Home > History of Wine > “Nothing could possibly be more offensive than the smell” : Merroir, terroir, and sea manure

“Nothing could possibly be more offensive than the smell” : Merroir, terroir, and sea manure

Frank Morgan introduced me to the marine equivalent of terroir in his recent post Exploring Merroir-Terroir on Virginia’s Eastern Shore (and finding Virginia’s Truest Food and Wine Pairing).  After spending a weekend exploring “the intersection of local aquaculture & viticulture”, Frank concluded that “the Chatham Church Creek Steel Chardonnay and Nassawadox Salts [oysters] evoke a sense of place — the same place.”  It was not just that he experienced a complementary pairing; he felt that “saline flavors in both the wine and oyster were the same.”  This briefly seemed absurd but then I recalled drinking an Italian wine made from coastal vineyards that smelled and tasted of the sea.

Common Mackeral from Annual Reports of the Forest, Fish and Game Commissioner of the State of New York, Issue 4. 1899.

Common Mackeral from Annual Reports of the Forest, Fish and Game Commissioner of the State of New York, Issue 4. 1899.

For centuries the “manur’d vine” has referred to the cultivated grape vine, as opposed to wild vines, used for the production of wine.  The very manuring of vines and its negative impact on the smell and flavor of the finished wine yielded the first meaning for terroir.  The consideration of the best type of manure and the appropriate application has been a concern for vineyard owners over the centuries.  The scientific curiosity regarding fruit production in the 19th century resulted in many manure studies, both amateur and scientific.  These studies include sea manure produced from both fish, aquatic plants, and shells.  Of course this begs the question, did the application of sea manure produce an attractive combination of terroir and merroir in grapes and wine?

Sea manure has been employed all over the world in vegetable and fruit production, including the grape.  In England fish manure was recommended as a “very stimulating” top dressing.  However, too much would “deteriorates the flavor of grapes” for vines have “the appetite of a glutton every description of liquid refuse that is placed within their reach, however fetid or nauseous it may be.”[1] As late as the early 20th century, fish that were caught far off shore in Madras, India, could be landed in a decomposed state.  These fish were turned into manure that was known “to stimulate the production of grapes abundantly.”[2]

Sea weed based manure was used “in some vineyards near the ocean” because it was readily accessible.[3]  It was regarded as less effective and only temporary in duration compared to farm manure.  It appears to have been commonly used in the vineyards of Aunis in the Charante-Maritime department located on the west coast of France.  Unfortunately, some did not find this favorable for the “grapes not only partake of the scent” but also had a “disagreeable flavor”.[4]  The vines of Aunis were not supported and pruned such that they almost touched the ground.  Perhaps the grapes literally picked up bits of the seaweed manure.

Despite the claimed efficacy of fish manure it appears to have gained little favor for the cultivation of both wine and table grapes.  Putrid manures were regarded as imparting undesirable smells and tastes in the finished wine.  The smell of putrid fish in cabbage and cauliflowers from fish manure was often cited as an example not to use fish manure.[5]  However, the low cost of fish manure remained attractive to some.  One author dealt with the putrid aroma by making a hole near the root of the vine then pushing down a fish.[6]  It seems then that the use of sea manure in the cultivation of the grape was generally disapproved.  The best combination of merroir and terroir stems naturally from common soils and air.

[1] Hoare, Clement.  A practical treatise on the cultivation of the grape vine on open walls. 1841. URL: https://books.google.com/books?id=aemfTGsmhycC&pg=PR3#v=onepage&q&f=false
[2] The Agricultural Journal of India, Volume 3. 1908. URL: https://books.google.com/books?id=FYghAQAAIAAJ&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q&f=false see also Firminger, Thomas Augustus Charles. A Manual of Gardening for Bengal and Upper India. 1874.  URL: https://books.google.com/books?id=dgsDAAAAYAAJ&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q&f=false
[3] Du Breuil, Alphonse. Vineyard Culture Improved and Cheapened. 1867. URL: https://books.google.com/books?id=AApJAAAAIAAJ&pg=PR1#v=onepage&q&f=false
[4] Prince, William.  A Treatise on the Vine. 1830. URL: https://books.google.com/books?id=meXLXht9S6oC&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q&f=false
[5] The Horticulturist, and Journal of Rural Art and Rural Taste, Volume 14. 1859. URL: https://books.google.com/books?id=bCwCAAAAYAAJ&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q&f=false  see also The American Farmer. 1860. URL: https://books.google.com/books?id=-ppFAQAAMAAJ&pg=PR10#v=onepage&q&f=false
[6] Spooner, Alden Jermain. The Cultivation of American Grape Vines, and Making of Wine. 1846.  URL: https://books.google.com/books?id=c_lE-l3HmjkC&pg=PA3#v=onepage&q&f=false

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