There’s something mystical about wine-making. Especially in France. You know the kind of thing: picture a gentle mountainside slope in Burgundy with an old man muttering about the spring water on this side of the valley, holding a handful of the earth, sniffing it, prodding it, and going on about how this side of the hillside makes wine a hundred times more delicious than on the other side.
Charles Frankel tackles all such clichés and more in Land and Wine: The French Terroir. A geologist by profession, Frankel has a fluent amateur’s enthusiasm for a tour around a vineyard; managing to find plenty of viticulteurs for inclusion in the book as keen as he is, displaying their soils and subsoils in proud tasting-room glass cases. Frankel tours France’s wine-making regions not following Hugh Johnson & Jancis Robinson’s canonical and gazillion-selling Wine Atlas, but instead using as a guide the eras of geological time. Sounds a bit academic and dull? It’s definitely not.
Dinosaurs, ammonites, volcanoes: Frankel packs in the dramatic geological moments. And horticultural ones too. Carefully describing the way that grape vines send down long roots to gather up mineral-tanged water, he alleges they can grow to a massive 26 foot long (checking later on the internet, I find it’s true). He also has a wonderful eye for detail, and a passion for mineralogy that is almost catching; at the point where I found myself beginning to enthuse about manganese-rich quartz forming in the hydrothermal vents of ancient oceans, I knew he’d got me.
All wine expertise acknowledges the importance of the base layer of stone upon which vines are grown. But Frankel observes wine geology on a vastly more detailed scale, and actually in complementary fashion. He explains how the grand rivers of La Belle France often run down fault lines between different geologies; how the entire South of France was part of the ancient super-continent Gondwanaland, while the North came floating in on a plate called “Avalonia”, along with the British Isles.
Read on for how mass Paeolithic horse slaughter boneyards have contributed to Pouilly-Fuissé; or how a maker of St-Chinian used rocks to chock his tractor which turned out to be dinosaur femurs. You will need good maps of France to enjoy this book fully; a wine atlas is also useful. But the book would be a lovely holiday guide, combining wine-tasting with Musées des Dinosaures and troglodyte caves. Santé!