Wine: A lode of flavour
Distinctive wine notes from a variety of regions can be chalked up to a single element in the soil: limestone, writes Jo Burzynska.
What do Spanish sherries, French Champagnes and pinot noir from Waipara's hillsides all have in common?
It's not just that they've the potential to be some of the world's finest wines; the connection lies underground in the limestone soils in which the vines for all of these and many other great wines grow.
Limestone was the theme of a masterclass held by local wine importers Dhall & Nash. Gathering a gaggle of wine journos together in the company's villa HQ in Freemans Bay, they showcased a series of wines hailing from hallowed limestone soils around the world to see if we could find a thread running though the line-up.
"It's long been recognised that great wine regions such as Champagne, Burgundy, Chablis, Southern Alsace, the Loire, Southern Rhone Valleys, Saint Emilion in Bordeaux and Jerez in Spain are rich in limestone. When it comes to fine wines, these are the regions that get me most excited," explains Dhall & Nash's Brandon Nash of their decision to choose this particular earth as the tasting's focus.
"Over the last few years, we have made some relationships with very special growers from these regions and it occurred to me a common thread among them was limestone soils, which led to this idea for the tasting."
It's often claimed you can actually taste the limestone in the wines made from vines grown in soils rich in the rock. Nash's colleague Puneet Dhall covers a whiteboard in chemical equations to expose what's essentially a romantic myth. It looks very confusing but put plainly, CaC03 - to call the calcium carbonate dominant in limestone soils by its correct chemical name - is not a compound that turns up in the grapes themselves. Something else must be afoot.
Now it's time to get stuck into the wines, starting with a flight of crisp and linear Champagnes that spring from the swathe of chalky limestone that stretches from England, through the vineyards of Champagne, the Loire and end in Burgundy. Chalky, minerally, crisp and linear are terms that pepper my tasting notes for these wines and many others that follow in the 13 on the tasting.
Even in the sherry, a style so different from all the wines, affinities can be detected. Made from grapes grown on the brilliant white albariza soils in the heat of Southern Spain, the fino we try shares a freshness and briny tang found in a number of the other wines.
Nash agrees that there seem to be striking similarities in these wines that span a flinty and fresh sauvignon blanc from the Loire to a big brooding red barbaresco from Northern Italy.
"In the Champagnes and chardonnays there is a tension you get, which I describe as succulent, mouth-watering and racy and each wine offers its own level of chalk and salt on the finish," he notes.
"In the reds, it's more about the structure and arrangement on the palate," he observes. "Even the riper, more fruity wines have this tightness and integration of acidity, balance and ageing potential."
We discuss exactly where this limestone character may be coming from, if it's not limestone in the wines themselves. The best bet is the ideal conditions for vine growth that calcium carbonate can promote in the soils in which it's present, which include their ability to retain optimum amounts of moisture and uptake of nutrients through a vine's roots.
Basically, "limestone makes for happy vines", says Nash. It also makes for some happy wine drinkers, with these sensational examples from the tasting.
DIGGING UNDER THE DIRT
Limestone soils are often derived from fossilised marine life formed under the sea and range from the white chalky type of Champagne to the red terra rossa of Australia's Coonawarra. Here in New Zealand, Waipara is the region most associated with the rock, but outcrops occur throughout our sea-surrounded nation, from the hills of Central Hawkes Bay in the North to Waitaki Valley in the South.
Fernando de Castilla Antique Fino, Spain NV $50
This special sherry is made in a weightier style than many finos. It's bone dry with a hint of apple, rich savoury yeasty undercurrent and fresh salty tang.
Alphonse Mellot La Moussiere Sancerre, France 2011 $42
A flinty smoky note runs through this beautiful expression of sauvignon blanc from its Loire heartland. This is joined by notes of herb, subtle white fruit and underpinned by a crisp line of citrussy acidity.
Albert Ponnelle Puligny Montrachet, France 2009 $85
It's not cheap but this classic white burgundy is a real treat with its elegant notes of white flowers and fruits, savoury nuances and chalky minerality all coiled around its taut acid core.
• All wines available from Caro's, Fine Wine Delivery Company and Waiheke Wine Centre.