When we think of white wine, we think of many things Brie, student-faculty mixers, summer picnics sur l'herbe, grilled fish but chalk is generally not among them. Chalk would not seem to have much to do with food and drink at all, except as a means to write the day's specials on those little blackboards restaurants sometimes hang on the wall or prop up outside the front door. Yet chalky soil is intrinsic to a certain sort of white wine the French have long been masters of and we have struggled with, and I have often wondered why, until reading John McPhee's riveting piece "Season on the Chalk: From Ditchling Beacon to Épernay," which ran in the New Yorker's March 12 issue.
McPhee is our greatest living poet of geology. His 1993 book, Assembling California, had much to say not only about the formation of our state but about that of the west of North America generally in particular, how young everything is here relative to Europe. The expressions New World and Old World turn out not to be purely sociopolitical. Chalk is old, and it is really not found here; even Chalk Hill, in Sonoma County, consists not of calcium carbonate (like true chalk and its near relation limestone) but of volcanic ash. Northwestern Europe, on the other hand, is streaked by a huge band of chalk, which runs from the downlands south of London to the white cliffs of Dover, then under the English Channel into northern France and the Champagne towns of Reims and Épernay. From there the band curves around the Île-de-France and swoops into the Touraine region of the Loire Valley, where many wonderfully dry, minerally sauvignon blancs and chenin blancs are produced. There is even a tail-end bit around Cognac.
French champagne experts have often been heard to say over the years that méthode champenoise sparkling wines from California, while good and sometimes very good, simply do not compare to the best of their French counterparts. I have long suspected an element of snobbery here, but the McPhee story suggests that there might also be some empirical reality; "Vines like their feet dry," he quotes an (English) maker of sparkling wine as noting, and chalky soil drains quickly while providing high levels of nutrients. Advantage: France. And England!