Plant roots can access this elemental memory and the flavor of their fruit can be changed because of the unique aspects of the soil's chemistry. The earliest known fermented grape products fermented into wine were harvested from riverbanks in China. Today, many of what are colloquially considered to be the world's greatest wines are grown on ancient sea beds.
In this article for the "Wine and the Sea" symposium, I take a look at the geologic skeletons of several ancient seas-- long dried up-- that have given us some of our most revered wine-growing regions.
Chablis is perhaps the most famous of the regions with seabed soils. 150 million years ago in the Jurassic era, a sea blanketed this region and millions of oysters thrived in the water. The ensuing ice age changed the landscape, but it left behind a dried up bed of fossilized seashells. In 1923 when Chablis was officially named a wine AOC in France, the Kimmeridgian soils were the reason for creating a special designation for the wines of Chablis. Outcroppings of Kimmerigian soils appear in this area of the world in what geologists refer to as an 'island chain.' These islands aren't surround by water though-- they are surrounded by differing soil types (Wilson 1998:244-247). Chablis is the largest of 'islands' in this chain; Aube (Champagne) lies close by; and there is even an outcropping in the UK. The outcroppings of Kimmeridgian soils were carved out when glaciers after the last ice age scraped through layers of geologic history .
Chablis is commonly linked with the ocean in the world of wine writing, and rightfully so. The classic pairing is oysters. The most memorable food and wine pairing I have ever had was a sip of Grand Cru Chablis with a bite of caviar-- it was magic!
In the 1400s, piracy plagued the wine trade between Bordeaux and Britain. After attaining permits, merchant ships from Britain would be robbed of their wares on the Gironde (James 1971:44-47). Bordeaux was a prize to be protected by France and won by Britain. But why was/is Bordeaux so desirable?
We can thank an ancient frozen sea for Bordeaux's unique soil structure. A glacier scraped the original path for the Gironde River and pushed heavy gravel stones up to the Left Bank, and depositing several outroppings in Graves. These gravely regions make the most desired wine in the Graves (Brook 1992:79). The fine wines of Graves helped to put Bordeaux on the map, and winemaking there dates back quite some time.
Once a wetland, the marshes of Bordeaux's left bank were drained by Dutch traders in the 1700s, and thus revealed one of the most famous terroirs in existence (Lewin: 2009:71). The channels that keep the land drained into the river are meticulously well-kept (Ginestet 1984:32). Producers on the Left Bank used new technologies to distinguish themselves. In the Medoc, early producers tasted merchants on barrel samples, and embraced the now ubiquitous bottle/cork technology; because of their new way of trading, these left bank producers were able to distinguish themselves and establish good markets in Britain (Pellechia 2006:125). Unwittingly, they helped set the stage for modern wine markets.
The midwest was once a massive, shallow waterway, heavily populated with algeas, sea life, ancient birds, and water dinosaurs. It was also the home of the giant clam-- the world's largest bivalve that grew to such largeness because it needed bigger gills to survive in the muddy banks of the Western Interior Seaway. When tectonic plate movement caused changes on the western edges of the seaway, the waterway broke out from the Rocky Mountains and partially drained into the Pacific Ocean through what is modern day Washington State.
In this great flood, sea waters broke off huge chunks of the Rockies and deposited them along their course. They also carried boulders and smaller trace minerals that blanketed Washington State. Predecessors of the horse roamed wild in this region, and when the floods came the horses ran to a higher ground to survive. "Horse Heaven Hills" is a major hotbed for paleantologists studying fossils of the ancient horse.
Today, some of the most interesting syrahs and mourvedres come from the Horse Heaven Hills AVA in Washington State. The unique hodgepodge geology coupled with the strata of many synclines yields some of the most interesting soil chemistry in the world. Though long gone, the Western Interior Seaway still leaves its imprints upon out wines.
Waitaki Valley (New Zealand)
Waitaki Valley, on the west coast of New Zealand's south island, once lay submerged under the waves, but was thrust up from the ocean depths due to tectonic plate movement. The Maori creation legend is quite close to geologic reality-- Maori pulls up a part of New Zealand from the ocean while on a fishing journey (skip to 2:20 to see the animated version of this legend):
Waitaki is a relatively new wine region in New Zealand-- there is no mention of it in the 2002 Wine Atlas of New Zealand. With a commercial planting history that goes back just a decade or so, the few wines coming from here exhibit a remarkable personality, similar to the mineral-driven, steely, ocean air characteristics that you find in Chablis.
Throughout Catalonia you can find pockets of ancient seabeds-- a perfect growing area for high acid sparkling wines!
These ancient sands date back millions of years. The Mediterranean Sea was once a part of ocean waterways, but was closed off from the oceans about 5.6 million years ago. The Mediterranean almost dried up, but crust movement caused this basin to fill up again with waters coming in from the Atlantic Ocean. The Straight of Gibraltar keeps this sea in contact with the Atlantic.
To see all articles in this symposium with the topic of 'Wine and the Sea':
Aaron Nix-Gomez The Cultivation of the Vine in England and the East India Company’s Concern for Wine 1600-1630
Adam Zolkover Madeira, Wine, and The Sea
Dorit Handrus Wine and The Sea
Erin Scala Wine and the Sea: Aphrodite Rising
Frank Morgan Wine and the Sea: Consider the Oyster
Graham Harding ‘On the scale from riches to ruin’: the cargo of champagne in R.L.Stevenson’s Ebb-Tide
*please consider joining us in our symposium! We release quarterly topics and invite scholarly participation.
Brook, Stephen. (1992) Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon. London: Viking.
Coates, Clive. (2008) The Wines of Burgundy. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.
Cooper, Michael. (2002) The Wine Atlas of New Zealand. Auckland: Hodder Moa Beckett.
Ginestet, Bernard. (1984) The Wines of France: Saint Julien. NY: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
James, Margery K. (1971) Studies in the Medieval Wine Trade. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Lewin, Benjamin. (2009) What Price Bordeaux? Dover: Vendange Press.
McGovern, Patrick E. (2009) Uncorking the Past: The Quest for Wine, Beer, and Other Alcoholic Beverages. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California.
McInerney, James. (2010) 'The Ocean in a Glass' The Wall Street Journal. 24 April 2010.
Pellechia, Thomas. (2006) Wine: the 8,000-year-old Story of the Wine Trade. Philadelphia: Running Press.
Wilson, James E. (1998) Terroir: The Role of Geology, Climate and Culture in the Making of French Wines. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California.