Lost in cartography

Among my most sentimentally valued possessions are a couple of old Denoyer-Geppert maps given to me by a history teacher making way for the technology of the overhead projector.

One of them charts Alexander the Great’s extraordinary conquests, the other details Greek and Phoenician colonies. Both are printed in the saturated yellows, blues, greens and reds of an age past, and in their minor imperfections you can sense they were drawn by a skilled artisan. They record the free availability of slaves in Scythia, the trade of Tyrian purple around the Mediterranean basin and the political leagues that formed after Alexander’s death.

Among my earliest fascinations with wine was the maps. I know the geography of many wine regions much better than that of Britain. On the surface, maps codify, organise and make sense of physical experience. In wine, we use them to help us talk about terroir, and without an understanding of where a wine comes from on the map, I don’t believe we can ever really hope to understand why it is the way it is.  

So when I signed up to a masterclass with Alessandro Masnaghetti at the recent Nebbiolo Day tasting I felt confident that, like a modern-day Dr Casaubon, I was about to be given The Key To All Nebbiolo. Masnaghetti has been working since the early 1990s to produce detailed maps of the Langhe, which not only identify vineyards and cru, but also soil types and ownership. 

In a seminar of enormous detail, Masnaghetti attempted to explain the shifting sands, marls, geological periods and human factors that combine to form the world’s principal Nebbiolo region. He was frank about the fact that his work to map Piedmont’s soils has unearthed complexity and contradiction rather than burying it, and he avoided simple but tempting definitions.

Nonetheless, at one point I confess I was thinking of the straightforwardness of early 20th-century wine books, where the complexities of soil were largely confined to France and to a sliding scale with clay on one side and limestone on the other; body and richness on the left and freshness and linearity on the right, with the midpoint providing just the right amount of both.

Anyone hoping that Masnaghetti would provide a short, digestible crib sheet that would help separate the Serralungas from the La Morras was to be disappointed. We discovered that – although discussions about soil are nearly always based around composition – soil age and texture are also of importance. A series of graphs showing five vineyards on identical younger soils, that differ only in terms of the geological age of their subsoil, displayed distinctly different budding, flowering, veraison and ripening times.

When it came to tasting the 11 wines from various vineyards in Barolo, I think we were all hoping that it would suddenly come together and fall into place. But wine is never that simple. Our Castello di Verduno Monvigliero Riserva 2012 wasn’t austere or delicate, but quite meaty, demonstrating that vintage can trump soil to a certain extent. Likewise, our Grimaldi Badarina 2015 from Serrralunga was much more perfumed and approachable than the Ettore Germano Cerretta 2014 that was tasted beside it, reminding us that Serralunga can play against type in producing lighter and more accessible wines.

The one thing these maps definitively showed was how complex the idea of soil is, let alone other terroir factors. While we often have to embrace simplicity to generalise, in many ways Masnaghetti’s pioneering maps pose more questions than answers. You might even say that these are maps to get lost in.

Jason Millar is the retail director at independent wine merchant Theatre of Wine. He can be contacted at  jason@theatreofwine.com and found on Twitter @jasondmillar

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