Earth to earth: Ontario soil’s effects on winemaking

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My interest in soil has come from writing about the Savvy wineries for the by-the-month delivery and visiting wineries such as Coyote’s Run located in St. David’s Bench in the Niagara Escarpment, Ravine’s Vineyard (for Savvy subscribers, December’s wine delivery) and frequently visiting Prince Edward County, also known as “the County” 3 hours west of Ottawa.

First, let me start by saying I am not a soil specialist or geologist or agronomist. I remember just scrapping through Grade 10 chemistry, which is why I find it amusing that I am now writing a blog on soil.

We all know that great wine starts in the vineyard, but the more I study wine, the more I realize that it is in mother earth where it really begins and who often points to which grape to plant where, for optimum results.

The soils that engulf the Niagara Escarpment, have been compared to those in Burgundy, France, where we also share a similar latitude at approximately 44 degrees. Thousands of years ago, huge glaciers carved out the Twenty Mile Bench leaving a literal bench for growing grapes. This bench protects the soil from harsh winds yet helps the warm breezes from Lake Ontario to circulate. It is the balance of heat and coolness combined with the minerality in the soil that lends acidity to the Niagara wines. This is the same micro-climate found in the County, where the breezes from Lake Ontario temper the climate and the soil.

Most winemakers that I have interviewed, have had their soil analyzed at universities such as Brock or Guelph where there are soil experts on site. In the case of Coyote’s Run, when the owners sent their samples to Brock, the results showed that the toledo clay loam soil in one vineyard is estimated at 15,000 years old and in another vineyard the Trafalgar clay loam soil is estimated at 450 millions years old. At Ravine vineyards, the soil samples were sent back twice because there was such complexity and diverseness of soil contained in such a small acreage. Gosh, for a winemaker, where would you start?

I think that’s one reason that would make growing grapes so much fun, the “wait and see” what they will do in different types of soil. I remember one winemaker saying that, “we threw some Riesling down there to see what would happen” and another winemaker planting a variety of grapes in a small plot of gravelly limestone to see how they grow. Another winemaker said to me that “Chardonnay will go to bed anywhere”, which amused me to no end.

Both the Twenty Mile Bench and the County are blessed with a bounty of limestone, shale and clay which allows for good drainage for the grapevines.

I recently did two seminars at the TASTE festival in Picton, Prince Edward County, on “Wines to Serve with Thanksgiving dinner” and in my preparation for this, I discovered there were over 10 different kinds of soil in the County ranging from various colours of clay loam that overlay limestone bedrock and shale fragments to various specimens of gravelly and fine sand. I also learned that grapes such as Pinot Noir and Chardonnay thrive in this soil, although having tasted many other County wines, they clearly have a repertoire of success with other grapes.

The stony soils allow for good drainage and force the vines to grow deeper to look for moisture during the warm summer months. Believe it or not, the limestone also acts like a sponge and retains moisture that is in part why the grapevines are so successful growing in limestone fissures. On Doug’s (my husband and also a Savvy Sommelier) and my last trip to the County we visited several vineyards and could not believe when we looked at the earth that anything grows in this rocky looking clay.

Soil science is about classification and chemical properties. I also learned that one of the most important scientific discoveries was how soil forms spontaneously from rock. Under the influence of physical factors like deformation by heat and cold, assault by wind, rain, hail and ice, and the enormous levering forces of water expanding into ice, solid rock is shattered into smaller pieces and hence over time, becomes soil.

I’ve come to have a definite appreciation for what lies beneath and like faith, what is unforeseen in our eyes. Watching grapes through veraison (winespeak: grapes’ change in colour) is exciting. Perhaps being raised on a farm left me with images of my grandfather at harvest. To say I have a great respect for grape growers and winemakers is an understatement. Winemaking sounds sexy and fun but for the grape farmers, always anxious about what mothernature is going to deliver, it is very hard work.

Thanks to the earth that connects us. Every fall we celebrate harvest and the grapes that have come to fruition.

Earth to earth, from my glass to yours.

Julie

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