A Touch of the Grape

By M. Scott Morris/NEMS Daily Journal

When Scott Burns says he wants to turn everyone into “terroirists,” he’s engaging in geology humor.
Nothing wrong with that for a professor of geology at Portland State University, who’s spending his sabbatical year as a traveling lecturer.
Notice that he didn’t say “terrorist,” which might’ve earned Burns a few hours with Homeland Security agents.
“Terroir” is a French term that could be translated as “the taste of the place.” And since it is a French term, the taste in question is wine.
The quality of the grapes and the skills of the winemaker are central to producing a standout bottle of wine. But the art of winemaking also depends on the landscape, climate and soil where the grapes are grown.
This is old knowledge in France.
“In the Burgundy region, the monks have been keeping records for 400 years,” Burns said.
Applied geology
Expert vintners know where the best grapes grow, and can draw lines in their vineyards where the quality drops.
By analyzing the different soils, geologists can point out scientifically what sophisticated winemakers know simply by tasting their product.
“My mission is to teach geology students and others the role of applied geology,” Burns said. “How we can use geology to improve people’s lives.”
He recently gave his lecture about wines to geology professors and students at Mississippi State University. He also visited the University of Mississippi, Millsaps College and the University of Southern Mississippi, where he delivered lectures about earthquakes and landslides.
“What do we build? How do we build? Where do we build?” he said.
He has about 80 more lectures to deliver around the country before he returns to his job in Oregon.
Burns said he’s particularly interested in taking geology out of the classroom and into the field. For the most part, MSU has that covered.
“Here, it’s focused on oil and gas,” he said. “That’s applied geology.”
Sippin’ Mississippi
Burns’ lecture on winemaking provides another avenue for students and professors to consider. Darrel Schmitz, head of MSU’s geosciences department, said he’s thinking about conducting a few experiments of his own.
“When we cleared some land two years ago, we had some wild muscadines come up,” Schmitz said. “I’m interested to see what happens. They’ve been growing wine around here for years and years.”
There’s not exactly a wine industry in Mississippi, but Schmitz said Old South Winery in Natchez and Red Hills Winery in Louisville still produce muscadine wines.
Big business
Burns said he’s enjoyed muscadine wines, but he’s primarily concerned with the billion-dollar wine industry that’s growing in Oregon and Washington.
In the mid-1960s, a man named David Lett decided to make pinot noir in Oregon. In 1975, he took his wine to France and placed second in an international contest. That shook things up.
“A lot of French wineries then bought land in Oregon,” Burns said.
A grower wants his grapes to suffer. The harder a plant has it, the quicker it will try to reproduce by creating fruit.
The goal is to provide hot days and cold nights. Humidity isn’t appreciated, which doesn’t speak well for a booming Mississippi wine industry.
You need soil that holds water, but not too much, and it’s best to have a dry growing season to further stress the grapes.
The soil where the grapes are planted provides a mix of minerals, heavy metals and trace elements that help give wine its unique flavor. Limestone soil produces a peppery flavor, and volcanic soil results in a full-bodied, smoky aroma. The variety of soil conditions is endless.
“A good geologist never misses the chance to go out in the field and sample the wine,” he said.
Small fortune
The applied part of geology comes into play when someone’s interested in starting a vineyard. Burns is regularly asked to be a consultant.
He also plans to make his own wine someday. The work is labor-intensive and expensive, so he’ll probably have to wait until retirement.
“You know the old joke? How do you make a small fortune in wine?” he said. “You invest a large fortune in wine.”
For now, he has more lectures to deliver about wine, earthquakes and landslides – basically about how the ground we live on shapes our lives. His winemaking lecture makes that point in a straightforward way.
“Every time you sip wine, you’re tasting the climate of the place and the geology of the place, in addition to the quality of the grape,” he said. “That’s the story.”
If you understand that, you’re on your way to becoming one of Burns’ “terroirists.”