Fingerprinting Wine: Your Tax Dollars at Work

Lanthanum, Cerium, Uranium, Vanadium, Chromium, Manganese, Strontium, Barium, Titanium, Rubidium, Zinc and Copper. Sounds like a bad flashback from honors chemistry in high school or a Gilbert and Sullivan melody that you never knew the words to, right?

These are the twelve trace elements that all wine grapes pull up from the soil. It’s in the roots, in the leaves, and in the fruit. It’s also in the wine. Don’t want any Strontium with your Cabernet? Too bad, because there’s no way to get it out. Of course these elements are in such minor quantities, such microscopic amounts, that it takes a really whiz-bang, scary sounding piece of technology called an Inductively Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometer to tell that they’re there. But it can.

And here’s the really interesting part. The exact proportion of these twelve elements is particular to both the place the grape was grown, and what type of grape it is. Let me say that again. Every wine has a different proportion of all these trace elements depending on exactly where it was grown. Sound like anything familiar? To me it sounds like a pretty strong argument for the concept of Terroir from a purely scientific basis. Call it the other side of the coin from Steve’s musings on terroir here last month.

This is not the “we have it you don’t” terroir that the French like to bandy about, this is the die-hard every plot of soil is different and it affects the chemical composition of the grapes whether you like it or not kind of terroir. I’m sure there will be some argument about whether you can actually taste these elements, scant though they are, but it’s a downhill battle to the notion that everywhere has some sort of terroir once you admit that this is pretty solid science.

Of course, that’s not what the people who developed this process are using it for. They’re more interested in catching the bad, bad folks who put out wines that are labeled Sonoma Pinot Noir but are actually made from half Thompson’s Seedless juice and half Central Valley bulk wine. That’s right, this isn’t the Terroir Board, it’s the TTB. And they’re not interested in figuring out the unique soil characteristics of the Russian River Valley, they want to catch interstate frauds and tax evaders.

But that’s OK. Because it’s pretty darn interesting technology, though a few kinks still need to be worked out. Mostly I love being able to swirl my glass and say, “Hmmm, do I detect a little Lanthanum on the nose?” I am the very model of a modern major general.