Dirt might not be the first thing that comes to mind when enjoying a glass of wine, but the make-up of the soil has a profound effect on the overall flavor profile of wine. While the quintessential grape may be a prerequisite for quality, it requires support from both the climate and soil.
More than any other grape varietal, Pinot Noir reflects where it is grown. Compared to other grapes, Pinot Noir is tightly clustered, generally a lower-yielding fruit, and easily frosts.
Our team recently had the opportunity to “get the dirt” on Oregon soils, and what differentiates each terroir and AVAs of the region. An American Viticultural Area (AVA) is a designated wine grape-growing region in the United States distinguishable by geographic features. An AVA specifies that at least 85% of the grapes used to make a wine must have been grown there.
The Willamette Valley AVA is the primary area of origin for Oregon Pinot Noir wine. It’s a temperate climate that averages 40” of rain per year. The vast majority of vineyards planted with Pinot Noir grapes are found in this valley, which stretches roughly 100 miles from the city of Portland in the north to Eugene in the south, and 60 miles from west to east – from the Pacific Ocean to the Cascade Mountain range.
We tasted wines from three stellar wineries representing three Willamette sub-AVAs:
- Angela Estate in the Yamhill Carlton
- Elk Cove Vineyards in the Chehalem Mountains one of the founding wineries of the region and a “sustainable” fourth generation farm; and
- Brooks Winery in the Eola Amity Hills, who practices bio-dynamic farming.
- The other three sub-AVAs of the region are Dundee Hills, McMinnville and Ribbon Ridge. Each, of course, has their own distinct terroir.
The Importance of the Dirt
There are three distinguishing soil types found in the Willamette – marine sediment, loess (wind-blown) and volcanic soil. Each has their own unique characteristics that influence the grapes. This all started millions of years ago when the Continental Plate and underwater San Juan de Fuca plate formed the coast range, pillowing ocean floor to become the mountain top. The activity cause the Blue Mountains to erupt and back fill the land. That created the first two soil types that define the Willamette Valley – marine sediment and volcanic. The Missoula floods also made their mark 10-15,000 years ago by creating an ice dam, carving out topography, depositing gravel, silt and rock over the volcanic layer, leaving nutrient-rich and relatively young soils in its wake. The unusual combo of soils from these events defines the unique flavor profile of wines from the Willamette Valley.
The Yamhill-Carlton area is located on the marine side of the Willamette, and looks like a crab on a map. The marine soils create darker fruit, which tend to create “bigger” wines. An easy way to remember this is West soils are like Mae West, known for her voluptuous curves.
The Eola Amity region receives winds off the Pacific Ocean, which also means it sees huge temperature shifts (diurnal). The wind boosts aromatics in the wine, and when looking at the soil, it looks like a layered cake – between volcanic and marine sediment. This creates an earthy and fruity profile in the grapes from this region.
The Chehalem Mountains are located on the east side of the Willamette, contain all three important soil types, as the area was formed by the uplifted sedimentary seabeds, lava flows, and wind-blown silt. This also created the highest elevations of the Willamette. The wines from this area share several common characteristics such as intensity of fruit flavors, often with a certain spiciness, and balanced tannins. The wines from here are more like a classic Burgundy – elegant and spicy with red fruit.
Pinot Noir pairs beautifully with salmon. Come in to any of our restaurants to enjoy this wonderful pairing, or try it at home: in this video, AQUA by El Gaucho Executive Chef Wes Hood shows you how to make a perfect Cedar Plank Salmon with a Honey Mustard Glaze.
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