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Tom Croghan
May 25, 2016 | Tom Croghan

Are Time and Terroir an Ilusion? Reflections on Mark Matthews' New Book, Terroir and Other Myths of Winegrowing

Issac Newton described time in absolute terms that I find intuitive. It is the same everywhere, it has constant duration, and it flows continuously in the same direction. According to Craig Callender, Professor of Philosophy at University of California, San Diego, Newtonian time is a kind of master clock that carves our world into instants.

Over the past century, however, physicists have slowly chipped away at Newtonian time, so that most are now prepared to accept a timeless universe. Atomic clocks placed at the foot and summit of Mt. Washington do not give the same time 24 hours later. Experimental evidence from quantum mechanics has demonstrated that the future can influence the past. A single event is perceived as occurring at different times depending on the velocity at which an observer is moving. Stripped of these core features, is time nothing more than an illusion?

While physicists debate the existence of time, agricultural scientists have long argued about the existence of terroir, a term that describes site specific influences on how we perceive wine. The most recent attack comes from University of California Davis professor, Mark Matthews, in his recent book Terroir and Other Myths of Winegrowing. Professor Matthews offers a comprehensive synthesis of research on the interaction between soil and grapevines, and finds little to support the notion that soils or other features of terroir contribute any unique qualities to the wines grown in them. In a way, it’s comforting to hear, again, that fine wine can be grown on many different soils. Winegrowers in a new region like the mid-Atlantic will find it good to hear there are no innate barriers to greatness.

Still, while a terroirless world may be easier to accept than a timeless world, both contradict millennia of recorded human experience. We can all agree that a Cabernet Sauvignon from the Medoc and one from Napa Valley taste different. Likewise, Sauvignon Blanc from the eastern Loire and New Zealand taste different. There are, of course, many factors that could explain these differences, such climate and weather, and vineyard and winemaking practices. That said, even within our own vineyards at Dodon, the taste of Merlot grown on the clay/gravel soils of Block 21 differs from the taste of the same clone grown on the sandy loam of Block 28, despite similar treatment of both in the vineyard and the cellar. It seems logical to conclude that something about the soil – its composition, structure, aspect, drainage and water retention properties, and microbial flora – has had an influence on the way in which the wine tastes.

The challenge with Professor Matthews’ thesis is that he attempts to answer the big question about terroir without clearly defining the outcome. To be fair, we don’t know a great deal about what to look for, but there are some common themes. Wines grown on chalk or limestone soils, as in Chablis for example, tend to exhibit a sensory characteristic known as minerality. If minerality is caused by this soil characteristic, then we would expect to find it in wines grown on similar soils. This is exactly what we find at Dodon in those parts of the vineyard planted on soils with layers of weathering oyster shells that share mineral characteristics with limestone. There are other wine characteristics that also seem to correlate with soil properties. Wines grown on clay tend to have a sticky quality on the palate; likewise, those grown in loam can have a powdery feeling.

Instead of looking at these sensory attributes, however, researchers have assessed far cruder outcome measures related to fertility, plant growth, and ripeness. As Matthews points out, grapevines grow well even when raised in a soilless environment, but this doesn’t mean that wines grown in diverse soils all taste the same. Although plant and fruit characteristics are not the outcomes of interest when asking about terroir, even using these crude measures, the studies seem consistent with an effect of soil properties on wine. Water restriction, whether through deficit irrigation or natural drainage, results in more color. Nitrogen availability is loosely associated with yeast metabolism and production of aromatic molecules during fermentation.

There are other flaws in Matthews’ arguments against terroir, some of which are simply unrelated to the core question he sets out to answer. For example, he points out that for most of the recorded history of winegrowing, terroir and its related tastes – goût de terroir if you will – had a pejorative connotation. Terroir wines were considered of lower quality, perhaps because of poor sanitation in the cellar that led to infection with brettanomyces, a yeast that gives wine a barnyard-like aroma. This historical view is interesting, but it is irrelevant to any rigorous understanding of the effects of terroir on wine. The same might also be said for his argument that terroir is nothing more than the invention of Burgundian marketing departments. And some of the arguments seem pointless. Although wines grown in various places can be distinguished by their mineral content, it would be silly to believe that flavor molecules are transported directly from the soil to the wine, so why spend the reader’s time rebutting them.

The idea that both time and terroir are illusions rests on the absence of evidence that they really exist. In both cases, human experience tells us otherwise. We perceive that time flows from past to future, serves as a useful measure of things like the duration of events and speed of a car, and allows us to get to appointments as scheduled. Our palates tell us that wines differ when grown in different places. The purpose of science is to explain our observations, so I’m confident that the scientists will eventually find the reasons for the discrepancy between their current research findings and our holistic experience. No fanciful belief in astral powers is required. In the meantime, the mysteries of both time and terroir are intellectually intriguing and fun to debate, so I plan to keep my watch handy and not miss tasting time.

Tom Croghan
May 23, 2016 | Tom Croghan

2015 in Review

It was a busy year around Dodon. In February, Matthieu Finot joined the team as consulting winemaker. Matthieu’s training in Burgundy and his 23 years in Virginia bring remarkable experience and a steady hand to the cellar team. In March, we were joined by vineyard consultant Lucie Morton and geologist Bubba Beasley to map the vineyards using electromagnetic induction. Our immediate motivation was to find those areas most appropriate for each varietal for our April planting of eight acres and 16,000 vines.

The mapping also set the stage for a visit from Claude and Lydia Bourguignon, consultants to some of the world’s most prestigious vineyards including Domaine Laflaive and Domaine de la Romanée-Conti in Burgundy, Château Trolong Mondot in Saint-Émilion, and Harlan Estates in Napa Valley. Claude and Lydia are interested in the Mid-Atlantic as a wine growing region because of the age of the soils. This is especially true of the coastal plain of Maryland where the soils originated during the first uplifting of the Appalachian Mountains about 480 million years ago. As these ancient soils weather, the ever smaller particles create surface area that allows formation of new minerals that are in turn available to the vines, adding complexity and timeless soul to the wine. Claude and Lydia offered some practical vineyard and winery practices to emphasize these characteristics in Dodon wines.

The growing season was average at best, filled with the usual challenges that require uncompromising attention to every detail. Very cold temperatures in February, below 15 degrees in 2015, are the kinds of temperatures that reduce insect populations, especially sharpshooters that spread Pierce’s Disease, even though they make dormant pruning a sometimes chilly experience. Gradual warming brought a typical mid-April bud-break, but cooler temperatures later in the month led to slow shoot development and flea beetle damage. May brought very dry weather, tough on the new plantings, until bloom, when a cool, wet stretch interfered with fruit set. The latter had two unexpected benefits. First, while the wet weather makes late season rots like botrytis more common, this year it also thinned the clusters in a way that partially mitigated that risk. Second, it allowed Tom to express his natural “farmer’s pessimism.” Put another way, it reminded us that nature is always in charge around the vineyard.

The remainder of the summer was largely hot and dry until harvest, when wet weather began with five inches of rain the third week in September. The new plants grew very slowly, good in the long run from a quality perspective, but also resulting in delays in production from those vines and in some cases, loss of the wines. Like most things, these conditions have advantages and disadvantages for bearing vines. The chief advantage is that it slows growth of the foliage and encourages early veraison, allowing the vine to put more energy into ripening the fruit. On the other hand, hot dry conditions encourage increases in potassium uptake, resulting in lower acid levels and wines that can taste “flabby.” On balance, since we can achieve the benefits of the dry conditions by letting the grass and weeds grow to compete with the vines for nutrients, we would have preferred a bit more rain this summer.

Harvest was, well, harvest. A low pressure system stalled off the Carolinas, bringing daily threats of rain and twice daily weather reports from our friend and colleague Bob Marshall, founder of the WeatherBug network. The rains during flowering and again in September created the conditions for late season bunch rots and led to marathon sessions at the sorting table. That said, despite year of almost perfectly backwards weather, we finished with 17 tons of excellent fruit that will produce about 1200 cases of wine that demonstrate the exceptional power, elegance, and harmony of the Dodon site.

Tom Croghan
April 26, 2016 | Tom Croghan

The Dungannon Legend

As those of you who have toured the vineyard with me know, we’ve spent a great deal of time trying to understand Dodon’s ancient soils and the agriculture that has influenced their current expression. One dominant theme is tobacco, which stripped much of the land of organic matter, nutrients, and microbial activity, making this a terrific site for wine growing. We often comment that we can taste these old tobacco plantings in our Cabernet Sauvignon, enough so that we decided to call our Cabernet-based blend “Oronoco” after the variety of tobacco grown here.

The second theme is thoroughbred horses. The story about the match race held May 4, 1743, between Dungannon, a horse imported from England by George Hume Steuart, and a horse from the stable of Charles Carroll of Annapolis is the stuff of legend. Steuart purchased Dodon from Nicholas Carroll in 1725 and was thus the first of the nine generations of our family to live and work here. We’ll celebrate this event on May 14th with release of Dodon’s first Collectors wine, also named Dungannon, and a race rematch between horses ridden by Polly’s brother Steuart and Randall Pearre, a descendent of Charles Carroll.

Because the Maryland Gazette was not published between 1734 and 1745, we know don’t very much about the origins of the race or why the Steuarts and the Carrolls were the protagonists. Both families were wealthy landowners and horsemen, and they may have participated in the horse races that took place during 1720s and 30s at the city fairground north of West Street. According to Jane McWilliams, in Annapolis, City on the Severn, by the 1740s, the horse races were better attended than the fairs and were a source of entertainment.

In my musings, I like to think of the Steuart vs. Carroll race as nothing more than a pleasurable way for friends to spend a spring afternoon, perhaps a bit fancier and more embellished than the races that preceded it, but a pastime none-the-less. The trophy for the race, a silver punch bowl called the Annapolis Subscription Plate, was much fancier than the spoons given the winners of prior Annapolis races. It is described as the oldest surviving silver object minted in Maryland and the second oldest horse-racing trophy in America.

But legend and verifiable truth are sometimes hard to disentangle. Most tellings suggest that the Steuarts issued a serious challenge to the Carrolls, but the reason is not described. Once again, according to Jane McWilliams, George Hume Steuart and Charles Carroll had many disagreements in the years leading up to the Revolutionary War, but whether these played a role in a 1743 challenge to defend family honor isn’t known. The Maryland Jockey Club was formed at about the same time as the race, but its role in planning that race is unknown. Certainly the Jockey Club would soon organize Annapolis Race Week, a significant annual event attended by George Washington, and it went on to play an important role in the growth of horse racing throughout the country. Dungannon must have won the race, since the trophy ended up in the Steuart family and was later loaned in 1932 by family descendants to the Baltimore Museum of Art, where it remains on display to this day.

Nostalgia and hyperbole aside, we love the story and hope to add to it with the May 14th rematch. Horse racing, like wine growing, is about connecting with nature, heightening our senses, and most importantly sharing a pleasurable moment with friends and family. And like this historical narrative, really great wines are full of intellectual intrigue and hedonistic surprise, constantly drawing you back to the glass to find its subtle nuance. In this way, Dungannon, the legendary horse, and Dungannon, the wine, share a great deal.

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Tom Croghan
April 8, 2016 | Tom Croghan

Dancing with Nature

We are often asked in the depth of winter about the effect of cold temperatures on the vines. Usually, the answer is that cold weather during winter dormancy is good for them. Chardonnay and Merlot are the least cold hearty varieties at Dodon, and even these tolerate temperatures as low as -3 degrees F before there is any bud loss.

It’s a much different case in the spring, however. As the vines begin to emerge from dormancy, they are much less tolerant of the cold. The picture, taken this morning, shows a second leaf Chardonnay vine with buds in various stages of growth. Near the bottom, the buds are barely swollen and still very dormant. Buds at this stage will tolerate temperatures in the single digits. Moving up the vine, the buds are progressively swollen, near to the point of bud “break.” About half of buds at this stage will die when the temperatures reach 27 degrees F. Once the leaves have started to separate, they become progressively more susceptible to cold injury, as is the case with the bud at the top of the vine.

The vines at Dodon emerged from dormancy especially early this year after an unusually warm March. The temperature in the vineyard at 6am Wednesday morning was 23.2 degrees F, clearly well into the danger zone. We had prepared for the predicted cold by mowing the grass very short to capture as much warmth in the soil as possible, by cultivating the non-bearing blocks with small vines, and by spraying a mixture of potassium, calcium, and seaweed that alters the physiology of the vine in ways that mimic their dormant state.

Despite the extreme cold, the vineyard seems to be in good shape so far. We lost about half of the buds that had broken, but these are largely confined to the second leaf blocks of Chardonnay, where during our winter pruning, we left more buds that are needed for the coming vintage. Buds on the nearing vines appear healthy. More cold is on the way, with low temperatures in the high 20’s predicted, so we will spray again today. If an inversion is forecast (where warmer air is above a layer of very cold air at the surface), we will build fires at the bottom of each block to facilitate air circulation.

Tom Croghan
December 9, 2013 | Tom Croghan

2013 Harvest Review

Harvest is over. The wines are pressed and aging in barrels. Careful attention to detail and patience have taken over where organized bedlam and urgency once reigned. It’s snowing as I write – a good time to reflect.

IMG_1083The weather, cool and wet most of the season, had turned perfect – hot days, coolish nights, and no rain – in mid-August. The downy mildew we had been battling all summer dried up. But as September progressed, the unusual features of the vintage became the dominant trend.  The sugars jumped quickly, ranging from 23.5 degrees brix in block 21 to 25.5 in the Petit Verdot in block 23, and then didn’t move much. Then, on September 25, the acids started to drop quickly. It started with the Merlot in block 21 and went quickly across the vineyard over the next week. Because high acid levels protect the fruit from botrytis and other late season mildews, loss of acid is always a worrisome event. Heavy rain or even dew could mean the fruit will start to break down.

So we started picking – 3000 pounds of Merlot from block 21 and 1500 pounds of Cabernet Franc from block 22 on September 28. After the first few rows of Merlot, we had three teams working simultaneously. Under Mike’s steady hand, the pickers filled the lugs and sent them to the crush pad crew, led by my mother, where we weighed, destemmed, sorted, crushed, and moved the fruit to the tanks. Rocky and John were in the cellar, taking care of the routine monitoring, drawing a saignee for the Rose, and testing the must. The fruit was beautiful.

Tank 9 was filled with Merlot by lunch, when the pickers started sending the Cab Franc. In contrast to the Merlot, the yields were low, in part because we pulled out nearly 200 diseased vines last winter. To get an optimal fermentation temperature, we try to fill the containers, but even our small tanks are too big for 1,500 pounds. Based on his experience in Pomerol and Napa, Rocky suggested we pop the tops from some barrels and use these in place of tanks. Using tarps and space heaters, we were able to get the temperatures into the mid-80′s, and 4×4′s served as tracks for rolling the barrels to keep the caps moist. The results exceeded our expectations.

What began evenly, calmly, almost serenely, quickly turned to frenzy as the rest of the reds ripened – almost all at once – while a tropical storm emerged in the Caribbean and a cold front tracked from the west. Four acres of nearly ripe fruit and tropical weather on the way is recipe for winemaker anxiety. With the storms due Sunday evening, we decided to pick everything Saturday and crush Sunday, a strategy made possible by our cold fermentation room that doubles as a refrigeration area if need be. Leaving nothing to chance, we also chose Sunday for our blessing of the grapes ceremony.

The yields in the younger blocks were very low, the result of the very low vigor in this part of the vineyard, but like blocks 21 and 22, the quality was great. Added to the 1,600 pounds of Cabernet Sauvignon and 800 pounds of Petit Verdot, we had enough to fill one fermenter and a couple of more barrels, leaving only Cabernet Sauvignon block 25 to hang through the storm.

On Sunday, the crush pad hummed and the cellar buzzed with activity. In addition to the crush, we had pump-overs and nearly 20 active fermentations to manage. In the following weeks, we sniffed, tasted, listened, rolled, and pumped-over morning, noon, and night, literally. The goal during this period is to manage the “cap,” the mass of skins that is forced to the top of the fermentation by carbon dioxide produced during the fermentation. If the cap gets too wet or too dry, vinegar producing bacteria can take over before all the fruit and tannins are extracted. If this happens, the resulting wine will at best be pale and thin; at worst, it will be spoiled. Fortunately, we did our tasks well. Only block 25 disappointed. The rain lasted longer than predicted, resulting in botrytis and loss of about 75% of the crop.

And then it was time to press, again almost all at once. We were able to wait for the tannins to shift to the mid-palate, just where we want them, before pressing. On some days, we pressed three wines, each taking about 5 hours, carefully tasting each cycle to determine the best time to make the “press cuts” that separate the best fractions from the rest. The barrel fermentations produced such little volume that we decided to press these wines by hand, adding to the long days. (Rocky’s biceps are two inches bigger from all the cranking on the ratchet.) But somehow, all the wine got into a barrel, and now we wait, using all our senses to monitor the élevage until the wines are ready for bottle – in the spring for the Sauvignon Blanc and the Rose; the fall for the Chardonnay, and spring 2015 for the reds. The white wines are golden, round, lively. The red wines have deep color, wonderful fruit, and remarkable structure. We’re very excited about the vintage.

Tom Croghan
September 22, 2013 | Tom Croghan

2013 Harvest Update

Harvest is what we work for. And now it’s in full swing. The Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay are in the cellar, settled, and the fermentations started. We started slow, a good warm up for the new cellar, with just 750 pounds from the third leaf SB in block 12. The fruit was very ripe, brix 23.8 for those who care about sugar levels, and very clean. Young vines always yield less fruit, but even we were surprised a few days later when the fourth leaf SB in block 11 produced 3000 pounds from less than a half acre. We’re fermenting those two lots separately, very slowly, but we’ll eventually bring them together to produce a delightful wine, with Block 11′s slightly less ripe fruit bringing SB’s characteristic aromatics to merge with fullness on the mid-palate contributed by Block 12. In the cellar, it’s remarkable to taste the emerging wine each day, spritzy and sweet, and complex with yeast as the fermentations get rolling.

John and I walked the red blocks this morning. They handled last night’s rain well. The near perfect weather of the last few weeks left us in good shape. The Merlot skins are giving up plenty of color and their tannins are no longer bitter. The acids are dropping (pH about 3.45), and the seeds are passing through their “black tea” quality on the way to the walnut character that indicates they are fully ripened.

Harvesting the Merlot will start the real work in the cellar. We try to pick and sort on the same day, which means equal time in the vineyard and standing at the sorting table, and then doing chemistries, starting the cold soaks, and cleaning up. It makes for very long day. A few days later, we’ll start the pump-overs, three times a day to extract as much  flavor as we can from the skins.

My favorite part about harvest is the picking. Working fast is important. The sugars start to deteriorate the moment the peduncle is cut. Hot days hasten the process. Keeping the fruit cool is the reason many growers in hot regions pick at night, but temperature must be balanced with other factors, especially the morning dew common in southern Maryland. The water dilutes the juice and thus the flavor. We’re lucky at Dodon, since the cellar is never more that a quarter mile from the fruit, allowing us to get it quickly into cooler temperatures.

Despite the pace of picking, time passes gently, calm before the coming frenzy of the cellar. Conversations come and go easily, usually starting with a discussion about the fruit and what we’re seeing, smelling, and tasting. How ripe is it? Is ripeness even on all parts of the bunches? Is there much rachis failure, a sign of some problem in May during bloom. Did any fruit get sun burned, indicating the need for more attention to leafing? Before long, though, we settle in, discussing families and events of the day and interests. New volunteers become part of the team in the course of a few panels. Sometimes we are just being – quiet, reflective, thankful – a moment distant from multitasking and multiple demands. We watch as empty lugs disappear with a steady rhythm that marks our progress, each filling with 30 pounds of fruit and then carried away.

We’re off to a great start.

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