Oregon’s Willamette Valley has a diversity of soils, climates, and surroundings. Those who have chosen to make their life amongst the vines know the importance of soil. However, soil is only one element of the equation. Grapes feed on the soil, absorb the environment they live in and distill its essence. Grapes grown in the same soil, in a different climate, yield different results. Further, the environment that surrounds a vineyard impacts grapes and the wine made from those grapes as well. The Willamette Valley is special because all these factors working separately come together to make delicious wine.
When I write of environment in and around a vineyard I am referring to a complex web of interactions. For example, think of a vineyard that sits on a hill. What is next to that vineyard? Perhaps, next to the vineyard is a forest, or a horse farm, a house, or an orchard. A forest might help reduce wind or shed pollen or fungus spores, create shade or in other ways influence the vineyard. Horses might add natural fertilizers or compact the soil around or above a vineyard changing natural springs and changing soil health. If a vineyard is surrounded by homes, infrastructure like water, sewer, gas, and electrical as well as neighborhood pets may affect grapes. A neighboring orchard might kick up dust, use different farming practices, or change soil health. The physical land next to a vineyard is important but not the only aspect of environment.
Vineyard orientation is another important aspect of environment. How much exposure do the grapes have to the sun, rain, and wind? Are the grapes getting sun in the early morning, all day or in the evening? The amount of sun a vineyard gets affects the way grapes develop. Too much sun might sunburn grapes and too little sun could result in fewer grapes at harvest. Does the rain cause erosion or flood the vineyard? Regardless of soil and climate, if a vineyard is to steep or flat rain may not nourish the grapes properly. Is the wind helping to pollinate grapes or drying out clusters after a rain? During bloom a soft breeze helps pollinate each grape in a cluster. If the wind is too strong pollination can happen unevenly. In the late summer and early fall a strong breeze can help keep grapes dry so rot does not set in. Yet, environment encompasses much more.
A vineyard is a specific place but it is also affected by events. Celestial events like hail, lightning and frosts are a direct expression of climate, yet other events like fire, earthquakes, and animals are not weather related but still impact vineyards. When a fire burns near a vineyard or smoke fills the air, grapes reflect this event. While one might argue that it is hard to taste an earthquake, a vineyard that is affected by tectonic movement like a rockslide might have physical damage. Animals big and small live in and around vineyards and they help and harm grape development. Deer love the taste of new shoots and can cause a large amount of damage in a few minutes. Gofers aerate soil but sometime they munch roots killing vines. Bugs flying to and fro deposit yeast and bring birds that fertilize soil. Other bugs bring disease or eat grapes just prior to harvest. A vineyard’s environment is a complex web of physical interactions that affect grapes. These interactions create distinct environments, resulting in wines that are unique.
The interactions that shape Terroir are complex. The Willamette Valley brings these elements of location, environment, and interaction together to make great distinct wines. These wines tell a story that can be simple or when evaluated very complex. Enjoy!
Winemaker John Lyon