|Dr. Kevin Pogue|
It was during the Wine Bloggers Conference 2010, I was reminded by something that many of our visiting bloggers pointed out: Walla Walla isn't just built of one terroir, but many terroirs. So let's back track a bit about the word, "terroir" and its meaning. Terroir comes from the word "terre" meaning land. It was originally a French term that was used to denote unique characteristics of geography that were apparent in wine, coffee and tea. In fact, all produce can denote those special characteristics, such as our own Walla Walla Sweet Onions. Terroir is about agriculture sites in the same region that share similar soil and weather. Loosely translated it is also known as "Sense of Place."
We can attribute the beginning of our "Sense of Place" many 15 million moons ago when the region experienced a series of lava flows. Of course, the lava would eventually cool and harden leaving us with basalt bedrock covering most of eastern Washington and south into northeastern Oregon. In later years, came the Ice Age Missoula floods from the north. This gigantic piece of ice formed a natural dam which created the glacial Lake Missoula. The water behind the glacial dam slowly gathered until the volume was sufficient to float the ice dam south and allow the huge reservoir of water to flow out. This process repeated itself many times over a three thousand year period leaving behind deposits of well-drained sand and silt which is now the basis for the soils of many of eastern Washington's premier vineyards.
When Mother Nature was all done with her drama, she left the Walla Walla Valley with four very distinct terroirs:
1. Thick Loess - Vineyards with this terroir of wind-deposited silt and sand are Spring Valley, Leonetti Upland, Leonetti Loess, Dwelley and Les Collines. They are located to the northeast of the valley or at the foothills of the Blue Mountains. Loess soil provides good drainage for the vines. To this day we still see the effects of loess with every wind storm in the valley.
2. Missoula Flood Sediments - Vineyards with this terroir are Pepper Bridge, Seven Hills, Ferguson Ridge and Forgotten Hills. All four of these vineyards are south of the Walla Walla Valley and are found below 1,200 ft. elevation. The soil from these floods are rich and layered with loess and minerals.
3. Stream Gravels - The vineyard best known with this terroir is the famous Cayuse Vineyard which is located south of Walla Walla in the Milton-Freewater, Oregon area. Walla Walla is surrounded by an alluvial fan. This fan shape of gravel, spreading onto a flatter plain, was created by the Walla Walla River. In fact Cayuse Vineyard was specifically chosen for it's resemblance to the “galets roules” (rolled cobblestones) of the southern Rhone vineyards in France. This area has often been referred to “Oregon’s Châteuneuf-du-Pape.”
4. Basalt - There are no vineyards grown in solid basalt at this time. Maybe in the future? These areas are often of solid bedrock and sometimes with just a thin layer of loess and can be as high as 1,200 feet or located in steep areas where much of the sediment was removed in time by water or wind. The Woodward Canyon Vineyard is located nearly 900 feet of elevation three miles north of Walla Walla and layered with wind-blown loess over fractured basalt.
Now, when you put all of these geology profiles together with an average annual rainfall of 12.5 inches, add a long 200-day growing season with arid high temperatures and then a shift of temperatures in the evenings, thanks to the cool air from the Blue Mountains, the results are grapes that are perfectly balanced of sugars and acidity.
Located on latitude 46°, the Walla Walla Valley also straddles the line between the Burgundy and Bordeaux regions of France, and it is this high latitude that means once our autumn arrives the weather is quick to cool and our hours of daily sunshine quickly leaves our valley.
As a result of this seasonal change, the grapes are able to remain on the vine weeks later after many other regions are finishing with their harvest. Our extra hang time on the vine allows the grapes to intensify bringing us some of the best in world class wines.
The end of our tour brought us the results in a glass of the very distinct terroirs. The glasses of wine were not only wine from WallaFaces Winery, but wines of Dusted Valley Vintners and Waters Winery. Chad Johnson of Dusted Valley was there to pour his latest vintages of 2009 Malbec, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon that are still in the barrel and Jamie Brown from Waters Winery poured for us two different and very distinct 2009 Walla Walla Syrahs from the Leonetti Loess and Forgotten Hills vineyards. WallaFaces poured their 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah, 2009 Riesling, as well as their 2006 Fusion red blend.
Many thanks to our hosts Rick, Debbie, Lois and Carol of WallaFaces and our speaker and tour guide, Kevin Pogue. I cannot think of a better way to learn geology on a Saturday afternoon.