Here is a question that has puzzled me. Wines that we define as earthy. Since I love French wines, and being inquisitive, I wanted to know what causes earthy, barnyard aromas that are often dominant in old world wines. We even find it in many new world wines. A lot of people say that it is the terroir that imparts such aromas. On the internet I found two wine authors definition for earthy and barnyard.
Tom Cannavan’s definitions are,
Earthy: Terreux (F) Erdig (G) Terra (I)Con sabor a tierra (S) An earthy character is not clean, thus an imperfection. It is not a “goût de terroir”, which in its true sense means expressive of its terroir or complete growing environment, not tasting simplistically of earth!
Geosmin, 2,5-dimethylpyrazine, 2-ethyl-2,4-diimethylthiazole, TCA (2,4,6-trichloroanisole), 3- isobutyl-2-methoxypyrazine
Barnyard or Horse: Cheval (F) Pferd (G) Cavallo (I) Caballo (S)
The horsey odour (also referred to as stables, sweaty-saddle and barnyard) is a volatile phenol defect caused by Brettanomyces, otherwise known simply as ‘Brett’.
Robert Parker’s definitions are,
Earthy: May be used in both a negative and a positive sense; however, I prefer to use earthy to denote a positive aroma of fresh, rich, clean soil. Earthy is a more intense smell than woody or truffle scents.
Barnyard: An unclean, farmyard, fecal aroma is imparted to a wine because of unclean barrels or unsanitary winemaking facilities.
In Tom’s definition of earthy he says, “It is not a “goût de terroir”, which in its true sense means expressive of its terroir or complete growing environment, not tasting simplistically of earth!” The term goût de terroir is a French term that means a slight taste of soil. So I relate this to being a good aroma. Even Parker describes earthy as being a positive or negative.
So how does one separate good from bad when one smells a red wine and detects these aromatics? Last night I enjoyed a Chateauneuf du Pape followed by a New Zealand Bordeaux Blend at Valencia Wine Company. The latter had stronger aromatics of earthiness and even barnyard. Is this normal? To me is hard to quantify the point at which the aromas signify that a bottle is bad. Bad bottles are the result of brettanomyces.
Brettanomyces, or brett as it is commonly called, is highly prevalent and is becoming an increasing problem with wines from several different countries. Brett was extremely common in Bordeaux wines prior to 1990. Many top classed Bordeaux’s were known by the inherent smell or stench from brett. Brett is widespread and virtually every red wine can display aromatics of a brett infection. Create the right environment and the wine will develop a brett infection.
The key is to prevent the brett from becoming an infection by controlling it and keeping it below the perceivable limits. This is not achieved by sterility of the winery but rather by making sure that the barrels are not receptive of the brett.
In closing, I ask these questions, “What is earthiness? Is it good or bad if we detect it in the nose of a wine? How do we quantify a wines earthiness?” Is Parker’s explanation that, ” May be used in both a negative and a positive sense; however, I prefer to use earthy to denote a positive aroma of fresh, rich, clean soil,” give us the definition that we need? I am putting this article out in hopes that some of our wine scholar colleagues can provide more insight into our perception of wines that reflect aromatics of earthiness and barnyard.