The Dirt on Terroir
Willamette Valley Soil Types for pinot noir
Here in the Willamette Valley, we talk a lot about the soils where we plant our vineyards. Soil is among the major considerations for selecting vineyard sites and has long been attributed to influencing different Pinot noir characteristics. Pinot noir has a well established reputation for reflecting the character of the place it is grown; a concept the French call terroir. While the overall concept of terroir involves many different factors, soil ranks at the top of the list and in the Willamette Valley, we have three different primary types of soil that are ideal for Pinot noir which in turn produce very different personalities in our wines.
The geologic origin of Oregon, and by extension the Willamette Valley, created the diversity of soils available to our winegrowers. The oldest vineyard soils are the remains of uplifted ocean floor known as Marine Sediment that is the result of decomposed sandstone deposits that are now silty, high drainage top soils with low fertility. Pinot noir grown in Marine Sediment soils are often described as bold, dark fruited, black pepper spiced, and sometimes chewy. We believe the most common personality trait created by Marine Sediment soil vineyards, regardless of elevation, is the black or white pepper spice note. Great examples of these wines are our 2014 Ribbon Springs Vineyard Pinot noir and 2014 Calkins Lane Vineyard Pinot noir which showcase both higher and lower elevation vineyard personalities respectively.
The second primary soil type, and the most celebrated, is of volcanic origin known as Basalt soils. These 10 million year old soils are prized for their low fertility and excellent drainage but have a slightly higher water retention relative to marine sediment soils and a characteristic red color. Because they are found at somewhat higher elevations, they are also associated with generally cooler vineyard sites resulting in a longer ripening period that generates more nuanced aromas and flavors with excellent structure. Wines produced from basalt soil vineyards are often described as lush, perfumy, sweetly spiced, and soft with bright red and mixed berry flavors. We find that the personality trait basalt soil vineyards seem to have most in common is the sweet spice aromas and flavors (e.g. cinnamon) as well as a distinct minerality. These wines are also known for their complexity and age-ability often extending several decades. Prime examples of these wines are our 2014 Bryan Creek Vineyard Pinot noir and 2015 Boulder Bluff Vineyard Pinot noir which showcase volcanic soil vineyards that are a little more than 100 yards apart but have very different temperature profiles creating exciting variations on the volcanic soil personality profile.
The end of the last ice age created a third excellent vineyard soil called Loess (rhymes with bus) that is the youngest soil type around 15,000 years old. Loess soils are the result of strong turbulent winds blowing light silty soils up onto hillsides. These soils are found in abundance on the north side of the Chehalem Mountains in a layer of varying depth ranging from a few inches to several feet over volcanic bedrock. Prized for the rustic complexity they express in Pinot noir, Loess soil wines are often described as having briary flavors and aromas of blueberries, licorice, plum, and chocolate covered cherries with exotic spices and expansive, round tannins. These wines have a unique complexity but are very approachable with excellent aging potential, particularly in cooler vintages. One of the best examples of a loess soil wine is our 2015 Nicholas Vineyard Pinot noir. It’s velvety texture, rustic flavors, and smooth finish present all of the characteristics that Loess vineyards are known for.
At Adelsheim, our home AVA in the Chehalem Mountains has the greatest diversity of soils, elevations, micro-climates, wind patterns, and hillside features in the Willamette Valley. Our Estate vineyards can be found in some of the very best locations featuring marine sedimentary soils and basalt soils at a variety of elevations. The personality of Pinot noir that results from the combination of the unique characteristics found in all three of these primary soil types is showcased in our Breaking Ground Pinot noir. Breaking Ground is created by blending small block base wines from vineyards representing all three soil types in the Chehalem Mountains AVA to form a uniquely rich, balanced, immediately approachable wine. This diversity of soil within our Chehalem Mountain is one of the most exciting aspects of Adelsheim’s wines.