves, since it is clearly not merely a matter of the strength of individual grape types, for example.

Wine makers throughout Colli Orientali discussed their pride in the value that the soil imparts to their wines. The area consistently produces wine with a distinct mineral zing that shows itself readily in any of the lower intervention wines, and stands up against the more interventionist production techniques of other wine makers as well (that is, as Stuart George would put it, some wines have more make-up).

In considering both the sustainability in the bottle, and the mineral zing of the region’s wines, the wine makers regularly stated that it was the region’s soils that did the work for them, and that, in particular, the high proportion of calcium accomplished these feats.

The Role of Calcium in Root Development

The View from the Top of Ramandolo

Colli Orientali del Friuli celebrates a calcium rich marl, their ponca, which uniquely contributes to the quality of the region’s wines. The presence of calcium in particular stands as important here. Though the calcium rich soils of the eastern side of Friuli-Venezia Giulia are generally understood as too poor for grain or cereal type crops, the soils offer beneficial characteristics for grape vines.

Calcium plays a tricky balance in its benefits for vine growth. On the one hand, calcium rich soil does well at absorbing water during heavy rains (rather than rain simply running off the surface), while then retaining moisture for good periods after, during dry weather. The retention of water in this way allows the security of vine growth over time. However, on the other hand, during longer dry periods the cells of such soils dry up and shrink as the water evaporates, causing cracking and tightening of the ground (though not necessarily in a visible way). While the roots of the vines have been nourished by the water retention of the soil, they now are able to dive deeper through the earth that, due to its cellular shrinking, readily breaks up and makes room for the roots to move through. Thus, the vines receive the nourishment necessary to achieve basic root growth, and then have ease enough to achieve deeper root growth. In pushing into deeper earth, the vines are also forced to struggle in a way that impacts the production of the fruit, concentrating the juices of them and thereby also their flavors.

The benefits of calcium rich soils, however, extend beyond mere questions of moisture.

The Role of Calcium in Vine Development and Fruit Health

Vineyards at Solder

The presence of calcium in soil directly impacts the overall balance of minerals (essential plant nutrients) absorbed and utilized by grape vines, and plants more generally.

Calcium rich earth is generally more porous, or permeable at a small scale in a way that allows greater ‘openness’ (to speak loosely) within the soil structure. These small spaces serve to provide room for root hairs to more readily absorb nutrients directly from the earth itself. The more permeable the soil is in this way the less the plant must compete to take up the minerals needed and already present in the soil. That is, it is not enough for necessary minerals to be present in the soil. The proper conditions that support the plants ability to absorb those minerals must also be present. Soil permeability is one of those conditions.

Calcium also directly impacts the pH level of the soil, keeping the ground from being overly acidic. With more basic (less acidic) soils, vine roots are more able to take up necessary minerals that support the overall plant health and development. In this way, the presence of calcium in the soil allows plants to absorb a healthy balance of calcium, potassium, magnesium, and sodium.

The absorption of these minerals strengthens not only the overall health of the plant, but also the plant’s resistance to external pests. When absorbed by the vine, calcium strengthens the cellular walls of the plant itself, thereby reducing the potential impact of both external pests and enzymes, such as those caused by mildew or fungus. In testing of grapes, calcium actually shows at detectable levels within the fruit skin, and there has the effect of reducing the permeability (and also therefore the susceptibility) of the grape.

Testing has also shown that the absorption of minerals by the vine from the soils directly impacts both the acidity of the grapes, and so then also the pH of the wine itself. In this way, the mineral qualities of the soil do directly impact the sensory qualities of the wine as well–that is, the flavor and structure of the wine. However, the minerals within the soil also impact the degree to which a vineyard manager, and wine maker are able to achieve a less interventionist, and non-petro-chemical approach in making their wine. That is, in the case of calcium rich soils, it is easier for vineyard managers to use less interventionist vineyard maintenance, and to avoid petro-chemical treatments as the balance of the vineyard translates into the pest-resistance of the vines and fruit.

The Question of Minerality in Wine

Vineyards at Betulle

While scientific studies have clearly shown that the minerals within the soil directly impact the pH of the grapes in a manner that persists in the wine produced from that fruit (allowing for variations from production choices, of course), controversy around the question of a wine’s so-called “minerality” remains. What is important to point out here, in the midst of this particular discussion, is that minerality as a descriptor of a wine’s particular qualities is not necessarily a claim of the literal minerals present within that wine. That is, there are at least two different concepts operating here–on the one hand, the role of literal minerals on wine, and, on the other, an idea of a flavoral and textural quality experienced as something like minerals, which we reference as minerality.

Let me give away the beans and cheese of the point I’m going to make, and then make my argument for that point. Here it is, the beans and cheese: My point is that these two things–literal minerals, on the one hand, and minerality in wine, on the other–might have a direct correlation such that literal minerals in the soil are tasted as minerality in the wine, but whether that turns out to be the case, or not, in stating that one tastes minerality, one need not also be claiming that there are literal minerals being tasted. (The question of a possible link is not yet proven and many people because of that argue the correlation is not there–such a claim, however, is sloppy science. Science has not disproven the link.)

Now let’s turn to the clarification of this point.

First, let us consider the role of literal minerals on wine. It is without doubt that differing soil types carry different minerals, which are not only necessary for the growth of any plant, but also that those minerals within the soil directly impact the way in which that plant grows. Further, the mineral presence of the soil, and the soil permeability, not only allow for plant growth but also distinctly impact the quality of the fruit grown by the plant. In the case of wine, the pH levels and chemical balance found within the fruit are a result of the way in which the plant is able (or not) to take up calcium, potassium, magnesium, and sodium from the soil. So, the minerals of the soil simply are relevant to the wine that is produced from vines growing in that soil. Notice, however, that this is not a claim that we literally taste the individual minerals themselves in any direct way. (In fact, the results of most studies would seem to indicate that the levels of any of these four minerals in wine is too low for us to detect as anything like specific flavors.)

Second, let us consider the idea of minerality in wine. We can understand the word minerality, loosely speaking, to reference a sensory experience of something like the flavors and scents of particular minerals themselves, without that experience having to have a direct link to those literal minerals. It is often considered a peculiar description because it seems as though we don’t go around eating, tasting, or smelling the kinds of things wine tasters reference when discussing the notion of minerality. To understand what I mean, we can simply list off different examples of wine terms that are types of apparent minerality: the smell of chalk in champagne; the taste of river stones in a cool vintage Brunello; the scent of petrol in Riesling; the flavor and bouquet of graphite in a rich Bordeaux. In such cases, the term minerality is meant to capture a sensory experience had through the smelling and tasting of a particular wine, a sensory experience where we feel as though we are recognizing something very much like chalk, river stones, petrol, or graphite.

There has been much discussion (much of it argumentative) recently (and indeed for a long time) on the seemingly esoteric notion “minerality.” Many of the arguments depend on a mistake of concept–that is, they assume that the description “minerality” is being stated as a claim of actual mineral levels of the wine itself; and, further, that if there is no such link to actual minerals, then the concept minerality must be faulty. Such a link would depend on testing the wines themselves for those mineral levels. However, continuing to utilize the idea of minerality as a description of a particular wine’s qualities does not genuinely depend upon whether or not there is an actual link between the experience of something like mineral scents and flavors, and there being those actual minerals present in that wine. This is a mistake of assuming that our subjective language of experience can only be supported by systematic scientific legitimization. That is not only false, but also a misunderstanding of (a) the purposes of science, (b) how we experience the world, and (c) how we communicate such experience with each other.

As is no doubt obvious by now, I am fascinated by such questions as, is there a link between minerality in wine and minerals from the soil that wine’s vines were grown in? I honestly want people to continue scientifically studying this. Or, as another question, which I’ve addressed in this post, in what way does calcium impact the growth of vines and the qualities of the wine those vines produce? But, I am equally as fascinated by our own experience of the world, and how we communicate and share with each other such experience.

As an example, scientific studies have pointed out that apples, potatoes, and onions have a chemical make-up that should mean they taste the same. My experience of these three foods, however, is something more like tart and/or sweet for apples, earthy and watery for potatoes, and sweet, sharp, and/or biting for onions (it is apparently the smell of these foods that causes us to distinguish them). In the wines of Colli Orientali del Friuli, however, I taste a minerality I can’t help but love.