Wilson's Terroir a Labor of Love

Geology Makes These Wines Fine

Making fine wine in France takes time.

Millions of years, actually.

The vines of Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne and other famous regions of France are rooted in some of the oldest to some of the youngest geologic formations. These different rocks impart flavor to grapes unique to anywhere else in the world, says author Jim Wilson.

"The reason one vineyard produces a better wine than another," says Wilson, a retired Shell Oil Company executive and former president of AAPG, is largely due to the composition of the soils and how they function.

"For example, there is a saying in Champagne that the vines have their heads in the Tertiary and their feet in the Cretaceous," he said. Sand and clays from the Tertiary wash over and mix with the underlying Cretaceous chalk.

"Beneath Reims and Epernay are miles and miles of tunnels in the soft chalk where champagne is stored at 55 F," he continued. "There are millions and millions of bottles stored there."

Like fine wine, good books take time. After 20 years of studying the wine-nourishing geology of France, Wilson is ready to pop the cork on a book titled Terroir -- The Role of Geology, Climate and Culture in the Making of French Wines. Terroir (pronounced tair-wahr) is a French term meaning total elements of the vineyard.

The 336-page book, published by Mitchell Beazley of London, was released in the United Kingdom last year. U.S. publication is due in early February, with the University of California and the Wine Appreciation Guild serving as co-publishers. The book is available through the University of California Press.

Filled with geological maps, cross sections, four-color photos and smooth-flowing prose, the book is the first of its kind for general readers. In fact, Wilson would never have started the project if he had been able to find a book on the subject in 1977. Wilson and his wife were going to France to do some vineyard hopping.

He sought a book on the geology of those areas, but could find none.

"I can't believe it," he remarked. Continuing, he said, half seriously, to his wife, I'll have to write the book."

James and Elloie Wilson are native Texans who live in Cherry Hills Village, Colo. The couple, married 58 years, has two daughters and four grandchildren.

Wilson's laurels include the Texas A&M Geosciences and Earth Resources Council's medal for distinguished achievement, the Sidney Powers Memorial medal -- AAPG's highest award -- and Distinguished Alumnus of A&M. He was AAPG president in 1972-73 and trustee and chairman of the AAPG Foundation for over a decade.

His world travels include a 1972 trip to the western Pacific Rim promoting the first Circum-Pacific energy minerals conference sponsored by AAPG. In 1984 he led a delegation of petroleum geologists on a lecture tour of China.

Despite failing eyesight, Wilson, 83, is able to pull books from his reference library with scarcely any searching and can point out details of his wall-mounted geological map of France from memory.

Trained as a geological engineer at Texas A&M University, Wilson went to work for Shell Oil in 1938. He did extensive field mapping for Shell until he was called to active military duty in 1942.

Wilson's first trip to France was on D+6 (June 12, six days after D-Day), landing on Omaha Beach with a contingent of the Third Armored Division. He was wounded the next month in the breakout at St. Lo, and spent the reminder of the war in intelligence at the Command and General Staff School. In his lectures, he emphasized the importance that geology could play in predicting beach and terrain conditions.

There he wrote a review article titled, "Geology, the Fourth Dimension of Terrain."

When he retired from the Army with the rank of major, Wilson returned to Shell, taking staff and management assignments in the Gulf Coast, mid-continent and the Rocky Mountain region. In 1960, at age 44, he was named vice-president for exploration production in Houston, the first geologist and youngest vice-president in the company's history.

After retiring from Shell in 1973, Wilson began an active consulting career, both domestic and foreign, primarily for major industrial corporations before devoting full time to his research on the wine country of France.

On numerous trips to French vineyards, Wilson received generous assistance from the vineyard owners, geology professors and government experts. Hugh Johnson, celebrated British wine expert, gave continuing encouragement saying that a book relating geology and wines to soil was long overdue.

In the foreword to Terroir, Johnson wrote, "If Chablis tastes different from Meursault, Margaux from Pauillac, the first place we must look is underground.

"One of the mysterious things about French vineyards," Wilson said, "is how neighboring vineyards or plots within a vineyard that appear to be identical above ground may produce wines of very different quality and character. More often than not, the answer is because the covering soils of the vineyards have obscured significant differences underground.

"These differences may be in soil structure and its water retention, mineral composition and even in bedrock changes," he continued.

"We don't see them, but they're incredibly important to the life of the vine. After all, vine roots, themselves, are great explorers; they can plunge tens of feet into the earth."

Wilson also stresses in his book that geology is not the only reason for greatness and variety of France's wines.

"It's the totality of the vineyard environment -- the climate, the vine, the soils, the subsoils and rocks -- the terroir, that has to be understood," he said.

"But geology is the constant in the equation."

The French are naturally proud of their wines and will willingly challenge their neighbors for supremacy; French laws keeps tight reins on wine production, banning irrigation and requiring specific pruning and limiting grape varieties before the product can be sold, Wilson said.

Wilson's curiosity about where French wines grew was whetted by the fact that French vineyards grow on a greater variety of geology than any wine country in the world. There's enough variety to please any geologist.

The author suggests in his introduction that as you contemplate the wine in your glass, recognize it has a personality -- it may be an aristocrat or a neighbor of lesser renown, but it comes from a place with a name and a history. A terroir.

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"On a spring morning in 1977, it was in the Cote d'Or that I stood with some reverence in a famed terroir -- a place, a name, a history. The vineyard soil I was scuffing about with my shoe was a rich, reddish-brown. This was my first visit to Burgundy, but somehow this soil seemed curiously familiar. In a mental flashback, I was a young field geologist standing on the reddish-brown soil of a particular geologic formation in south-central Texas that I had mapped over half a lifetime ago."

-- From Terroir, by James E. Wilson

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