Location, location, location. When it comes to red wine varietals, pinot noir is considered to be the most transparent and reflective of them all. More specifically, A vineyard’s environment, which includes the soil composition, exposition and weather each exact a significant imprint on the qualities of this fickle varietal. The notion of what and how soils affect the characteristics of pinot noir was what lead us into the “pits” at OPC.
This afternoon “in the vineyard” workshop was held at Bethel Heights winery, located in the Willamette Valley’s Eola-Amity Hills AVA. Here, two soil pits, each approximately 6 feet deep, had been dug at opposite sides of the vineyard.
Each pit served to illustrate the two basic soil types most commonly found throughout the Valley. One pit revealed soils that were marine sedimentary in origin. The second pit, located a bit higher up the vineyard slope, contained soils of volcanic basalt in origin.
At the beginning of the workshop, we were asked to consider the following three questions which are listed below. Our questions were summarily answered by a group of Willamette Valley winegrowers who know the region like the back of their hands.
Question I: What are the origins and physical characteristics of the different soil types throughout the vineyards of the Willamette Valley?
Each of the twenty or so campers (including myself), took turns descending into the pits to take a closer look at the top and subsoils of the vineyard. As we did so, Mike Hallock of Carabella Vineyard de-briefed us on the origins of the different soil types throughout the Willamette Valley.
Until around 12 million years ago, western Oregon was on the floor of the Pacific Ocean. For 35 million years prior, it was gradually accumulating layers of marine sediment, which ultimately comprise the oldest soils in the Willamette Valley today.
Starting 15 million years ago, immense pressure caused by the collision of the Pacific Plate and the North American Plate gradually pushed the area that is now western Oregon out of the sea. The Coast Range as well as the volcanic Cascade Mountains were also formed as part of this upheaval. The Willmette Valley thus started as an uplifted ocean floor sandwiched between two large mountain ranges.
During this same period, volcanic eruptions from the Cascade Mountains sent rivers of lava down and through the Willamette Valley, ultimately covering many parts of the regions with layers of basalt. (extrusive igneous rock)
Continued pressure led to the formation of numerous interior hill chains that are a combination of tilted and uplifted layers of volcanic basalt and sedimentary soils.
III. Ice Age/Loess
The creation of a layer of wind-blown silt (loess) also contributed to the present day soil profile of the region, having derived from severely weathered basalts and sedimentary soils blown from the valley floor.
18-15 thousand years ago (much, much later) and at the end of the last ice age, the melting of a glacial dam near what is now Missoula, Montana repeatedly flooded the valley, leaving behind deep silts (soil or rock derived granular material with a grain size between sand and clay).
As our group moved further down the slope to the marine sedimentary pit, we were met by Ted Casteel, the co-founder and co-owner of Bethel Heights. Ted further explained some of the specific soil names associated with these four geological periods.
Examples: WillaKenzie, Bellpine, Chuhulpim, Hazelair, Melbourne, Dupee
Examples: Jory, Nekia, Saum
III. Ice Age/Loess
Examples: Wapato, Woodburn, Willamette
After our soil pit exercise, our group sat down to a comparative blind tasting of Willamette Valley pinot noirs that was moderated by Jesse Lange. The purpose of this exercise was to shed light on this second question:
Question II: Can specific flavor characteristics in pinot noir wines be correlated to specific soil types?
Although it is difficult to surmise with a sampling of just a few wines, I do believe that the generalizations below do hold some weight.
Pinot noir wines from volcanic soils:
Made in a style that accents the high toned aromatics, red/blue fruits, baking spices, and softer, more succulent tannins of volcanic soil.
Pinot noir wines from marine sedimentary soils:
Made in a style showing the voluptuous blue/black fruit, earth tones, and bigger, heavier tannins that come from sedimentary soil.
Question III: What is the relationship between soil types and the AVA’s within the Willamette Valley?
Or more specifically, how and where could one taste test this soil/pinot profile interplay? Below is a brief synopsis of each of the 6 Willamette Valley AVA’s, their principle soil profile, and key wineries that produce wines from these soils.
* Dundee Hills AVA: mostly basaltic, with some marine sedimentary at lower elevations and on western and northern slopes.
Wineries: Stoller Vineyards, Sokol Blosser, Domaine Serene, Erath Vineyards, Lange Estate
* Eola-Amity Hills AVA: mostly basaltic, with some marine sedimentary at lower elevations and on western and northern slopes.
Wineries: Bethel Heights, Brooks, Cristom, St. Innocent
* Chehalem Mountains AVA: basaltic and marine sedimentary on the southern and western slopes; ice age loess on the northeastern slope.
Wineries: Chehalem, Ponzi, Adelsheim, Rex Hill
* Yamhill-Carlton District AVA: predominantly marine sedimentary
Wineries: Soter Vineyards, WillaKenzie Estate, Lemelson Vineyards, Anne Amie Vineyards
* Ribbon Ridge AVA: entirely marine sedimentary
Wineries: Trisaetum, Beaux Freres, Patricia Green, Brick House
* McMinnville AVA: primarily marine sedimentary with some basalt and alluvium.
Wineries: Maysara Winery, Yamhill Valley Vineyards, Brittan Vineyards
After playing in the dirt and learning all about the Willamette Valley’s diverse soil types, it was time for me to head back to the hotel and wash up before the evening’s salmon bake at Stoller Vineyards. I took a cue from the Bethel Heights pug cutie and even got in a disco nap before the evenings’ festivities began!
Next: A Salmon Bake at Stoller Vineyards