The Pearl vs Terroir (Part 2: The Dirt on Dirt)

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“Nothing of me is original. I am the combined effort of everyone I’ve ever known.” – Chuck Palahniuk wrote that gem. Speaking of gems, “A diamond is a chunk of coal that did well under pressure.” – Henry Kissinger coined that phrase.  And then of course there’s this Pearl’s personal favorite, “No Grit, No Pearl.”  What does it all mean? How we deal with our upbringing, life experience, and surroundings determine who we are. Take one meandering journey on Pinterest and interspersed amongst recipes and wedding checklists you’ll find quote after quote about enduring, struggling, surviving through trial and thriving from it. We all share this human experience, but maybe it’s not so human after all. As it turns out just as we can grow and change due to our surroundings and the trials we face, so can wine!

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This week we continue on in our study of Terroir. If you missed last week’s article, check it out here to learn how the surrounding temperature, rainfall, sun exposure and humidity have an effect on wine. But now that we know how the air permeates into the vine, lets dig a little deeper (get it? It’s a soil pun!) and talk about the ground the vines spring from.

The Secrets in the Soil. If great wine truly starts from the ground up, what kind of soil grows a great wine? The answer varies on the type of wine you’d like to produce.  Soil has the ability to produce a nice stable home life for the vines, based on a variety of factors. First, it needs to be consistent. It’s not uncommon for vineyards to consult with analysts to lay out the soil patterns on their land before mapping out their vines. Next, consider granulometry. It’s a big word for what it’s describing. Basically it’s the study of grain sizes in sedimentary rock. And it’s a large factor in our soil. Soil texture effects water runoff and infiltration. And then you have the organic properties of the soil to consider. Its materials determines it irradiance, or how much sun and heat will be reflected. Now factor in your soil PH levels. If the soil is too nutrient rich it will overproduce grapevine vegetation and put less effort into the production of quality grapes. But too little nutrients and you’ll have a lack of foliage, leading to the possibility of scorched grapes. Is your head spinning with soil specifics yet? You could devote a lifetime to the study of soil and its effects on wine, but since we all can’t quit our day jobs and start a life of farming, let’s break it down into some of your most common soil types:

1.       Sandy: No were not talking about the character from Grease. This type of soil has larger particles which mean less water retention. Roots can easily dig deep between the larger particles, and the lack of organic material means less threat of disease from humidity. Sandy soils tend to produce lighter wines.

2.       Clay: Nutrient rich with high water retention, due to its small granular structure. Smaller particles make it difficult for the vines to dig deep and can be more susceptible to diseases due to the water retention, but there’s less worry during seasons of drought. Clay is famous for producing some bold wines.

3.       Silt: The particle size lies in between the texture of soil and clay, meaning excellent water and heat retention, with some root difficulty. Tends to produce highly aromatic, less acidic wines.  

4.       Loam: A mixture of the first three types of soil, loam is considered highly fertile. Often it contains just the right balance of water retention and drainage for excellent production. However, as we’ve learned too fertile of a soil produces low quality wines. This soil type requires rigorous pruning regimens for a better production of wines.

Limestone in the Limelight. If there is a rock star of the soil world it is limestone.  Limestone can be considered the calcium rich Marsha to our metaphorical Brady Bunch (I know, I’m severely aging myself with this analogy). Dry weather? Limestone will retain the moisture you need. Too much rainfall? Limestone has excellent drainage. But beware, this golden child can cause iron deficiencies and higher acidity levels. Guess every rose has its thorn.

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A Stressful Slope

Let’s get back to our opening quote. Vines, like people, can rise from adversity. A better quality grape is produced from stressing the vines. Want a dark, rich zinfandel? Plant it on a hillside. The water runoff and lack of nutrients means a more concentrated flavor, ending in a better wine. Ever see a winery boast about their “Hillside Select”? Now you know why. Higher altitudes usually mean rockier soils (and thus less nutrient rich) and cooler climates which allow the grape to ripen slowly. A hillside will usually produce a much lower yield, but the flavor concentration is worth the effort.

In the end, all Terroir is telling us is that vines are like people. You’ve got some stress and trauma, mixed in with a well of inner nutrients, and some outside care along the way to produce something amazing. In this Pearl’s opinion, both are worth the effort.

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