The Pangaean Ten

May 13, 2020

That question again…
Is it possible by taste to assess what type of bedrock and soil a wine comes from?

I am aware that extensive, abstract or technical wine writing doesn’t usually sell wine, but I don’t care. I view short, oversimplified marketing strategies with catchy, punchy and clever comic book-style writing too short and shallow, word salads that don’t mean much, only intended to attract attention. I prefer the longer form with wine because wine is not a small subject, unless you are a beginner or just drink it because you like it and nothing more; I wish sometimes I could do that too! Short form writing is the same as a quick wine tasting, while the long form is the exploration of wine as one drinks a bottle and really digs in. Many of you subscribe to us because we sell delicious wines made with sound philosophy, practice and a lot of heart, but also because we continue to adventure deeply into the conversation of this utterly fascinating subject.
With this offer, I want to share something with you that (like many others in our field) I can’t seem to get enough of. That is, the search for clues to the currently not fully understood organoleptic link between wine and the composition of its bedrock and topsoil. Science can’t yet explain all the processes for what makes a wine taste the way it does, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t possibilities to be considered; we just haven’t found the answers to everything yet. But when we do find answers, will it diminish the thrilling mystery of wine? When one mystery is solved, another will inevitably emerge. So we’re safe to share our ideas outloud, even if they are not completely right; exploration and searching are always at least half the fun!

In what I hope will be the first in a series of offers that follow a specific theme, today we focus on wines that grow on landscapes developed more than three hundred million years ago. They come from a world we would hardly recognize today, a time long before the dinosaurs: The Pangaean Era.

A Short Preface to the Wines

Each of these wines comes from land formed in what geologists refer to as the Variscan orogeny. This mountain building event took place 370 million to 290 million years ago and formed an ancient chain of mountains that connected North America to Eastern Europe and were likely comparable in size to today’s Himalayas. Now they are squat, rounded and extremely short by comparison after hundreds of millions of years of erosion. These mountains were formed during the collision of two supercontinents, Gondwana and Laurussia, and once connected they formed Earth’s last supercontinent, Pangaea.

The remnants of this ancient belt-like chain of mountains is connected to today’s ten wines that come from Spain and Portugal’s Iberian Massif, France’s Armorican and Central Massifs, as well as central and eastern Europe’s Bohemian Massif. All of the land that separates these massifs today developed over the last two-hundred million years as Pangaea broke apart and the Earth’s seven continents drifted to where they today.

There is no doubt that a wine’s bedrock and soil composition influences certain elements of taste. We can start with the soil’s grain size, meaning whether it’s clay, silt, sand, gravel or a mix. This aspect of the soil imparts a different shape to the wine, which we sometimes describe somewhere between angular and round, or vertical and horizontal. It’s commonly accepted that sandier soils typically veer wines toward elegance and lift, where clay-rich soils make them more broad and muscular. This is an influence of soil grain, not as much as what the soil is derived from.

A wine’s palate-weight and the strength of where it finishes with the most intensity and length appears to be more often associated with its bedrock and soil composition, especially if there is a particularly dominant rock type, like a limestone, granite, schist or slate. This is where we will focus on in this somewhat short essay.

With today’s current trend of less is more in the cellar, the perception of these characteristic traits from specific rock types has become even more evident to those who spend time observing this particular characteristic of a wine. Indeed this seems like some seriously advanced wine assessment, but once the concept is grasped, it’s digestible. Don’t worry, you’re going to get this.

That said, there is one little tedious technical detail that needs to be addressed before we get started. That is that there are two basic categories of igneous rock: intrusive and extrusive. Both were once liquid magma, but an intrusive rock slowly cooled below the earth’s surface, while an extrusive rock was expelled by volcanoes and cooled on the earth’s surface quickly in minutes, hours or days. The resulting wines from these two igneous rock types are extremely different, and volcanic wines have been excluded from today’s conversation, because most volcanic rock on the earth’s continental crust appeared there after the time of Pangaea, and it tends to influence wines quite differently than intrusive igneous rocks, like a granite or gabbro.

Finally the Wines!
Intrusive Igneous Rock Whites

Our first wine is close to home—literally… I live about ten minutes from Quinta do Ameal, which sits along the Lima River in Portugal, a magical place where our dream to live in Portugal started. Ameal’s Pangaean connection is the Iberian Massif, and we are located in the far northwestern area of Portugal, inside the Lima Valley of the Vinho Verde, the latter is Portugal’s coldest wine region, and the former it’s coldest subzone. The bedrock and topsoil at Ameal is 100% granite, an intrusive igneous rock. Granite wines are almost always front loaded in the palate, no matter where they’re from. And you can especially feel this palate pressure about fifteen seconds after you swallow the wine and observe the finish. Granite imparts elegance to its wines and a lot of salty freshness too, which this wine has in spades. This is especially useful for grapes with naturally high acidity, like Loureiro, which constitutes the entirety of this wine. I’ve drunk my way through a lot of Portugal and quite a few of its good restaurants and have asked sommeliers and waiters for their suggestion on wines from the Vinho Verde region just to see what they have to say. Without exaggeration, if Quinta do Ameal is on the list, it is always recommended; and for the price and versatility it always wins. At Ameal, everything is carefully controlled and organically farmed. This wine is raised exclusively in stainless steel and goes with almost any kind of food, especially seafood, fish and full-flavored pork dishes— barbeque included. And it’s a wine for absolutely any occasion.

There are only a few vineyard rocks I’ve held that are as heavy and hard as the gabbro found at Morandière’s Muscadet vineyards, in the Loire Valley’s furthest west major region. Gabbro is an igneous rock, like granite, that was formed underground before it was plunged to the surface hundreds of millions of years ago with tectonic movements. By sight, the gabbro in his vineyard has a slightly green/grey cast and sometimes some faded white splotches. What it delivers to the wine is a tremendously dense core and front palate power on the finish, similar to what granite imparts. Muscadet is a cold region and is part of France’s Armorican Massif, named after pre-Pangaean mash up when Gondwana and Laurussia played a rough game of bumper plate tectonics with the smaller floating continent Armorica sandwiched in the middle, forming a long, crumpled up, snake-like mountain range. During this period the vineyard land of Muscadet used to be connected by land to the Vinho Verde, through northern Iberia, and there are similarities between the way these wines feel—especially in the palate aftermath once you’ve swallowed the wine. The grapes from these regions are very different; both are super fresh, but the Loureiro is extremely lithe but angular, while the Melon de Bourgogne, the grape in Muscadet, often carries more density, texture and deep mineral and metal characteristics; but the mark of their similar bedrocks is evident, leaving pressure on the front palate of the finish.

Metamorphic Rock Whites

The Bohemian Massif, another Variscan remnant, is what makes Austria’s Wachau river gorge special. The Danube River carved out this narrow, picturesque gorge now covered in steeply terraced vineyards atop soft, short riverbanks filled with vines and small villages. If it weren’t for the Danube slicing through this area, it would be a very different geological setting—a continuation of the relatively flat plateau covered in forest next to the Pannonian plain toward the east. The Danube exposed, gneiss, a beautiful metamorphic motherrock with colorful earthtone mineral bands that give the impression of a bunch of strings bunched up, compressed together and turned into rock. Tegernseerhof’s Superin vineyard is planted to Grüner Veltliner and sits just next to the Danube, though not on a terrace. It’s in a unique position compared to other vineyards down by the river in that it’s butted up against a hard gneiss outcrop that the village, Durnstein, was built on. As the river rushed by, it stripped the topsoil from the rock, leaving a shallow covering of river sediments on top of this gneiss bedrock. Here, in classic Tegernseerhof style (mineral, crystalline and pure), we jump into the metamorphic wine world. Unlike the first two wines, this one digs deeper in a way that, as the famous Chilean soil scientist, Pedro Parra, says: “it drills into your back palate.” While the igneous rock wines hits hard and continues to weigh heavily on the front palate after the wine is gulped down, here it rests on the side and back palate, often leaving the mid- and front-palate finish nearly non-existent by comparison to what an intrusive igneous rock imparts.

Continuing on with another metamorphic white wine, we jump back over to the Armorican Massif, not too far east of Muscadet, and into likely the oldest exposed rock formation in France—at least according to Patrick Baudouin, the maker of this wine who, like me, spends a lot of time shooting the breeze about minerals, smashing rocks and sipping wines with geologists and asking too many questions. Here we find some pretty nice schist, a metamorphic rock formation about five hundred million years old. Baudouin’s Coteaux du Layon “Les Croix” is an organically farmed vineyard within a complex valley stitched together with a wide variety of rock formations, largely from volcanic and metamorphic origin. I don’t know what it is with these metamorphic rocks, but they also make wines especially salty and with strong impressions of metal even more than mineral; the grape, Chenin Blanc, is a fabulous transmitter of terroir and really lets these features fly. Put a Baudouin Chenin from the Layon or Savennières, next to a Chenin grown on a limestone terroir just toward the east, in Saumur, and if you don’t know Chenin well, you may not believe that they are even the same grape, let alone grown so close to each other. Like other wines grown on metamorphic bedrock and soil, Patty’s salty and fresh Les Croix drills into the back and side of the palate, especially on the finish, somehow leaving you quenched while at the same time still wanting your next sip.

Intrusive Igneous and Metamorphic Rock White

Last for the whites today is the 2018 Bodegas Paraguas “Atlantico.” Here we have a blend of different motherrocks, and you’re going to feel it. We’re back to the Iberian Massif, more specifically the Galician Massif in northwestern Spain, and a wine region I believe to be one of the greatest future prospects in all of Europe, the Ribeiro. Why such a seemingly cavalier claim for this mostly unknown wine region? We’ll get to the geology, but first we have to note its history as one of Spain’s most celebrated wine regions of yesteryear (the other being Rioja, which never fell out of favor) before more than a century long series of problems, listed here (in order to the best of my knowledge): powdery mildew, phylloxera, downey mildew, WWI, Spanish Civil War, dictatorship, WWII, continued dictatorship, post-war industrialization and the abandonment of the countryside by poor farmers in search of work within nearby bigger cities. From a geological standpoint, the Ribeiro has no limits to its potential with its blend of a wide range of metamorphic and igneous rocks. And in the three parcels that make up this wine we have a blend of schist and granite. Taking into account where these wines strike and remain with pressure on the palate (intrusive igneous in the front, metamorphic in the back and on the sides) you can imagine the level of impression on this wine. It’s more diverse but still strong on the palate, making for a wine with more dimension in some ways than the others. That doesn’t make it better, it just makes it different and perhaps more full and rounded, and without dominance of either schist or granite. The primary grape here is Treixadura, one that lends itself to more richness and softer acidity. I guess one could say it’s kind of like the Chardonnay of Galicia, but if it’s not managed well in the vineyard it can lose its freshness more quickly; but at Paraguas it’s done quite right and surprisingly taut for this grape. If you buy this mix of ten wines, try this one after you’ve gone through the other whites so you are more familiar with the way the individual rock categories feel in the palate before you get the one-two punch here.

Intrusive Igneous & Metamorphic Rock Red

Continuing on with the igneous and metamorphic vineyard mix, and because our first red is from the Ribeiro and extremely elegant, I put Cume do Avia’s Colleita 6 as the starter in the lineup of reds. The vineyard for this wine is not far from Paraguas, deep inside the Galician Massif. As mentioned in the last white, many factors are at play in the Ribeiro. But there is also the proximity of the land to the Atlantic, the constant whistle of fierce winds that bring in fresh air and help grapes to stay somewhat dry in this pest-rich environment. And of course, there is the richness in diversity of the bedrock and topsoil composition. The bedrock and topsoil in Cume do Avia’s vineyards add great breadth to their wines and from one meter to the next they can quickly alternate. Here you’ll find a kaleidoscope of different intrusive igneous rock, metamorphic schist and slate. The soil grain is equally diverse and randomly shifts back and forth between sand and clay. The soils are dark orange, white or brown, depending on the mineral makeup. It’s an extremely complex area within only twenty-two acres. What is incredible about this wine made principally from the grapes Brancellao, Caiño Longo and Souson, is that it is so sleek, elegant and low in alcohol (11%) and looks like it won’t feel or taste like anything, but nothing could be further from the truth. When this wine hits your palate, and the weight of all we spoke about—the front palate from the intrusive igneous rock, the side and middle of the metamorphic rock, and now all the different grains of soil from sand to clay—flood the palate with an unexpected weight and pressure, like you have a mouthful of buckshot (the small metal balls inside shotgun shells) resting on all points of your mouth with the added electricity that metal brings to the tongue. It’s really quite fascinating how this level of complexity happens with such a humbly-priced wine, but for me these elements point to the rock medley the grapes are grown in.

Metamorphic Rock Reds

We have two wines on this offer from Breogan Rodriguez, the one-man show at Terra Brava. Breo’s wines come from three hectares of steeply terraced vineyards in the Amandi sub-region of Galicia’s Ribeira Sacra, on Spain’s ancient Galician Massif. The vines face south and southwest on shallow decomposed gneiss and slate terraces with topsoil derived from the bedrock and kept in place by the terraces. Cool air from the Atlantic and warm air from the Mediterranean influences the climate, creating a tug of war that usually brings beautiful balance to the growing season. However, this is extreme wine country in every way—hot summer days, cold nights, heavy rains, unexpected hailstorms in the summer, etc. And it’s the most fun place to bring someone who hasn’t been there before to hear the gasps and oohs and ahhs as you drop into the gorge from seemingly a mildly hilly country road—just like many of the entry points to Germany’s Mosel River Valley. It’s an impressive place and it’s impossible to capture the literally breathtaking intensity of it in a photo. I admire Breo and his fine craftwork in the cellar and organic practice in this extreme and sometimes brutally harsh work environment.

Terra Brava’s “Xastre” could easily be mistaken for a wine from France’s Northern Rhône in taste, were it not for this mix of indigenous Galician grapes that bring their unique stamp unlike any others outside this part of the Iberian Peninsula. This is no surprise because most (some would say all) of the best vineyards in the Northern Rhône Valley are remnants of Pangaea’s Variscan mountains. They share a similar geological history and makeup, with their intrusive igneous and metamorphic rocks. This wine, made of 85% Mencia, is seductive with fresh berry and earthy nuances along with a natural propensity for being a strong transmitter of mineral and metal impressions, associated with the bedrock it’s grown in. The textural grit is expansive and the pressure of the finish is clearly weighted in the back and side palate on the finish.

The next wine is the Terra Brava “Lagar do Breo.” It’s made with 95% Caiño Longo, an indigenous grape specific to this area of the Iberian Peninsula that will catch your full attention with the first taste. It can be freakishly acidic for a red wine, but it delivers a full range of complexity that is undeniably noble, and somehow balanced. This must be the most overlooked mega-talent on the list of the world’s great grapes, at least from what I’ve tasted. I guess one could criticize Caiño Longo for not being so subtle, but the wine as a whole can be layered for days and may in the future stand tall next to the world’s elite grapes. There is some kind of beautiful rage inside Caiño Longo and its naturally high acidity hums like an overhead power line, much like a Chenin Blanc from the hill of Brézé, in France’s Loire Valley. And, like a great Côte Rôtie or Cornas that shares some likeness to this wine, you must take your time to see all it has to offer, and you surely will have the same effect on the finish of the wine’s mid and back palate. There are layers and layers to discover here and given that there are so few wines made with almost 100% Caiño Longo, it would be a waste (but not entirely) to gulp it down and not give it the time to fly as high as it will go.

Finally, we jump to Beaujolais. We are now entering France’s Massif Central, home to so many great wines of France. I saved Thevenet for last in the discussion because of the power of the 2015 vintage. Sure, 2015 has its detractors because of this power, but when we speak about balance, it can exist on all levels, whether gentle and soft, or brutally strong. 2015 Beaujolais is no exception to this. It is indeed a vintage of impressively high natural acidity and higher alcohol than usual, but it also has a profound well of complexity that could help its wines ride as far and long as any vintage before it. The detractors? They are mostly Beaujolais drinkers newer to the game in search of wines that must be under 13% alcohol to be worthy of their appreciation. Sadly, this perspective pretty much shuts the door on many of the world’s epic red wine regions. Wine’s diversity, not its uniformity, is what keeps it interesting. So, we finish with two Gamay wines in Beaujolais grown not more than a few kilometers away from each other, same grape, weather, vinification in old oak barrels, cellar aging, low SO2 regimen and organic farming, but different bedrock and dirt.

I’ve not found greater confusion about the geological composition of any other famous wine spot than the Côte du Py. I’ve been on the hill with the geologist Brenna Quigley, talked with winegrowers, looked at everything I can find on the Internet with very little consensus. There are a lot of different explanations that include igneous intrusive or extrusive (volcanic) rock, and metamorphic rock; it’s most often referred to as either a schist (metamorphic rock) or andesite (an extrusive igneous rock, so a volcanic rock formation). Recently I asked Brenna what her general conclusion is for the Côte du Py. Her safe bet is to say that it is likely a mix of meta-diorite (the “blue granite” people refer to), meta-basalt and likely some granite; so likely dominated by metamorphic rock. The Côte du Py is a rounded, freestanding lump of a hill with these rocks scattered about ranging in color from orange to light and dark shades of teal. Important to note is that whatever the rock is, it’s incredibly hard and the vineyards are often spare in topsoil, making for straight and powerful wines with more defined lines and a deeper core concentration than what is typically found from wines grown in granite. Wines grown on metamorphic bedrock showcase pronounced unique stony, mineral and deeply metal nuances in the aroma, taste and texture. The most palate impact with this wine rendered from 80+ year old vines is to be found toward the back and sides of the mouth—in the palate it has always felt more like a meta wine to me.

Intrusive Igneous Rock Red

There is no doubt whatsoever that granite completely dominates Thevenet’s Morgon Vieilles Vignes vineyards. The mix comes mostly from vineyards in Douby, with semi-coarse, shallow topsoil and exposed bedrock on the north side of Morgon between the Côte du Py and Fleurie; and the lieu-dit, Courcelette, where his parcel is on soft, coarse beach-like granite sands. Much of these vineyards are on gently sloping aspects ranging from southeast to southwest. There are also rocky sections where the bedrock pokes out, but generally the vineyards are fine-grained to coarse sands. This leads to wines that exhibit elegance and subtlety, but are endowed with great length and complexity from its ancient vines that range between 85-150+ years old. If you’ve read this entire essay on these wines, it may seem redundant to say that you can expect a little bomb on the front palate and remains strong for a good length on the finish.

That concludes this extremely oversimplified (though complex) idea that I have observed and discussed at length with wine lovers, wine specialists and scientists, for quite a few years now. I hope you enjoyed it and take the leap to give these wines a swirl.

Thanks to MSc in Geology, Ivan Rodriguez, for his assistance on the geological story of Pangaea and the Variscan orogeny.