I have been harvesting beets from the garden of late, the most rewarding task of my modest, city-slicker's harvest. Exuberant green leaves flourish all summer, then it's time to dig in for the subterranean treasure. I grew two types this year, the candy-striped variety called Chioggia and an orange one named Golden Detroit. For me, the pleasure's as much in the aroma as in the appearance or the anticipation of getting them into a roasting pan. They smell of earth.
Like most gardeners and farmers, I love the scent. Maybe it's genetic with me, because farming was the family way until my parents moved to a city. Maybe it's also why I'm drawn to earthy nuances in wine.
Earthiness is a vague descriptor, I'll grant that; no two wine lovers mean precisely the same thing by it. It's also the source of guffaws among drinkers who believe wine should – and perhaps can only – taste of fruit. With respect, I disagree. Grapes can dish the dirt: You've just got to put your nose to the ground, so to speak, to find it. I reserve the term for suggestions of damp or dry soil, mulched leaves, tobacco and mushroom and the barnyard odour of manure.
You can insert your own joke after that last one, but even wine chemists and sensory scientists will confirm that wine can smell of all those things, sometimes pleasantly so, sometimes in an excessive and off-putting way. Wine is not mere fruit, after all. Yeast, which is a fungus, has a powerful influence on its character. Cheese, another fermented food, can be stinkier than a barnyard, yet few people would dismiss gorgonzola aficionados for using the euphemism "earthy."
The quality is more prevalent in European wines than in the predominantly fruity fare of sunny New World regions. Reds tend to be earthier than whites, though there are exceptions, notably the uncanny mushroom-like quality of an old white Burgundy or Champagne.
Sometimes earthiness technically qualifies as a chemical fault, caused either by geosmin (a natural byproduct of soil bacteria) or by TCA (the foul, mouldy pollutant that can attack cork before it goes in the bottle). But you need not take your cue from chemists or from wine "experts" to find pleasure or disgust in wine. Bottom line: Do you like it? I know I'm an earth man, especially in autumn.
Palazzo Brunello di Montalcino 2006 (Italy)
SCORE: 94 PRICE: $53.95
In addition to the sweet cherry fruit, there are a few enticing things going on in this regal Tuscan red. I love the sherry-like, nutty tang as well as the more classic Brunello notes of tobacco and desiccated fall foliage. There's the faintest essence, too, of barnyard, just enough to be pleasant, especially if you're a farmer. Try it with herbed steak or fresh pasta topped with hearty meat sauce. $54.50 in Que.
E. Guigal Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2006 (France)
SCORE : 92 PRICE : $51.95
Known for $300-plus Côte-Rôties as well as for a good $17-to-$22 Côtes du Rhône, Guigal sources fruit for this pricy Châteauneuf from other growers. The standards are high and this is always beautifully made. The fruit in the 2006 is forward and succulent, hinting at cherry liqueur, enlivened by herbs and a touch of funky barnyard. It is drinking beautifully and should develop more fine funk for up to a decade.
Mazzei Ser Lapo Chianti Classico Riserva 2007 (Italy)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $24.95
Still tannic and tight, Mazzei's Ser Lapo is built for cellaring. Dark fruit and cherry mingle with tobacco and a quality that reminds me of dry soil. It should improve with three to 12 years of bottle rest, although, if you want to enjoy it now, pair it with juicy beef, which will soften the astringent tannins. $34.99 in B.C.
Château de la Gardine Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2010 (France)
SCORE : 91 PRICE : $32.95
Here's a spicy Châteauneuf that esteemed U.S. critic Robert Parker Jr. described with such words as "truffles" and "forest floor." He's right on the money, of course, especially with the latter term. The fine-grained tannins render it a bit austere for current consumption. If you can, wait at least two years and up to 10. It would suit braised red meats. $54.99 in B.C.
Pesquera Reserva 2008 (Spain)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $39.95
Fans of this cult red from the Ribera del Duero north of Madrid need no introduction to earthiness. This is 100-per cent tempranillo, the prominent grape of Rioja to the east, a moderately tannic variety with loads of complexity when done right. The winemaker boasts of its "dark forest aromas" and I would not disagree. There's also good spice from 24 months in American oak as well as pleasant oxidation and a tight tug of fine-grained tannins. Roast leg of lamb would do it justice. $49.99 in B.C.
Domaine Cazes Ego Vieilles Vignes Côtes du Roussillon-Villages 2010 (France)
SCORE : 90 PRICE : $17.95
A classic southern-France red blend of grenache, syrah and mourvèdre, it's made from organically farmed grapes. Full-bodied and very dry, it shows an attractive balance of dark fruit and herbs, with a trace that wine lovers like to call minerality. Try it with meat stews or grilled sausages.
Castano Hecula Monastrell 2009 (Spain)
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $15.99 in B.C.
Too bracing and crisp to be called a crowdpleaser (acid haters beware), this red will appeal to those with a taste for bone-dry, earthy Spanish bargains. Monastrell is the same as mourvèdre, a tannic grape that delivers astringent backbone. The wine is full-bodied, plummy and herbal and would enjoy the company of fatty meats, such as sausages or lamb.
Santa Alicia Reserva Carmenere 2010 (Chile)
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $12.15
When carmenere lacks sufficient ripeness, it can taste green or vegetal. When properly grown, that green quality can turn into a more pleasant, dried-leaf nuance. This bargain offering shows ripe dark fruit, smoke, herbs and tobacco. Nice for grilled red meats. $14.49 in N.S.