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Terroir, Part 3: The Reckoning

Cork Dork College

Now we’re getting down to the nitty-gritty. First, we talked about dirt; next, we talked about climate; today, we’re going to take a look at some specific examples of regions and how their own individual traits express that very special something we call terroir.

A Big, Intense New World Region

Somewhere that is near and dear to my heart is the Red Mountain AVA in Washington State. This humble 4,000-acre bump in the Columbia valley is home to some of the best grapes in the Pacific Northwest such as the Ciel du Cheval and Tapteil vineyards. I bring up Red Mountain because it is by far the region that I am most familiar with, having given countless vineyard tours to purple-toothed Seattleites suffering from a mild cases of heat stroke in the summer.

Fifteen thousand years ago a giant glacial flood came smashing through the area and in the process deposited a helluva lot of silt, loam and calcium carbonate (that’s chalk to you and me). After eddying around Red Mountain, what remained was a hill covered in gravelly, loamy, carbonate-rich soil – something that our little grapy friends love and hate.

On top of that, the region has a solidly continental climate. The winters are something out of a snow globe, and the unforgiving summers are sunny and hot. Add to this that the region slopes to the southwest and into the Yakima River, so all of the grapes get tons of late, hot afternoon sun and don’t get to hang on to much water. In fact, Red Mountain is by far the hottest AVA in the entire Columbia valley in terms of total heat units collected by vines over the course of a season. Add to this the fact that (optimistic real estate agents claim) there are around 300 days of sun a year. All of this makes the grapes a little miserable, but people like this.

What kind of wine does this leave us with? Intense, tannic, structured reds that are built for serious aging. See, all of that heat and sun cause the grapes to reach a high level of phenolic ripeness (tannin town!) around the same time that they develop the right amount of sugar to be harvested, making for some seriously structured <link to post> juice. Some winemakers swear the region’s wines have an inherent note of Grand Marnier (file that Who Knows Why?), and others cite a chalky minerality (possibly owing to the carbonate soils, but more on this kind of thing later). All I know is that the juice that comes from this region’s grapes is delicious. It’s a distinctive wine region, even if it’s impossible to find a decent cocktail within 50 miles.

A Cool, Restrained Old World Region

And now for something completely different! Mosel is by far one of Germany’s most prized wine regions, and the source of some of the best Riesling on the planet. Certainly better than any I’ve made in my bathtub (want to see Stunwin Trockenbeerenauslese on the site? Tweet at Dini!).

The region is defined by the Mosel River, which has spent the last few millennia carving a deep, curving path through the region. What we’re left with are extremely steep slopes that drain down into the river with the help of the porous slate soil composition.

Mosel is located just south of the 50th parallel, placing it at what is basically the northern barrier of Vitis vinifera’s comfort zone. Luckily there are a couple of factors that mitigate this. First, the sun reflects off of the river and up into the vineyards, and second, there are some fortunate vineyards that are situated, like on Red Mountain, on southwest facing slopes, netting them some extra heat as sun sets on Castle Wolfenstein.

At the end of the day, the cool weather and slaty, well-draining soil leave us with a characteristically clean, crisp, high-acidity wine.  Cool weather causes the grapes not to synthesize as much sugar relative to the amount of acid they contain, and the excellent drainage keeps the water content down. Less hydrated grapes make for a concentrated, intense flavor profile.

Controversy!

There are many who swear by “Mosel Slate” as a defining characteristic of these wines, something that instantly gives away these wines’ origin with one sniff. Now that is just a lovely idea, but that would somehow mean that some kind of flavor compound is being extracted from the soil, metabolized by the grapes and preserved throughout vinification and aging. That sounds like something worth debating. Perhaps something a certain Cork Dork might like to grossly oversimplify for the sake of comments, which you can conveniently leave below. Hrmmmmm…

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