A Beginner’s Guide to Wine, Part III

With the holidays upon us and the weather turning colder, November and December offer plenty of opportunity for sharing and enjoying wine. With such a seasonal emphasis on choosing, buying and drinking(!) wine, we started to wonder just how many of us can truly say we know what goes into making an excellent bottle.

Fortunately, Ian Tattersall and Rob DeSalle, authors of new book A Natural History of Wine, are here to help guide you through your wine choices this Christmas. These two make quite the pair when it comes to the popular beverage. Both of them scientists – Rob, a molecular biologist and Ian, a palaeoanthropologist – they have explored every aspect of wine from explaining what the complex drink is made of to its effects on our mind and body. 

 In this four-part series for the YaleBooks blog, Rob and Ian share their wisdom and explain how you can get the most out of wine this festive season. 

A Beginner’s Guide to Wine, Part III: Understand the Wine Terroir

by Rob DeSalle, co-author of A Natural History of Wine

One of the more mysterious influences on wine is terroir which refers to the qualities or parameters of the place where the grapes in the wine are grown. These include the soil type, the drainage, and the kind of bedrock that a vineyard sits above. In addition, the micro-climate, exposure to the elements, altitude and latitude are now more commonly thrown into the terroir mix. But a wine’s terroir is very complex and often times scoffed at by experts as having little if nothing to do with the quality of a wine. However, the imprecision with terroir is described and hence the scoffing may be on their way out. Recent analyses of the microbial makeup of soils and the surfaces of grapes themselves have shown that microbial associations can be used to tell grape variety, the area where grapes are grown and perhaps even the vintage (the year a wine is made) of Californian wines in Sonoma, the Central Valley and Napa. While we don’t know yet how microbes might be influencing the qualities of wine it is very clear that certain microbes are associated with Chardonnays, Zinfandels and Cabernets of California, suggesting strongly that microbes may be the missing link in understanding terroir.

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Ian Tattersall is curator emeritus in the Division of Anthropology, American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), New York City. Rob DeSalle is curator of entomology in the Sackler Institute for Comparative Genomics, AMNH. 

A Natural History of Wine

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