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Talk Dirt to Me

Ah yes, terrior: How French, how terribly oenological. This broadly applied term comes from the French word terre which means “land,” but what it really refers to is a wine’s “sense of place.” That makes sense, right, for your grape juice to have a good sense of place? Sure, why not?

If this is all a bit mad and nonsensical, I understand, but buck up, tiny wino. Stunwin is here to help with a handy-dandy three-part series of posts on that very topic.

Terroir comes down to some really basic stuff. So you got your grapes, right? Well, those grapes are heavily influence by three things: location, climate and dirt. And today, we’re talkin’ dirt baby, so slap on your Carhartts and take off the wedding ring, because it’s about to get messy.

If you’re ever fortunate enough to participate in an educational wine program such as the WSET, you will find that you spend what seems like an inordinate amount of time talking about soil composition. But it’s the price you pay in order to claim drinking with strangers on a Tuesday night is educational. While you valiantly struggle to stay awake and figure out what the hell “Kimmeridgian limestone” means, you might hear some things that run counter to what you’d assume. First and foremost, our grapes want soil that is low in nutrients. Well, it’s not so much that our grapes want that – we do. The grapes are probably going to be pissed. But that’s OK. If your grapes don’t hate you at some point, you’re doing something wrong. I hear the same is true with raising daughters.

But seriously, the grape game is all about stressing out the vines. If they’re in constant fear for their lives, they go into panic mode and, like a teen in a horror movie, they divert all of their resources toward furthering their lineage. In the case of our vine, this means it focuses what resources it has into its grapes as opposed to leaves or new shoots (“No time for yoga! Get to the water bed!”). Now there is a caveat here with regards to certain minerals which are important in preserving acid in the grapes as they develop, so let’s settle on “bad, but not too bad.”

So we’ve got weak soil. Great. How else can we stress out these grapey suckers? Oh, I know! Let’s make sure that any water they do get ditches the party faster than an IRS agent at a Ron Paul rally. I’m talking about drainage. I don’t know about you, but I’m willing to bet that Tantalus was more than a little stressed out about the whole “no water for you” thing. Water retention can, again, give us too much yield, too much canopy, and too-happy grapes, so we want soil that isn’t going to hold on to much water. Look for gravely, rocky soils, but don’t go as far as sand. Sand doesn’t really hold on to much of anything in the way of nutrients – like the guy who took the joke way too far and ended up shaving the hostesses cat, thereby ending young Jeffrey’s bris luncheon early. Certain kinds of clay work well too, because even though they’re holding water, the wines can’t really get to it.

Other fun factors: the color of the soil affecting heat retention; x-factors like Châteauneuf-du-Pape’s gallets, or pudding stones, that collect heat during the day and then radiate it out at night.; the depth of the soil before you hit rock bottom, as particularly deep soil tends to be a bit more fertile; and about 10 dozen other nuances that could practically constitute a doctoral thesis on GrapeDirt™.

Let’s take a look at a case study, shall we? Let’s go wiiiiith (covers eyes and throws dart at expensive wine map, ruining it) Greenland? That was a terrible throw. OK, how about Pauillac? Pauillac, situated in the Haute-Médoc area of Bordeaux on the Left Bank of the Gironde river, is – and I think we can all agree here – somewhere that pretty good wine comes from. So what’s the dirt like? Gravel, and lots of it. Mix in a little bit of sand in the southern bit, and a little clay and limestone in the northern bit. These have all alluvial deposits courtesy of our friend the Gironde Estuary, and make for perfect Cab country. The soil is shallow, but deep enough for the vines to get frustrated with the lack of nutrients and form a solid network of roots. And between the soil composition, the gently rolling hills and the nearby streams running off the Gironde, the drainage is perfect for keeping those grapes hating their vine-y little lives.

That wasn’t so bad, was it? We managed to get through 800 words, and all about dirt! Maybe next week we’ll focus on dinosaurs or cotton candy because you were so good about this. Or maybe we’ll keep talking about what goes into terrior, as that is the option least likely to incite violence in my editor. Next up: Climate. It’s not just for Al Gore movies anymore!