Edy Del Popolo, Life is Soil

By Mariana Gianella

Wine ensnares you in a trap that, much like a riddle, tempts you with the promise of being solved, perhaps in the coming year, in the next bottle, or at the next symposium. And that is the engine, because wine is never solved, but leaves in its path a trail of fellowship, alliances that strengthen us, still more questions, seeds left to germinate afterwards. Wine is waiting.

I’m sitting in a bar, and even though everything I’ve been carrying is now on the chair next to me, it's the year that weighs on my shoulders. All the wines tasted, all the talks engaged in, Mendoza, the confessions of the mountain range, seat on the chair and hands writing, the mountain in view, the meals, the novelties, the wine fairs, the uncorkings.

Lennon said: “Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans.” Wine is also that. It's what you drink while you’re waiting for the best wine. And, as the path is created en route, we travel thousands of kilometres in search of the perfect reflection, the exact definition, the saga of our drink, the saga of wines of the world.

A few months ago, I came out of a talk about the “Geography of Argentine wine” and it seemed to me that everything was wonderful but that something had escaped me that I couldn’t fully understand. Like someone who sees a trompe l'oeil and believes it, but at the same time suspects something is amiss. And it's not like the geology of wine wouldn't have already filled me with wonderful data and images. But what I knew about wine wasn’t enough to combine technical data with what was in each glass. Something was missing, a link, something that brought together that fantastic world of alluvial soils that colourfully stain Mendoza, with what I sensed in my nose and mouth every time someone or I, myself, said: “This wine is tannic, or sweet, or this, and so on”.

Then it occurred to me to search for the missing link, for someone who could tie together the loose ends of wine and soils, who could piece together the narrative thread of the story, and tell something of the marriage, something of the cause-and-effect relationship. And there appeared Edy Del Popolo, a man who has been observing soils for years and tasting wines from here and away. An unassuming person who doesn’t flaunt his vast experience or the excellent wines he makes, his words contain a great deal of wisdom. From the very start I learned from him that you must never doubt the obvious, because that is exactly the case with wine, climate and soil: “Many will try to demonstrate the how of the influence, but no one will ever doubt that they influence.”

I have no absolutely reasonable explanation of why that is so, or the characteristics of the wines at the moment of tasting. Sometimes there is no reason, but there is an inescapable coincidence. When we say ‘this wine has fine tannins in the mouth or a minerality that makes me think of calcareous soils’ or ‘this wine has a sweet mouth feel that is typical of clay soil wines’, we mostly agree. So, over time, we’ve come to understand that, as we agree, in one way or another a relationship exists if we all, to a greater or lesser extent, share the same perceptions.

The class on wine and soil had started, someone was finally explaining why some truths were truths despite not being in the books. The explanation is in thousands and thousands of producers, winemakers, vignerons from all over the world who had studied soils and endlessly tasted wines. And when speaking to each other, they could discuss many things but, still, some points appeared irrefutable. I wonder how many truths will have been arrived at like this, slowly and in plain sight of all, how many eyes will have witnessed the moon and sun hide behind the curve of the horizon, while the whole world spoke of elephants holding up the earth.

Undoubtedly this last decade has been the decade of soil, just as the 1990s was a decade of the technical aspects of canopy management and enology. Changes in wine making are correlated with changes inside the winery, and the two together have defined a certain style of wine. Years pass, things change, thoughts evolve, and so the resulting wine also changes. And this last decade has been the decade of soil. I think it has been very important and has been very influential in conceiving wines with characteristics other than those conceived a decade or two ago. It's absolutely relevant. If you think that more than 10 years ago you were going to a high-altitude zone, to a cold area and paying special attention to the climate, maximum and minimum temperatures, thermal amplitude, and how all this ended up affecting the characteristics of a wine. In recent years, focus turned to the soil. And you can really see the expression: in a vineyard with very heterogeneous soil but no significant variations of climate, the wines are different depending on the plots they come from; that’s the soil’s influence. Aside from that, there may be other factors such as harvest time but if you have had the experience of maintaining equal conditions, you realize that the important influential element is the soil.

We then talked about favourite soils, diversity, expressions and how wine relies so much on context and culture. We spoke of the dangers of authoritarianism in tastes and he said: “We must not repeat things that are not sensed. Before you speak, you have to try, test and test again, as many times as necessary. And once you’re convinced, then say what you sense.” How similar this is to life.

Everyone knows what they like best and how it relates it to where they come from. I really like wines that come from soils with good stone content, that don’t have too deep a profile. I don't like wines that come from very deep soils. Lately I tend to think it isn’t true that deep soils with a lot of stone that favour the ability of the roots to explore have, one way or another, elements linked to quality. I think you can have high-quality wines if the quality is correlated with the finesse of the wines. I can say that there are exceptionally fine wines from shallow soils or in top soils where the roots needn’t go two metres deep in search of water or nutrients and relate to all that environment in the root area – the rhizosphere – where they need to find calcium or certain other elements. I think I can say that, maybe, it’s a myth and that the fine wines, or the ones that interest me, come from rather shallow soil structures with good stone content, good sand content and at least an equal degree of silt. But in those conditions, the silt – the same silt that years ago I didn’t like finding in clay soils – I now love in shallow soil or not terribly deep soil with stone and sand. In these conditions, silt acts as a bond between what it is about sand and what it is about clay that makes a wine neither very sweet like those that come from clay soils, nor very light as the wines that come from very sandy soils. The silt bridges to a middle. They’re linked to the feeling of compactness in the mouth, wines that have a medium-body mouth, that build a bridge, that don’t leave gaps, that well and consistently enter frontally, that are maintained throughout the middle palate and that reach the end. 

The ground where we're standing, as if it hadn't been there forever, as if we weren't strangers stepping on a strange moon, looks at us. We need to define things so that they exist, but, in turn, things don't need us to exist. So the sommeliers consider the terroir here and there and constantly wonder if we have one. Edy has a blunt, simple and sobering answer:

Terroir is not an idea to me, it is not something abstract, it is not something about which I can say “here it exists and there it doesn’t”. It seems to me that as long as there are climates, soils and diversity of people: there is terroir. Therefore, it is something real, tangible, not something ethereal or abstract. In Argentina we have terroir and we have not one but different ones, precisely because there is diversity of the three fundamental components: diversity of ideas, diversity of soils, diversity of climates. And all of them, each entity, in each given area, expresses itself and expresses the reality of the wines of that place, not people’s ideas or opinions. They are tangible facts, realities, Argentina certainly has its terroir.

I've become friends with waiting. In the past 20 years, wine has travelled a silent path of encounters, witnesses and dawnings. So, while we were making other plans, some wines were already investigating their barrels for the answers to what we asked today. I thank all the daring people like Edy, all the winemakers who observe relentlessly, who look, who try, who boil under the sun, for their knowledge. And just as in recent years, everything not yet apparent has become reality, no matter what language you say it in, some of the invisible will burst out at some point, something we don't yet see will be an epiphany. The world never stands still, wine will never always be the same, because as someone once said, there are no truths made of stone, all that is solid melts into air.

¹  Edy del Popolo, enologist and CEO of Susana Balbo Wines and co-owner with David Bonomi of Per Se Wines.

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