Forest floor. Wet leaves. Rocks slick with rain. When a wine pro uses such descriptors, it’s an attempt to give greater detail to the broader adjective “earthy.” A useful term, earthy encompasses many different aroma and taste experiences. It’s distinct from the other primary aroma categories like herbal, fruit, floral and spice.
How do you identify earthiness? In short, dirt and rocks.
Think of the smells in a yard, from turned soil in the garden to a gravel driveway after a storm (called petrichor). It may also be vegetal. Beets have a trademark dirt taste, and beetroot is a common marker in red wines like Pinot Noir.
Earthiness is often accompanied by a savory character, which is the opposite of sweet. This is best demonstrated by the taste of a Pinot Noir from Burgundy, compared to the riper Pinot Noirs from California.
Other grapes known for earthy profiles include Sangiovese, Nebbiolo, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Tempranillo and Mencía. Syrah, known for its black olive notes, especially in France’s Rhône Valley, shows earthy notes like dirt, smoldering embers, graphite and worn saddle.
While some grapes have more propensity for earthiness, where they’re grown also has influence. In cooler climates, like many classic Old World regions, and some parts of Chile and South Africa, grapes don’t accumulate as much sugar. The wines are less fruit-driven and tend to display more earthy notes than those from places with intense sunshine.
Flavors in wine develop along a spectrum of grape ripeness. Underripe grapes come across as more herbal and vegetal, while riper grapes skew toward more fruity profiles. Wines closer to the herbal and vegetal spectrum tend to be earthier. As an example, Loire Valley Cabernet Franc is considered earthier in character than Cabernet Franc from the Napa Valley.
Other tasting notes like “barnyard,” “horse blanket” and even “manure,” blur the lines between pleasant rustic earthiness and a wine fault called Brettanomyces. Before this yeast was identified, its characteristic flavors were associated with many prestigious appellations and grapes, notably France’s Southern Rhône Valley. However, some winemakers allow small amounts of Brett into their wines as a stylistic choice.
The chemical compound geosmin may be the culprit for the earthy quality in wine. A Greek word, it translates to “earth smell.” At low levels, it can impart a pleasant soil note. However, like the barnyard of Brett, it’s considered a wine fault when more pronounced, especially when it devolves from pleasing aromas of potting soil to musty basement.