Good wine: It’s in the dirt
In wine, we always hear that elusive term terroir, and it seems to allude to an almost religious dedication to the vine. You will hear discussion of this word in reference to location, climate, sunshine, rainfall, aspect, drainage, and in the end it always comes down to the soil. The sacred dirt of a vineyard is a complex collection of layers and mineral varieties that provide a vine not only the nutrients that it needs but also the proper drainage. Soil is so important to many vineyards that during a heavy rain in Piedmont, Italy, you are likely to see people collecting soil at the bottom of the hills in Barolo and carrying it by hand to the tops of the hills so as not to lose any of the prescious calcareous marl.
Soil for vines varies greatly throughout the world but all exist on the same principles. They all prefer a relatively thin topsoil that allows for good drainage. Vines hate "wet feet" and therefor require sufficient drainage in the topsoil but a reasonably good subsoil for water retention as their rootstocks will reach deep into the earth to find water. In the case of the famous white albariza soils of Jerez, where Sherry is made, the vines reach 15 feet into the ground to find water. This soil is, however, essential to the success of these palamino vines as Jerez, is in fact, a steaming hot desert and the top layer of the albariza soil dries so hard that the subsoil is able to retain its moisture protected by a rock hard cap.
Another common quality essential to vines is a soil’s ability to retain the heat of the day. Vines have a tendency to like warm days and cool nights but often like the nights too cool and thrive in areas where frost is a common danger. Certain soils such as gravel and sand are good at warming to high temperatures throughout the day, thus keeping the roots warm at night. Soils like the "pudding stones" in the Southern Rhone Valley are known for their ability not only to retain heat but also to reflect sunlight onto the leaves, creating riper fruit. Conversely, cooler soils such as clay retard ripening, which can be a great benefit to vines located where there is an overabundance of sunlight.
There is also, of course, the great relevance of a soil’s mineral composition. A soil’s nitrogen content is essential to its ability to encourage healthy root development and in the right balance can create better ripening characteristics. A soil’s pH levels are also important to a vine’s development. A high pH level will yield a wine with lower acid. The best soils, in Beaujolais, are granite-based. Granite has a high pH due to its contents of quartz and potassium feldspar and thus reduces the high natural acid levels of the Gamay grape variety.
Wine, however, thrives in a great variety of soils that are very specifically suited to the various varieties of grapes and their independent needs. Vines grow in everything from volcanic soils, to limestone, chalk, schist, silt, sand, clay, slate, and countless potpourris of all of the above. So next time you are in a casual argument over the merits and drawbacks of the various terroir throughout the world, you can feel free to drop a few tidbits about soil composition and sound pretty cool. I don’t know about you, but my favorite pickup line has always been, "Yeah, but the clay subsoil underneath Barbaresco’s calcareous marl seems to give Nebbiolo such an elegant and feminine disposition." Lookout ladies.
Zev Rovine is the sommelier and resident cheese monger at the Spotted Frog Bookstore Cafe and Wine Bar where he teaches weekly wine classes. His wine education comes from the American Sommelier Association in N.Y.C. and he tries his very best not to spill the Pinot on the bestseller section. If you have any wine queries or comments he is easily contacted via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org .
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