november 28 2016 | jenny

Talking Terroir: The Dirt on Soil

California, Washington and Oregon are responsible for more than 90% of the total American wine production, but the industry is by no means confined to those states. Wine grapes are grown in every state in the nation, including Alaska. (While that state has yet to produce wine from its own grapes, it’s coming!) At least one winery can be found in all 50 as well. The wines they produce, however, vary dramatically by terroir.

Ah, there’s that word. Spend a little time with wine geeks and it won’t be long before “terroir” comes up. Terroir (pronounced tare-WAHr) has been described as one of the most used and least understood wine words. Yet its role in fully appreciating wine is significant enough – and misappropriated enough – to warrant a couple of blogs to exploring its facets and its influence on the finished product in the bottle.

The most common shorthand translation for terroir is “sense of place.” It has as many definitions as mispronunciations, but essentially refers to the environment the grapevine grows in, including climate, terrain and cultivation methods – or winemaking traditions of the area – in addition to the soil itself.

Terroir defines a wine’s very origins, from which the grapes spring and the wine subsequently flows. Wines are as varied as their terroirs. The importance of terroir is undisputed: It is listed with grape and winemaking as among the three major influences on a wine’s taste. But the magnitude of its role is the subject of some debate.

The term “terroir” literally means soil or land, so that is a good place to start in better understanding the role of terroir on wine generally and on King Estate wines in particular. Soil is essentially decomposed rock, where organisms live and die and over time create soil as we know it. At King Estate, with our relatively high elevation, we have primarily two kinds of soil from two different sources: Bellpine soil is what’s known as marine sedimentary, formed when Oregon was under the sea more than 12 million years ago; and Jory soil is volcanic, created by more recent lava flows, relatively speaking, that date back six million to 15 million years.

While different in origin, the soils share some characteristics. Both Bellpine and Jory soils provide good drainage with moderate water retention and are not especially fertile, unlike the lush Willamette Valley fields below. As it happens, the less fertile, well-draining soil is exactly what grapevines like. River-bottom soil grows delicious berries and vegetables, but isn’t ideal for grapes, according to King Estate Viticulturist Edward Burke. The bountiful nutrition in the valley soil encourages grapevines to grow leaves instead of fruit. Vines planted in Bellpine and Jory soil must work harder in search of water and minerals, discouraging excessive vigor (the propensity to grow leaves) and fostering the plant’s production of high quality fruit.

Soil is obviously a critical factor in growing grapes, but does it influence the flavor of the wine as well? On that point, opinions differ as widely as palates do. That’s part of the mystique of wine, “as complex as soil itself,” according to King Estate’s Director of Viticulture and Winery Operations Ray Nuclo. While minerals may not impart flavor directly to wine, Nuclo finds that grapes grown in certain soil types do have distinctive flavors. Soil may be part of it, but so is vintage, rainfall – all the other elements that comprise terroir. 

Terroir is not a mystery to be solved, but rather a dimension of wine to fascinate, savor and explore.