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Book Review

‘Land and Wine: The French Terroir’ by Charles Frankel

First, plant a chardonnay vine in the commune of Puligny-Montrachet in the French region of Burgundy. Now plant another genetically identical to it in Santa Barbara County, Calif. Prune and train similarly, and when they’re of age make wine from the fruit of each and mature it, using identical techniques.

Taste them side by side. You may well recognize a family resemblance, but you won’t have to be an expert to realize they’re dramatically different. Why?

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The agent responsible for their diverse flavor and aroma profiles is thought to be something called terroir. The French loan-word means “territory,” a particular plot of ground, but it implies quite a bit more.

Because every physical location on earth is subject to a singular set of environmental and ecological conditions — like temperature and rainfall, the state and content of soils — it follows that whatever is grown there will bear a distinctive signature. Terroir is said to be the thing that gives fine wine a sense of place. It’s what one wine writer memorably called its whereness.

In his just-published book, “Land and Wine: The French Terroir,” science writer and lecturer Charles Frankel takes readers on what might be called a tour de terroir, a swift, chatty, and generally readable survey of French wherenesses, the famous and not-so-famous places where French fine wine is sourced.

His stated aim is to reveal “the geological framework behind each great wine region” and to provide insight into how clay, gravel, sand, schist, flint, and marl — to name a few of the many gritty character actors we’re introduced to — can be responsible for the kaleidoscopic diversity that characterizes the output of the world’s greatest winemaking nation.

A heads up: You’ll not only need to buckle your seat belt for the journey, but pack some Dramamine. Volcanic upheavals, primordial seas, tectonic plates, and carboniferous sedimentations whizz by at an alarming rate. The scant 264 pages on offer don’t allow Frankel to linger over any one topic.

We tour Champagne, the Loire Valley, Burgundy, Bordeaux, and eight more major French wine regions, each of which gets chapter-length treatment, but our progress seems not only hurried but a tad joyless, in part because there are so few people on hand whose voices would humanize the relentless iteration of soil types and all those millions of years.

Rocks are clearly the thing Frankel knows best and is most comfortable explaining. Knowing little of the subject, I can’t vouch for its correctness, though I’m more than willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

The litany of geological terms is occasionally wearying, but it wasn’t what began to chip away at my enthusiasm. It was the growing suspicion that Frankel was never going to address the question he set out to answer: How does vineyard geology determine wine character?

Admittedly, this is not a settled question. But there is scientific consensus on what is not happening: Vines do not take up and transfer to grapes a set of mineral aromas and flavors we imagine soils and rocks possess.

Inorganic mineral compounds appear in wine solely in the form of mineral salts of which only sodium chloride can be detected by tasting. So Frankel is off-target when he asserts that “[f]lint in the soil translates into spicy, smoky aromas.” But is on firmer ground when he explains how rocks on the surface can absorb and retain solar radiation and by this means affect the rate at which grapes ripen.

More such observations would have made this book more valuable as an explication of terroir effects.

Are there rocks in our wine, or just in our heads? Inquiring minds still want to know.

Stephen Meuse blogs at tableintime.com; he talks wine on NPR’s America’s Test Kitchen Radio.
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