31 May 2011

Wine Notes: The dirt on Willamette Valley soil types

Published: Wednesday, May 25, 2011, 9:39 AM Updated: Wednesday, May 25, 2011, 9:54 AM
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Willamette-Valley-vinters.JPGView full sizeVintners Jim Anderson (from left) of Patricia Green Cellars, and Jessica Monzeico-Blair and her father, Howard Mozeico, of Et Fille, say the Willamette Valley's main soil types -- Jory, sedimentary and loess -- help define a wine's flavor profile.
t the open houses hosted by so many local wineries this coming holiday weekend, there will be no shortage of information.

Just about every wine in Oregon these days comes with its own "tech sheet" -- that is, a summary of detailed information that may or may not have any resonance for the consumer.

Unless you're a geeky wine insider, it's difficult to see why knowing the harvest date, clonal selection or cooperage should make any difference in your appreciation of the wine. (And if you're not sure what a clone or a cooper is, don't worry; you're not alone.)

That said, there are a few areas where a bit of knowledge can benefit us in our appreciation of wine. And one of those might well be the nerdiest bit of info on that tech sheet: soil type.

I recently met with some folks who spend a lot of time thinking about soil. Jim Anderson is co-owner of Patricia Green Cellars; father-and-daughter team Howard Mozeico and Jessica Mozeico-Blair run Et Fille; both wineries are near Newberg.

At Patricia Green Cellars, the quest to capture a sense of place in each bottle of pinot noir borders on the obsessive: The winery releases between 18 and 20 pinots each year in an effort to express the distinct characteristics of various sites. At a Patricia Green Cellars open house, you'll find wines arranged on tables according to the location of the vineyard they're derived from.

For its part, Et Fille produces between five and six single-vineyard pinot noirs annually, with an emphasis on representing as diverse a range of soil types as possible. Attend an event where Mozeico-Blair is pouring, and she'll set up a row of glass urns filled with soils so that you can smell, touch (and taste, if you like) the dirt while you sample the wines.

Just three to know

Although Oregon wine country encompasses a wide variety of soil types, the most attention and deliberation over soil in this state happens in the Willamette Valley.

Here, the delicate pinot noir grape -- arguably the red best-suited to expressing the differences between sites -- has a cultish following among collectors who buy multiple single-vineyard releases from their favorite producers and taste "horizontals" (a variety of site-specific bottlings from the same producer in the same year) to compare and contrast the effect that vineyard location has on a wine's aroma and flavor.

But you don't have to blow the rent on a catalog of limited-edition single-vineyard releases to discover the difference soil type can make in pinot noir.

"It's very common for people to walk into one of our tastings saying, 'I don't know anything about soil types,' then walk out having tasted the differences very clearly," Mozeico says. For him, just two or three bottles -- representing the three major soil types outlined below -- can relay the diverse range of overarching characteristics found in Willamette Valley pinots.

Why we should care
Why is it important to familiarize yourself with the valley's various soil types?

First, it goes a long way toward explaining why so many wineries bottle single-vineyard pinot noirs. Winemakers believe that the differences between wines grown on different soils are so stark that they often don't blend them.

Conversely, another reason many local wineries source from so many different vineyards is that having such a diverse array of wines to choose from can be a helpful tool in creating a harmonious blend.

So there's no shame in preferring the basic "Willamette Valley" pinot noir when you visit a tasting room; it's simply a representation of multiple soil types.

But do taste single-vineyard bottlings, and ask about soil types while you do. Because, if you maintain an awareness of this issue, you might find you prefer the pinots of one soil type over another.

Mozeico-Blair says that when she conducts tastings and explains the differences the soils make in the aromas and flavors in the resulting wines, her customers come away equally divided as to which type they prefer: Of the three main types, each appeals to about a third of her customers.

So, here's a challenge: If you are visiting your favorite winery this weekend, try to taste a bottle of juice derived from each of the following soil types. If the winemaking method was the same for all three, you may discover that you prefer one soil type over another.

Volcanic

The Willamette Valley's flagship dirt is Jory, the basalt-based volcanic soil found in most vineyard sites in the Dundee Hills (the most prominent sub-appellation in the valley).

High in clay content and iron, Jory is reddish in color and nutrient-rich. "You could grow anything in volcanic soil," Anderson says. "It is lush." It holds water well; smash it between your fingers and it will stick together.

"I can pick out a Dundee Hills wine pretty consistently in a blind tasting," Mozeico says. "There is a minerality to it, especially on the finish, with a bright cherry and red-fruit flavor profile." Mozeico-Blair says she always finds that this silty clay-loam imparts a "dusty earthiness" to pinot noir.

Name to remember: Jory is the Willamette Valley's most prominent volcanic soil.
A taste of geology: Many millions of years ago, fissures near what is now the Washington-Idaho border released unimaginably massive lava eruptions that blanketed huge portions of Washington and Oregon with basalt. Between approximately 15 million and 6 million years ago, these flows spread through the northern Willamette Valley, leaving basalt that would later be exposed on hillsides.

Sedimentary

Rub a sedimentary soil between your fingers, and it feels "like talcum powder," Anderson says. "It's really super-dry." That makes more work for the vine-tender, who must enrich the brittle dirt with plenty of compost and cover crops.

The payoff: That difficult soil yields "powerful, more structured wines," according to Anderson, especially if the vines are older.

After a couple of decades, these vines "have these incredible roots systems because they've gone down deep in search of water and minerals," Anderson says.

Mozeico describes typical sedimentary-soil characteristics in pinot noir as dark color, black fruit, cola, coffee and chocolate.

(Fans of the Ribbon Ridge, Yamhill-Carlton District and McMinnville appellations of the Willamette Valley will be nodding their heads here, as these regions are primarily composed of sedimentary soils.)

Winemakers might wait longer to bottle pinot noirs from sedimentary soils because they tend to be less approachable when young; by the same token, these wines benefit from cellar age.

"They are slow-developing, a little more austere," Anderson says. "It might take people a little longer to wrap their heads around these wines."

Name to remember: The mustard-tinted Willakenzie is the best-known sedimentary soil in the Willamette Valley.

A taste of geology: Western Oregon was once the floor of an 8,000-foot-deep sea. Starting -- as with the aforementioned lava flows -- about 15 million years ago, the Pacific and North American tectonic plates collided, lifting up this ocean floor and creating the Coast Range and the Cascade Mountains.

Willakenzie soil is composed of the marine sediment of that former seafloor. As the collisions continued, the hills of the Willamette Valley were formed, with the top layer of volcanic soil exposed in some places and the lower layer of sedimentary soil revealed in others.

Loess

Loess, or windblown silty loam, is the shallowest of our three main soil types.

"There is always something underlying," Mozeico says. Brown and ashy, its texture is somewhere in between sticky volcanic and dusty sedimentary. It tends to be fertile, but it drains well and erodes easily, which requires careful vineyard management.

The pinot noirs that come from this soil "tend to have brighter red fruit, with an earthiness to them, and sometimes a little bit of white pepper on the finish," Mozeico says; the soil also may contribute to a brighter acidity in the wine. Loess sites are relatively rare in the Willamette Valley but can be found in the Chehalem Mountains.

Name to remember: Brown and fertile LaurelWood is the region's key loess-type soil.

A taste of geology: The youngest of our three main soil types, loess is composed of silt, left by the retreat of Ice Age glaciers, that was blown onto the valley's hillsides between 1 million and 50,000 years ago.

Follow Oregon's wine scene with Katherine Cole on Twitter at twitter.com/kcoleuncorked and on YouTube at youtube.com/kcoleuncorked. E-mail her at
katherine@katherinecole.com.

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