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The Expressions of the Soils

 Sandy soils in the high altitude area of Ribera del Duero, Spain. 

Sandy soils in the high altitude area of Ribera del Duero, Spain. 

When we think about wine, we hardly stress the importance of soils. Soils are key for vines to express themselves. Some of the most coveted wines in the world, such as Burgundy, Champagne, Rioja, Barolo, Uco Valley, and Apalta Valley are so special in part because of their soils, and the way those soils interact with other natural factors. Elements such as sun exposure, wind patterns, river streams, altitudes, low humidity, minimal water precipitation during growing season, and so on, all have different effects on the vines depending on the soil type, and vice versa. Winemaking is not an easy task. Passion, patience, relentlessness and full understanding of the soils are all important to produce quality fermented juice.

Let's go over a few influential factors when we talk about soils. Do keep in mind the winegrowers are farmers, they tend the vines, soils and ecosystems with tender loving care and pride in their craft to grow the best grapes they can to make exceptional wines. We believe all the effort should be focused on the quality of the grapes: take care of the vines and they will love you back! Let the terroir and identity of the place express itself. That's what makes wine a thrilling experience! 

So, why are soils so important? There are many answers, one of the most important ones is that soils give wines typicity. When we drink a wine we want to be transported to the vineyards where the grapes where harvested. The essence of the aromas, tannins, fruit, structure, acidity and minerals are all attributable to the soils. The longer the vine has been there, attached to many different layers of soils, the more complex and interesting the wines will be. 

Soils are the accumulation of millions of years of many geological and atmospheric events (floods, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes) that have exposed to us unique soils. In many cases, land once part of oceans, seas, lakes and river beds millions and millions years ago, is now located in premier wine regions in Europe, South and North America. Mother nature works in mysterious ways. Simply fascinating! 

Here's a breakdown of the most common soils types, along with examples of famous regions that have them and grapes that are grown in them: 

Granitic: This type has high mineral concentration from both the granite, and also often comes with sea shelf deposits. It also drains very well and retains heat. Grapes grown in granitic soils produce wines with heightened aromatics, salinity, and freshness. Regions with this soil type include Casablanca Valley and Maule Valley in Chile, Canelones in Uruguay and Penedes in Spain.

  • Grapes: Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Carignan, Tannat, Xarello, Chradonnay. 
 Limestone soils from Vega Sicilia, Ribera del Duero, Spain.

Limestone soils from Vega Sicilia, Ribera del Duero, Spain.

Limestone: High mineral concentration from sea shelf deposits leads to fresh acidity, salinity, fresh fruits tones, and added complexity in the wine. Regions include Champagne in France, Albariza soils in Jerez and Ribera del Duero in Spain, Elqui Valley and Limari Valley in Chile.

  • Grapes: Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Palomino, Pedro Ximenez, Syrah, Sauvignon Blanc. 

Black Slate: Common in Priorat (one of our favorites!), "Llicorella" is rich in mineral concentration and allows for good drainage. It also retains heat during the day, and helps cool the vineyards at night. This all results in extra freshness and complexity.

  • Grapes: Grenache, Carignan, White Grenache, Pedro Ximenez, Chenin Blanc, Syrah, Samso, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. 

Sandy: retains heat well and drains well, producing wine with freshness, heightened aromatics, salinity, and a bright expression of the grapes' essential characteristics. Regions include Rueda in Spain, Salta in Argentina, and Campania and Tuscany in Italy.

  • Grapes: Verdejo, Sauvignon Blanc, Torrontes, Malbec, Sangiovese, Vermentino, Vernaccia. 

Alluvial: Perhaps the most prized, if not the most talked about, soil type, alluvial soils are the product of ancient river/sea/glaciers bed soils full layers of minerals. Alluvial drains very well better drainage, giving the wines extra freshness from acidity. Regions include Uco Valley and Patagonia in Argentina, Napa Valley in California, Ribera Sacra and Rioja in Spain.

  • Grapes: Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir, Mencia, Tempranillo. 

Volcanic: high mineral content, loose soil for better drainage, with relatively nutrients, volcanic soils really stress grapes out. A distinct smoky character on the nose and palate gives away wines grown in this soil type. Wines from grapes grown in volcanic soil are alsp mineral driven, aromatic, complex wines with high acid. Regions include Sicily and Campania in Italy, the Canary Islands in Spain, and Bio Bio Valley in Chile.

  • Grapes: Nerello Mascalese, Frapatto, Nero D'Avola, Grillo, Aglianico, Falanghina, Listan Negro, Listan Blanco, Pais. 

Clay: Clay holds water better than all other soil types, is often mixed in with other soil types, and is common near rivers. Its relatively high nutrient content and thicker consistency means the roots have a harder time working outward, but don't need to extend as far because what they need is right there! This leads to fruit driven, fresh and complex wines. Regions include Colchagua Valley in Chile, Ribera del Duero and Toro in Spain, and Bordeaux in France. 

  • Grapes: Cabernet Sauvignon, Carmenere, Petit Verdot, Merlot, Tempranillo, Tinta de Toro. 

In conclusion, we love contemplating soils, so next time you pop open a bottle, remember that the soils are speaking to you and you are drinking mother natures geological history. Cheers!

 Sandy and granite soils. Old bush vines of 80 plus year of Verdejo in Rueda, Spain.

Sandy and granite soils. Old bush vines of 80 plus year of Verdejo in Rueda, Spain.

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Understanding Terroir Through Volcanic Soil

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We love terroir. We love the way it melds the mystical with the scientific, empirical analysis with intuition.

Perhaps nothing more singularly exemplifies terrior more than volcanic soils. Precious little is known about exactly why volcanic soils affect the grapes that grow in them. There is no doubt, however, that they do. All over the wine world, from the slopes of Mount Etna in Sicily, to the Columbia River Valley in Washington State, to the Bio Bio valley in southern Chile, examples of fine wines made from grapes grown in volcanic soils abound. All of them exude a degree of character and a sense of place rarely rivaled.

Before we begin, we should note what terroir is not. It is not just the soil, though it is often misunderstood as such. Instead, terroir is the combination of everything happening in the environment where grapevines grow that have an impact on the characteristics of the resulting wines. By this definition, even the people that own, manage, and work in the vineyards should be considered as part of the overall terroir. It excludes, therefore, winemaking practices and everything that happens after nature hands the grapes over to humans. 

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We might as well begin our dive into (attempting) to understand volcanic soils with the most controversial piece: do vines actually absorb minerals from not just volcanic soil, but any soil? The answer, for most minerals, is likely “no.” With the exception of iron, there’s a distinct lack of evidence that minerals are absorbed through grape vines. In chemistry terms, the molecules are simply too big to pass through the root stocks, through the vine, and into the grapes themselves.

However, grapes grown in volcanic soils do, with few exceptions, display dazzling mineral flavors. Many come across as even salty. Why?

Part of the answer may lie in the fact that volcanic soil is porous, which allows water to pass over the roots with relative speed. This also allows the roots to travel further in search nutrients. This combination leading to high mineral wines has been shown to be true in other regions that do not possess volcanic soil, but do have porous, or loose, soil. Burgundy is perhaps the most famous region where this is the case.

Along the same lines, volcanic soil does not retain water the way clay does. This in turn heavily stresses the vine, which prompts it to produce grapes that are more concentrated across the board. Grapes grown in volcanic soil tend to have more tannin, more minerals, and more intense flavors, because of this.

There are many other ways that volcanic soil may affect the vines and the grapes they produce. Unlike other soil types, the color of volcanic soil depends on the eruption event that caused them. This means the vineyards will absorb heat differently depending on the color of the soil, in turn leading to differences in ripeness. Believe it or not, average temperature is more closely associated with ripeness than even direct sunlight.

And though it may seem obvious, don’t forget that you’re likely to find volcanic soil near actual volcanoes. Being mountains, they play a huge role in the climate within their vicinity. They can change the behavior of the wind, for instance. Wind can keep a vineyard dry and pest free, but it can also cool the vineyard down. Where you find mountains, you find valleys, which have their own micro climates. Mountain also have slopes, each with different orientations to the sun and quickly changing altitude. Mount Etna, a huge active volcano in Sicily, impacts the terroir around it so much that each quadrant of it produces completely different varietals of grapes.

We could go on and on about the thousands of ways any given terroir may differ from another. It’s not an understatement to say that even regions with over a hundred years of data and research, we’ve only scratched the surface of truly understanding terroir. Which is why winemaking and grape growing remain a combination of artistry and reason. Perhaps no element of terroir better exemplifies this than volcanic soils. Yet, despite its many mysteries, one thing remains true and easily identifiable: wines from regions with volcanic soils are downright delicious!

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The coordinates for Salnés

   Rafa, Honorio and Tito, owners of Veiga Serantes in Rias Baixas, Spain. 

Rafa, Honorio and Tito, owners of Veiga Serantes in Rias Baixas, Spain. 

The coordinates on the GPS did not match the address for the Veiga Serantes winery, which we had come to visit in Rías Baixas, near the western coast of Galicia, Spain. The location that Honorio, one of the owners of the vineyard, had given us to meet was placed squarely on the beach.

"Come, leave the car there" he shouts through the rain before introducing us to Tito and Rafa, the other owners of the vineyard.

Honorio points toward some ruins jutting out in the water, and explains "this construction was part of a fortress left by the Vikings in the 11th century when they invaded this part of the peninsula." The abandoned walls were crumbling yet intact on two sides, the rest weathered by thousands of years in the sea.

We had barely reflected for five seconds on the significance of this monument when Honorio has already grabbed us by the arm again -- this time, into the car to go to the winery.

Galicia has consistently endured confrontations with outside cultures. Celts, Britons, Moors, and even the Spanish Civil War have come and left their mark on this region. They have not been able, however, to erase the Galician identity.

Maybe for this reason, in the eyes of a visitor, the Galicians can appear evasive at first. Difficult to grasp or understand. His accent is complicated to decipher to foreign ears.

The main grape of the region is Albariño, which arrived in these lands precisely with the early migratory movements. Some say that it was the French Cistercian monks who, with their pilgrimage along the Way of St. James (Camino de Santiago), brought the grapes in the 12th century and taught the Galicians how to care for the vine.

Galicia is rainy yet it barely gets cold. This prevents many of the red grapes from ripening evenly, leaving the Albariño as the star of the region.  

Rafa apologized to us, they had just sold the old cellar and what was today our tasting room was yesterday a chicken coop. They do not care, they're happy. This is a place for friends.

"Here we make wines with brutal honesty" says Rafa. He assures us that he knows his vines so well that he could give them each a first and last name. He says he knows very few other producers in the region who could achieve that level of detail.

Detail has been disappearing with the introduction of technology and industrial wine production here. This phenomenon began in Rías Baixas at least 20 years ago, they tell us.

As we walk through the vineyards accompanied by 19 sheep that help keep the grass level, Tito insists that his wine project is a reflection of what his grandparents did.

He uses the same techniques as his ancestors and looks for flavors that evoke those memories. To achieve this, he has concentrated his energy on conserving the local yeast. That is why the use of chemicals is prohibited.

Tito complements this point. "We are not going to compromise; this land is what my grandparents gave me and we are going to make a wine that reflects the soil, the territory and the tradition."     

However, they agree that the main challenge these days is commercial pressure. Despite their commitment to the terroir, the vineyard must remain economically profitable. Still, they assure us, they will not change their style. "Here we make wines that we like to drink, because if we do not sell them, we drink them!" they say, followed by a long sip of their Albarino.

Dinner is improvised from a wheelbarrow filled with coals to roast mussels, sardines, anchovies and some meat. It is a delight that goes perfectly with the Veiga Serantes wines. As Rafa, Tito and Honorio tell their stories, laugh, and sing, the cool night falls over the Salnés village of Rias Baixas.

 

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