As I've pointed out before, one of the most intriguing things about wine is that it offers a virtual university education in a glass for those who choose to take advantage of it. Every bottle of wine brings along a whole curriculum of lessons that cover topics as diverse as geography and history, languages, culture and religion, agriculture and chemistry and so much more.
For today's lecture, then, let's open our geology textbooks for a quick look at the rocky earth in which vineyards grow, and which, to some degree, fosters in wine a taste of the earth that the French call terroir.
The two wines featured - siblings and near-identical twins - come from Muscadet in the Loire Valley, a region where most producers take terroir, vineyard soil and minerality very seriously indeed. This producer, Guy Bossard, adorns the labels of his wine, Domaine de l'Ecu, with cross-sectional photos of granite-rich soil, and he names his bottlings after the specific rocks that distinguish separate vineyards: "Expression de Gneiss" and "Expression d'Orthogneiss." (He also makes an Expression de Granit," which I wasn't able to acquire.)
Being no geologist myself, I knew that gneiss was a rock, but didn't know how to pronounce it. (In fact, it's a sound-alike with "nice.") I'd never heard of orthogneiss and wouldn't have known one if I met it on the street.
As it turns out, gneiss and orthogneiss are both similar to granite, and that's a good thing for vineyard soil, as granite-rich earth allows easy drainage and permits roots to grow deep; and it is relatively infertile, a seeming negative that's actually good for grapevines (if not for corn or wheat) because it fosters intense, complex flavors in the fruit.
Gneiss is a coarse-grained rock with a layered structure. It's a "metamorphic" rock, meaning that at some ancient time its original form was altered by great heat or pressure or both. Orthogneiss is a subcategory of gneiss but an "igneous" rock, originally formed during Earth's development when molten lava or magma solidified into stone. The word "gneiss," according to Wikipedia.com, comes from an old Saxon mining term.
Is it necessary to know all this to enjoy the wine? Of course not. But the discovery of a matched pair of Bossard's 2004 Gneiss and Orthogneiss set up an intriguing "blind" tasting challenge: To what extent would the different stones in each vineyard affect the aromas and flavors of otherwise similar wines made from the same grape and similar vinification by the same wine maker in the same vintage? My findings - somewhat complicated by a slight volatile acidity flaw in one of the wines that may have obscured its mineral subtleties - are below.
Bossard is also one of his region's leading proponents of bio-dynamique ("biodynamic") agriculture, an offbeat variation on organic farming that straddles the lines between agriculture, philosophy and maybe even religion. That's another class session for another day.
Domaine de l'Ecu 2004 "Expression de Gneiss" and "Expression d'Orthogneiss" Muscadet Sèvre et Maine Sur Lie ($9.99)
These two wines bear almost identical labels and were produced in the same vintage using similar biodynamic-organic principles from neighboring vineyards distinguished primarily by their geology, as the wine names reflect.
FOOD MATCH: Muscadet's natural companion might be perfectly fresh oysters on the half shell, unadorned except for lemon. But it goes mighty well with just about all forms of seafood and fish, and was well-matched with a simple dinner of fresh cod baked with white wine and olive oil, parsley and garlic.
VALUE: The Gneiss is one of the year's top $10 values at this local sale price, and only the slight volatility in the Orthogneiss detracts from a similar rating. It's still a fine buy at its more common price point in the middle teens.
WHEN TO DRINK: They're drinking nicely now, but both these wines would benefit from five years (or more) of aging under excellent cellar conditions.
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California Wine Club: Mother's Day is three short weeks away!
Mother's Day is three short weeks away. Shop now and get a $55 gift, absolutely free from The California Wine Club.
For nearly 16 years The California Wine Club has featured smaller family wineries. Why? Because we realized that small producers can handcraft wines in ways just not possible for larger wineries. So treat Mom to something special with a gift from The California Wine Club.
Send the Mom in your life a wine club gift of three months or more, and her first shipment will be packaged in a Wooden Engraved Joseph Phelps Insignia Collector's Crate. In addition to the wine and Uncorked, we will also include a copy of Cooking With Wine by Fiona Beckett, and a set of note cards by the renowned wine humorist Bob Johnson. It's a $55 value, free with gifts of three months or more.
As always, each month includes two bottles of award-winning, hand-selected from California's best artisan winemakers. Just $32.95/month plus shipping. To take advantage of this special Mother's Day offer, please call 1-800-777-4443 and mention today's Wine Advisor. You can also visit:
This week on WineLoversPage.com
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Last Week's Wine Advisor Index
The Wine Advisor's daily edition is usually distributed on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays (and, for those who subscribe, the FoodLetter on Thursdays). Here's the index to last week's columns:
No April 21 edition.
Right Bank Bordeaux (April 19, 2006)
Good cheap Bordeaux (April 17, 2006)
Complete 30 Second Wine Advisor archive:
Wine Advisor FoodLetter: Garbanzo pancakes (April 20, 2006)
Wine Advisor Foodletter archive:
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Monday, April 24, 2006