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Soil versus climate: The old Pinot Noir question



Someone who’s a wine professional and knows a lot about wine recently told me that Oregonians believe that soil and rocks play the dominant role in Pinot Noir while Californians think it’s weather and climate.

I guess by that standard you can call me a Californian.

By that I don’t mean that the stuff in which the vine and its roots grow is irrelevant. But in my thirty years of studying this stuff I just haven’t seen enough evidence to convince me that, so long as certain minimal soil conditions are met, the precise chemical makeup of the soil matters insofar as the wine’s quality is concerned–as long as the grapes are grown in a cool climate.

What are those minimal soil conditions? Good drainage and sparse nutrients. The former means that the vine’s feet aren’t “wet.” The latter means that the vine is not growing in overly-fertile conditions that produce giant clusters whose grapes are weak in flavor. Obviously, both conditions are closely related.

In California we have great Pinot Noir growing in almost every type of soil you can name: the sand and marine sediments of Santa Maria Valley and Santa Rita Hills, the pebbles of the Middle Reach, the Goldridge series of certain parts of the Russian River Valley, the clays and loams of Carneros, sands and loams of Santa Lucia Highlands, the decomposed sandstone of Anderson Valley, the volcanic basalt of the Far Coast and Santa Cruz Mountains, and so on. Heck, the Rochioli Vineyard alone contains almost all those different soil types, from riverside to hillside, but somehow they produce distinctive Pinot Noirs that all somehow seem “Rochiolian.”

The wine writer Dave McIntyre wrote the other day in the Washington Post an article about this that interviews a vintner who believes strongly in the impact of soil. Dave did a good job of letting the vintner speak for himself. He didn’t blindly and blandly accept his premise, or impose his (Dave’s) point of view, but simply presented the quotes to allow us readers to make up our own minds. That’s proper journalism, all too rare in this day of “I’ll believe whatever the winemaker tells me.” Dave did describe two Cabernet Francs he tasted, made with identical techniques but grown in different soils; one “was noticeably better” than the other, he wrote; but I think Dave would be the first to acknowledge that this was according to his palate on that occasion and that somebody else, equally qualified, might disagree; and that even the notion of “better” is slippery, as the “less better” wine might be “better” when paired with certain foods.

It is true that, in the recent history of the past few decades, Californians have tended to minimize the impact of soil in favor of climate. After all, our climate is so spectacular that it’s hard not to be awestruck by it, especially when compared to Old Europe, which was the inevitable comparison in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s when California was building its reputation on the world stage. The message of Cali vintners then was “Europe has one or two good vintages every decade and one or two horrible ones and the rest are inbetween. We never have horrible vintages; every year is a vintage year!”

Why muddy a marketing message like that with ambiguities about soil?

The Oregonians, when they began to challenge California—and some of them had California backgrounds–quickly realized they couldn’t compete with us, if “gorgeous weather” was the criterion. Summers can be delightful in the Willamette Valley, but they can also be rainy, which is never the case in California; and the Pinot Noir harvest weather here is usually fine, which it decidedly isn’t in Oregon. So, strictly from a messaging perspective, the Oregonians hit upon “soil” as their selling point.

They also had a good argument about latitude and sunlight patterns, Oregon being closer to the latitude of Burgundy, the Mother Lode of Pinot Noir. But I think the notion that the Oregonians present themselves as soil-ists while the Californians present themselves as climate-ists is correct. Fortunately, the rest of us don’t have to take sides. We can enjoy the wines from both states!

  1. Carlos de Toledo says:

    Hi Steve.

    You say California delivers great pinots in every type of possible existing soil , but you don’t specify whether they differ from each other and how much are they (the pinots) apart from one another.

    So, let’s consider not wood or lab intervention in the pinots making. If left alone after crushing and fermenting and bottling, would the hundreds of californian soils yield the same pinots or how much would they differ from one another?

    I think Burgundy gives a little hint about soil and climate as they (the soil) change so much through the slopes (all that story) but not the climate… in other words the soil changes dramatically in a few meters while the climate remains the same as the area is so small. And the wines are very different in quality, characteristic, etc.

    I can’t recall a place on earth where wine is produced that is so famous and so easy to see how much soil can change the output as in Burgundy. Maybe in priorat x montsant where the climate is bloody equal, but the soil rather different..

    Neither a pro-soil nor a pro-weather person am i. Merely a wine layperson…maybe the disclaimer will get me off the hook here.

  2. Oregonians are correct for Oregon. The climate is much more continental and consistent across the growing region than the coastal regions of California where Pinot succeeds. Soils are also more consistent, and the Missoula floods laid down rich, fertile soils on the lowlands, so most quality vines are up slope, with quite clear boundaries between soil types.

    By contrast, California soils may change in some areas every few yards. Incredibly active faults cause a fracturing, and mixing of strata over short periods of geologic time. And the best Pinot regions developed at the points where geography allows the right amount of marine air to wick inland and moderate the climate.

    Obviously these are generalizations, but I think both views are basically correct and grew out of local knowlege and local farming.

  3. Dear Carlos, this matter of how Pinots differ from each other does not much interest the consumer. The consumer is looking for quality, flavor and balance. Why does it matter if the flavors veer more towards blackberries or raspberries? Why does it matter if one Pinot is earthier than another. These are minor differences that wine geeks tend to get hung up on. Even in Burgundy there are huge differences between various pinot noirs. We seem to like them all. I see pinot noir like people: each one is different.

  4. I think nrcvino pretty much nailed it, except that I would disagree somewhat with the description of the Willamette as “much more continental” – only in the sense that Napa is “much more continental” than the Sonoma coast. The Willamtte Valley, between Portland and Eugene, where most Oregon Pinot Noir is cultivated, is remarkably uniform with respect to climate. So if you want to distinguish your vineyard, you naturally turn to variations in other parameters like soils, slope, aspect, elevation, etc. The 4 main categories of Willamette Valley vineyard soils are 1) deeply weathered basalt (Jory), 2) deeply weathered Tertiary sedimentary rocks (Willakenzie), 3) Missoula Flood sediments (Woodburn), and 4) shallow rocky basaltic soils (Nekia). While their are substantial differences in the mineralogic component of these soils, research has shown that vines are much more affected by differences in hydrologic properties related to depth, texture, clay content, etc. If you want to see bigger terroir-driven contrasts in Oregon Pinot Noir, then do what the Californians do, compare Oregon Pinot Noir from AVAs that have distinct climates. In Oregon, Pinot Noir is also grown in the Columbia Gorge, Umpqua Valley, Rogue Valley, and the Oregon side of the Walla Walla Valley AVA, which is definitely “more continental”. Perhaps the finest Oregon Pinot Noir I’ve ever tasted was made by Rick Small at Woodward Canyon in 1994 from grapes grown at almost 2000 ft. in the foothills of the Blue Mountains of eastern Oregon.

  5. On the diversity of (sub-)soil within a singe vineyard.

    Excerpts from the San Francisco Chronicle “Food and Wine” Section
    (March 8, 2009, Page Unknown):

    “Vintner [David Hirsch] Creates Pinot Gold from Sonoma Coast’s Mysterious Mother Lode”


    By Jon Bonné
    Chronicle Wine Editor

    For all the acclaim, the secrets of [David] Hirsch’s success remain a bit of a mystery, at least on the surface. For most of 30 years he has been trying to decode a wild jumble of subsoils that include rocks of all types mixed with everything from porous sandstone to impenetrable clay. It led him to divide his 71 VINEYARD ACRES into 60 DIFFERENT BLOCKS, EACH WITH ITS OWN SOIL SIGNATURE, EACH FARMED ON ITS OWN. “If you’re focused on the site,” he says, “you’re looking for what’s happening underground.”

    Such lack of consistency is extremely rare among vineyards, which makes the site defy easy comprehension. As his winemaker Mark Doherty puts it: “There’s no elevator story.” The best comparison, inevitably, might be to the Burgundy’s endlessly divided lieux-dits, where quality has been divined row by row, but only after centuries.

    . . .

  6. I don’t really believe that the dichotomy that you present is particularly accurate. Soil isn’t more important than climate, but neither is climate more important than soil. And neither is more or less important than grape growing either. They all combine together and are vital one to the other. If you will, think of it as a 3-legged stool — and try arguing which leg is more important. It makes no sense.

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  7. Adam Lee, I’m not presenting a dichotomy. If you read my post you’ll see I do think it’s both, as well as winemaking technique etc. My purpose is always to show how things are more complicated than most writers suggest.

  8. Regarding this dichotomy question… Ask yourself this question. As a viticulturalist, you are allowed to have absolute control over only one variable in your vineyard, the other variables are assigned to you at random. Which one would you choose to control? climate?, soil type? bedrock type? If you make a map of the Earth and eliminate all regions that are unsuitable for viticulture, what variable accounts for the removal of the largest area? If terroir is a stool with three legs, then the legs are physical (climate, dirt), cultural (enology and viticulture), and biological (yeast, endemic flora and fauna), and the cultural one is all-powerful, with the capability of obliterating the influence of the others.

  9. Pinot Noir is sex in a glass… provided you’re sleeping around a lot, because it’s all in the variety.

    You ended on the note I thought would start my reply: Columbia Valley can plant on 100% vinifera rootstock, so that’s their marketing label. Oregon has some of the most interesting dirt types anywhere. California has phenomenal climate. Similarly, Clinton campaigns on experience and maturity, Rubio on youth, and Trump on being most outside the system. Everybody rightly brags where they have the best bragging rights.

    I think soil matters less with Pinot Noir than many other varieties, that it flourishes best with powerful sun and crisp cooling. If you have the right climate then, yeah, soil distinctions matter. (My favorite use of Oregon Pinots is to hone my palate in soil distinctions. Sta. Rita Hills wines above and below the 246 are different, but within a range. Green Valley stands out from the rest of Russian River, etc. [oh, but that’s climate, too])

    Carneros and Russian River Pinots are similar but not the same. Santa Maria and Sta. Rita Hills Pinots can nearly always be told apart in a second. Yet, I think the climate SIMILARITIES of C & RR, and of SRH and SMV, are more obvious in the wines than those differences.

    Oregon has to sell what it’s got – like everyone – and what it’s got is interesting soil. But, despite the latitude similarity, I’ve never bought their “more Burgundian than thou” claims. I love “red Burgundies” – just had one from Fixin Saturday night, and we have Dijons and Pommards in our sales portfolio. – The area that I think most reliably resembles these Burgundian wines is Arroyo Grande and SLO.

  10. Bill Crowley says:

    I love these conversations and reading some really well-informed opinions. I think you have it pretty much right, Steve. That climate matters more is pretty easy to understand. Why do burgundies (from whatever plot) very so much from year-to-year? Do they change the soil each year? Or is it the wide weather variation from year-to-year that explains the differences? And why do no great wines come from around Bakersfield–plenty of vines, good soils, but 100 degree F plus every day in July and August limit the possibilities. And what are we to make of all the climat (plot) boundaries with straight lines in Burgundy? How often do changes in physical environmental conditions follow straight lines?

  11. Bob Henry says:


    On the subject of stools, this observation:

    “Henri Jayer once said that a winemaker needs a chair. Less intervention, more reflection.”


    ~~ Bob

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