Many of Bordeaux’s most sought-after wines are from vineyards planted on gravel-rich soils: the 1st Growth Châteaux Lafite, Latour and Margaux to name just 3. But it’s not just in Bordeaux that gravel is highly regarded for vines. A bottle I opened recently from New Zealand boasted of its origins in the Gimblett Gravels. So, what is the link between this type of soil and high quality wine?
Gravel is a good base for a vineyard for a number of reasons. It’s usually low in fertility which means that the vines have to struggle to extract the moisture and nutrients they need for growth. This struggle puts the vine into survival mode, so it produces more grapes which contain the pips which are the vine’s way to propagate itself.
Also, gravel is porous so, in wetter areas, rainfall can drain through meaning that the vines’ roots aren’t sitting in water where they may rot. But vines still need some water so they extend their roots to find it and, at the same time, pick up extra nutrients which are often linked to more flavoursome grapes.
Finally, in cooler areas, gravel acts like tiny storage heaters, soaking up the heat of the sun during the day then releasing it as the sun goes down in the evening allowing the ripening process to extend over a couple more hours.
This is particularly important in both Bordeaux and New Zealand’s Gimblett Gravels – both are relatively cool areas where Cabernet Sauvignon is grown. Cabernet is quite a late-ripening variety and needs all the warmth it can get, so the little extra from the gravelly soil may just make the difference allowing the harvesting of fully ripe berries giving a wine that’s rich and appealing.
This was clearly the case with Saint Clair’s Pioneer Block Cabernet Sauvignon (Majestic, £17.99); full of lovely damson and black plum flavours and hints of smoky oak – a delicious wine, although some may want to leave the 2019 vintage for a year or 2 as the bottle I opened was still a little firm and tannic.
I have to finish on a sad note with the news of the death this week of Steven Spurrier after a career in the wine industry spanning more than 50 years. He was best known as a wine writer and educator, but he was also the person who, almost single-handedly, brought Californian wines to attention of the wider world. For anyone who doesn’t know the amazing story, google ‘The Judgement of Paris’.