“Terroir,” the ultimate wine buzzword. So, what does it actually mean? Here is the good ole dictionary definition:
ter·roir | \ ˌter-ˈwär \
Definition of terroir
: the combination of factors including soil, climate, and sunlight that gives wine grapes their distinctive character
It is a relatively simple concept when you think about it. Something that is grown where nature intended, in rich and varying soil that gets natural wind and sunlight will taste better than something that grows in a warehouse. This is what “terroir” means for wine. The region’s climate, soil, terrain, winemaking traditions and even the bacteria in the grapes all contribute to the overall character of a wine. This is why Pinot Noir grown in Burgundy tastes different than Pinot Noir grown in Oregon.
Wine regions across the globe all have different characteristics that make their terroir unique and special. Oregon, and especially the Willamette Valley, has terroir that creates grapes that are fresh, full-flavored with bright acid.
The Willamette Valley is home to a maritime (or oceanic) climate. This means damp, cool winters and warm, dry summers. Maritime climate areas generally have a narrow yearly temperature range and precipitation that is well dispersed throughout the year.
Grapes get long days to ripen, and cool night to develop complex fruit flavors The Willamette Valley also gets wind from the Pacific Ocean and Columbia Gorge. These cooling winds help the grapes to balance out the bright fruit notes with pleasant acidity.
Cue Johnny Cash. Since the coast of Oregon sits in the Ring of Fire, the soil makeup is distinctive, unique and the result of millions of years of geological history. While the soil is different throughout each region, and even from vineyard to vineyard, these are the main soils in the Willamette Valley.
- Came from sandstone and siltstone
- Hard soil that forces grapevines roots to grow deep to find water and minerals
- Found in Chehalem Mountains, Ribbon Ridge and Yamhill-Carlton AVA’s
- Came from the weathering of the Columbia River Basalt bedrock
- Soil retains water and helps vines during drier summer months
- Found in Chehalem Mountains, Dundee Hills, McMinnville, Eola-Amity Hills
- Windblown soil off the Columbia River Basalt bedrock
- Soil drains well reduces stress on the vines, resulting in complex grapes
- Found in Chehalem Mountains
Missoula Flood Soils
- Balanced soil with silt, sand, and clay
- Found across the Willamette Valley
The terrain has a huge effect on grapes and the wine they ultimately make. Geographical elements, (i.e. mountains, hills, valley, gorges, etc.) altitude, and bodies of water all have an effect on how a wine will taste. Even smaller aspects of terrain like slope and which direction vines are facing contribute as well.
The major geographical elements that surround the Willamette Valley influence the crops in a number of ways. They direct the winds and rain that blow through the valley.
Tradition is an incredibly important aspect of terroir. It is really the only human interaction that contributes to the character of the wine. Farming and harvesting practices, winemaking techniques, and sustainability are at the forefront of Oregon wine, and it one of the prides of the Willamette Valley.
Matt Kramer of Wine Spectator put it best by saying,
“It’s here in the culture; it’s here in the air. The very DNA of Oregon winegrowing os sympathetic to this non-interventionist, naturalist, small-scale form of farming and winemaking.”
The Willamette Valley is home to many small and independent vineyards and wineries, many of which are certified organic and biodynamic.
Learn more about the organizations involved in the Willamette Valley’s commitment to sustainable winemaking practices:
- B Corporation
- Deep Roots Coalition
- Demeter Certified Biodynamic
- LIVE Certified Sustainable
- Oregon Tilth
It may the most overused wine word, but “terroir” is apart of what makes Oregon so special. Come visit the Willamette Valley and see for yourself.