If you read many wine publications - ours included - you're likely to run across a lot of talk about terroir, that French word that seems to point to a mystical connection between a wine and the earth upon which its grapes were grown.
While I'm not a big fan of the terroir term because it's become so hackneyed and misused within our profession, I do appreciate a wine's sense of place. In the thousands of wines we review and rate each year, we can clearly see patterns that indicate where a wine might be from.
Which brings me to some exciting projects we're doing here at Wine Press Northwest. This spring, Managing Editor Eric Degerman and I spent a few days in the northern Willamette Valley to taste through a couple hundred Pinot Noirs. Each day, we tasted wines from specific regions: Eola-Amity Hills, McMinnville, Chehalem Mountains, Ribbon Ridge, Yamhill-Carlton District and the Dundee Hills. These six new AVAs were featured on the cover of our Summer issue a year ago, and we decided to conduct this year's tastings (all single blind) to continue our search for strains of similarities between these appellations that are very close together.
In fact, we believe we are beginning to see some patterns emerging. We are drilling down with the winemakers and grape growers as we taste the wines. Thus, we are looking at aroma and flavor components alongside structure and complexity.
For example, the tannin structures in the wines from the Eola-Amity Hills are vastly different than those from areas to the north, such as the Dundee Hills. Why? Perhaps it's because of the Van Duzer Corridor, a gap in the Coast Range that allows ocean breezes through every afternoon during the growing season. The Eola-Amity Hills AVA is in a direct line from the Van Duzer Corridor, and this natural phenomenon undoubtedly affects the way grapes develop.
Determining a sense of place in the northern Willamette Valley is complicated by the fact that soil types in the six AVAs are vastly different. Add to this the fact that producers use about a half-dozen different Pinot Noir clones, which are the same grape variety but genetically different. And they can produce significantly different wines depending on where they are planted. Thus, part of our long-term project will be to better understand how clones perform differently - dare we say better? - in each area.
This kind of exploration is nothing new for us. In fact, this summer, we will conduct our fifth annual tasting of Walla Walla Valley wines under blind conditions. For this, we spend a day in Walla Walla, first walking a couple of vineyards, then settling down and tasting 80 or so wines, all of which carry the Walla Walla Valley appellation on the bottle.
What have we learned so far? Plenty. First of all, we're building a database of flavor profiles and wine structures based on what part of the valley the wines come from and vineyard sources. So far, we are noticing a trend that the wines from the western side of the Walla Walla Valley are more generous with their bright fruit notes, while those from the eastern and southeastern areas reveal fascinating mineral and dark fruit components.
What could cause this? We have a theory: The Ice Age Floods some 15,000 years ago dropped more sediment in the eastern valley. These sediments, known as Touchet Beds, were created when the floodwaters created a temporary lake that stretched from Lewiston, Idaho, past Yakima, Wash. They are more prevalent in the eastern Walla Walla Valley and, thus, could affect the profile of the grapes. The western side of the valley has sandier soil.
Or it could be the way the grapes are farmed or differences between vintages. Only time - and more tastings - will tell.
The new north Willamette AVAs and the Walla Walla Valley are amazing areas to conduct these studies because we can search for differences and similarities between nearby places, then look for possible reasons. The Ice Age Floods in the Walla Walla Valley and the Van Duzer Corridor in the north Willamette Valley are the fascinating stories we love to learn, then discover what their effects on the wines might be.
It's all pretty geeky-nerdy, but we think this is what many wine lovers are equally fascinated with.
These tastings follow in the footsteps of two former Washington State University scientists: Alan Busacca and Larry Meinert, who conducted groundbreaking work in Walla Walla and on Red Mountain less than a decade ago.
We are adding these kinds of tastings whenever we can. Three years ago, we traveled to the Snake River Valley and tasted the entire Idaho wine industry in one day. That's not difficult when there are about 80 wines, and it gave us a complete picture of what was happening in the Gem State - and what its potentials are.
We hope you'll notice what we learn in our writings, whether they be in feature articles (such as this issue's cover article on Red Mountain), wine reviews, the Northwest Wine of the Week e-mail newsletter or the daily Wine Knows blog on our Web site.
Our next step will be to take our big AVA tastings, write about the wines we review and begin to draw some conclusions. We will publish these special reports online beginning this summer with our in-depth look at the six northern Willamette Valley AVAs. Keep an eye on the Wine of the Week newsletter and the blog for the freely downloadable reports when they are ready.