What is the best soil for Pinot Noir? No subject sparks more partisan debate in Oregon’s wine industry except perhaps whether David Lett or Charles Coury was the first to plant Pinot Noir in the Willamette Valley. This post may get a little long, but the intensity of interest merits a scholarly approach.
Pinot Noir has been dubbed a “finicky” grape. That may not be the best description. Like most grape varieties, Pinot Noir will grow in a wide range of soils and macroclimates, but it achieves its most sublime expressions of flavor and aroma in very few of them. Perhaps that is why the grape attracts such intense interest. If you have had the privilege of tasting La Tâche, La Romanée-Conti, Richebourg or any of the other wines of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti from the barrel at the winery, you know what I mean. Try as you may to guard against it, those wines will make you feel weak in the knees.
The Scribbler (pseudonym for a Portland-area winewriter) charged into the debate with an article about two Oregon wineries who produce mostly single vineyard-designated Pinot Noir. Both of the wineries use the connection between soil and wine to promote their wines.
The article presents three soil types as the only ones you need to consider for Pinot Noir. The soils were: Jory (volcanic), Willakenzie (sedimentary), and Laurelwood (loess, or wind-lain). At least, one more soil type should be included: Cornelius.
The map in Figure 1 indicates where the best Oregon Pinot Noir are grown. That is not the same as depicting where the wineries are located.
If one consults only the Soil Survey for Yamhill Area (minor additions and subtractions along west county line), it is easy to take Laurelwood soil lightly. In Yamhill County, there are only small areas of it on the north and east slopes of the Chehalem Mountains. If we include Washington, Polk and Marion Counties within the area under consideration, a very different picture emerges. Together, the four counties accounted for 81.8% of Oregon’s Pinot Noir acreage in 2010.
Figure 1: Where the best Oregon Pinot Noir are grown
Estimated Acres ____________________
Soil Type Yamhill Area Washington Co. Polk Co. Marion Co. Total % of Total
Jory 30,342 5,551 18,816 24,302 79,011 25.5%
Willakenzie 33,100 0 4,468 0 37,568 12.1%
Woodburn 38,023 0 22,579 65,385 125,987 40.6%
Laurelwood 7,638 44,354 0 0 51,992 16.7%
Cornelius 0 15,988 0 0 15,988 5.1%
Totals 109,103 65,893 45,863 89,687 310,546 100.0%
It should be noted that the main part of Polk County that contains Jory soil is the Eola Hills. In Marion County, most of it is in the South Salem Hills. Further, most of the Woodburn soil in those two counties is on the valley floor, and generally is not desirable for vineyard siting.
Why are Woodburn and Cornelius included in the discussion? As we shall see, Woodburn is found on the lower slopes of Chehalem Mountains, which seems to be the next hot spot for vineyard development in Yamhill County. Increasingly, vineyards are being planted in it. While Woodburn may not be an ideal soil for Pinot Noir, it does marvelously well for most of the other varieties grown in the Willamette Valley. It may be one of the best for Chardonnay, but that is a subject for another day. Also, Woodburn seems to exist in the best places to put a winery, where the vineyard ambiance supports siting to maximize exposure and access for touring wine consumers. Pinot Noir can be planted somewhere else, either at a winery-owned property or that of an independent grower, and still be called “estate” if certain conditions are met.
Cornelius soil exists only in Washington County. Very similar to Laurelwood, Cornelius always exists on the slope below Laurelwood. For Washington County wineries, Cornelius has proven a winner, perhaps greater than Laurelwood.
A word of caution needs to be inserted here. Although very helpful, and certainly better than nothing, USDA’s Soil Surveys can be frustratingly inaccurate at times. With their “broad brush” method of designating soil types, small areas of related soils are included with the area’s dominant soil. In Yamhill County, for example, parts smaller than two acres of Nekia, Yamhill, and Willakenzie soils may account for up to five percent of the larger area shown as Jory. I personally encountered a prospective site in Washington County where as much as ten acres (50% of the site) were identified incorrectly. Even a check of USDA’s Survey files failed to explain why.
In evaluating a parcel for vineyard design and development, there is no substitute for on-site investigation with a shovel or backhoe.
A brief geological history
Initially, all of Oregon was under the ocean. For the purposes of analyzing vineyard soils, however, that history is inconsequential; Columbia River Basalt flows covered it all. Oozing from linear vents, from Wallula, WA to The Dalles, off and on, between 32 million to 6 million years ago, they reached as far as the present coastline about 16 million BC. The observatory at Crown Point on the Columbia River sits atop 1,100 feet of solid basalt from these flows.
The next significant geological events were the Missoula, Floods. The glacial ice cap had built a dam near Missoula, Montana. Eventually, it impounded a huge lake holding as much water as two of today’s Great Lakes. The dam broke 40 times between 13,500 BC and 12,700 BC, according to geological evidence. Each time it sent a torrent of water across the Palouse Hills of Idaho and southeastern Washington, then down the course of today’s Columbia River. Mt. Hood had not erupted yet, so the flood crossed what is now southeast Portland and filled the Willamette Valley to depths as much as 360 feet.
The Missoula Floods didn’t just bring water. They floated rocks and boulders encapsulated in ice and scoured wind-lain topsoil from the Palouse Hills. So, much of the soil deposited in the Willamette Valley was originally loess, then deposited as sediment.
Jorymania – Politics and Propaganda
How did Jory soil sited in the Red Hills of Dundee reach its current status as the preeminent climat for Pinot Noir? For the answer, we have to take a hard look at who is on Jory, and who stands to benefit, in wine sales and property values, from promoting Jory as the best. Even Oregon’s 2011 Legislature was recruited to the myopic task, adopting Jory as the Official State Soil. David Lett chose Jory soil to pursue his dream of making the perfect American Pinot Noir. Others to join his quest early on included his neighbor Bill Blosser, master of politics and propaganda.
Two seminal events occurred that could have upset what I consider a rush to judgment. The first was Lett’s stunning tenth place in the 1979 Wine Olympics in Paris. The wine was the 1975 South Block Reserve Pinot Noir. Not satisfied with conduct of the competition, Robert Drouhin restaged the event in Burgundy. In that second judging, Eyrie Vineyards’ 1975 South Block Reserve finished second to Drouhin’s 1959 Chambolle-Musigny.
In a way, Lett’s 1975 South Block wine was a one-trick pony. Although he produced some wonderful wines over the years, Lett was unable to duplicate, or come close to, the 1975 South Block achievement
Seven years later, and in response to a wine publication interview where I cited several award-winning Pinot Noir and their soils, it was an angry David Lett who confronted me and adamantly insisted that the soil was not Jory. When I pressed him for the soil’s identity, he refused to answer. So, here was the first building block of the reputation of Jory soil in the Dundee Hills climat. Only, according to Lett himself, it was not true!
The second seminal event was the Oregon-Burgundy Challenge Tasting, staged by the International Wine Center in NYC in 1985. It was the brainchild of Stephen Cary, then operating a national distributorship for about 10 Oregon wineries. The blind tasting featured Cary’s portfolio of Pinot Noir from the 1983 Oregon vintage versus the 1983 Burgundy Pinot Noir that were available in the American market at that time. As I recall, Oregon Pinot Noir claimed the first three or four places in the event and also dominated the second five.
It is a little-known fact that three of those Oregon Pinot Noir were made from the same block of grapes at Hyland Vineyards, some thirteen miles southwest of the Dundee Hills. The soil was Jory, to be sure, but the climat was not the Red Hills of Dundee. The block was in the runout at the bottom of the slope, no doubt the result of a long-ago landslide. The slope was like a potato chip, partly south, some on the flat, and a little slightly north-facing. What a shock that will be to the committed south-slopers.
The wine was made in a single batch by Bob McRitchie, winemaker at Sokol-Blosser, It was a three-way partnership with Veritas Winery (now defunct) and Yamhill Valley Vineyards, as a demonstration of what could be accomplished by applying what were then considered revolutionary tactics in the vineyard . . . things like crop reduction and leaf pulling. They worked.
My source for this story was Jack Trenhaille, one of the four partners in Hyland Vineyards and the one who did most of the hands-on work. During a visit to Hyland in 1986 to pick up some vine cuttings, I had asked where the vines were located, not wanting to pass up an opportunity the learn something. Trenhaille walked me through the block, and the story just tumbled out. Jack and I both were serving on the Oregon Winegrowers State Board at the time, so we were not strangers.
Knudsen-Erath took the fourth spot in New York, and its Pinot Noir was from Jory soil on an ESE slope at the winery in the Dundee Hills. Finally, we have a confirmation of Dundee Hills Jory’s superiority. Today, Cary is winemaker at Yamhill Valley Vineyards, and one of the truly unsung heroes of Oregon’s wine history. It was he who broke down the barriers and got Oregon’s young wineries into major metropolitan market s like New York, Boston and Chicago.
Since my claims are based on memory, they are subject to revision. As we visit, the International Wine Center is searching their archives, scattered by three moves and 25 years of history. When I receive the official competition results, any corrections will be posted here.
Please don’t misunderstand what I am saying. There have been plenty of outstanding Pinot Noir grown on Jory soil, inside and outside of the Dundee Hills. What I am questioning is the rush to judgment. We have been at it only about 45 years. Burgundy has been doing trial-and-error for some 1,400 years. To assume that one of the first guys to land on Oregon soil picked the ultimate best climat is breathtakingly presumptuous.
It is awesome, however, how control of the industry’s megaphone and strong promotion have parlayed Jory into its current position of prominence. Jorymania sparked a land rush and ran vineyard land prices from $3,000 up to $18,000 an acre. Earnest producers came, but so did land speculators.
There is a mesmerizing amount of monkey see-monkey do in the winemaking business.
Technical (see Figure 2 for a graphical depiction of soil horizons and some their properties): Jory has a high cation exchange capacity. It relates to the high clay percent, and means a large number of nutrient ions is available to the vine. But, the high clay content, reaching above 50 percent, is also a liability, because it inhibits deep root penetration.
Willakenzie soils are discovered.
Because of strong winemaking performances by Laurent Montalieu (Willakenzie Estate Vineyards and Solena/Grand Cru Estate) and Ken Wright, Lynn Penner-Ash, Andrew Rich, Tony Soter and many other wineries utilizing Shea Vineyards grapes, Willakenzie soils quickly established a reputation for Pinot Noir quality. Included are vineyards on Ribbon Ridge: Beaux Fréres, Brickhouse and Chehalem. Another factor was winemakers operating out of Oregon’s first condominium winery, Carlton Winemakers Studio, the brainchild of Seattle developer, Ned Lumpkin. In essence, Willakenzie soil’s ascendency is winemaker-driven.
All along the south slope of Chehalem Mountain, and the next land prominence to its west, there is a mix of Willakenzie and Woodburn soils. This whole area resulted from crustal folding then landslides, as the sedimentary soils deposited by the floods became saturated with rainwater, were thus unstable, and were jolted by earthquakes.
Technical (see Figure 2): Willakenzie is a sedimentary soil, full of gravel and rocks transported by the Missoula Floods. Its disadvantage is high permeability and low water-holding capacity. Water runs through it “like crap through a goose,” as General George Patton might have said. It requires irrigation. Willakenzie is the shallowest rooting soil considered here, with bedrock intruding at 36 inches typically.
The popularity of Willakenzie soils has transformed Carlton, a sleepy little farm town, into a pulsating center of wine interest, complete with trendy restaurants, art shops, wineries and tasting rooms. Ken Wright has been a key player in the town’s development.
What do wine consumers like?
A Newberg winery (Yamhill County), Et Fille, makes single-soil bottlings of Pinot Noir. At tasting events, they offer wines from the three Yamhill County soils, Jory, Laurelwood and Willakenzie, side-by-side for comparison. According to Jessica Mozeico-Blair, co-owner, tasters break about even in preference; each soil draws equal support.
Wait a minute! If Jory is clearly the champion, and the 2011 Oregon Legislature is convinced it is, then why do consumers not reflect this hierarchy in expressing their preferences? Of course, we’re not dealing with a statistically-structured sample in Mozeico-Blair’s experience, and many variables have not been controlled, but there should be some general indication of superiority.
What about Washington County soils?
Throughout 1970-1995, several of the dozen Washington County wineries achieved excellence in Pinot Noir. The accomplishments are largely unheralded because Washington County’s wineries have not enjoyed the industry megaphone as Yamhill County wineries have. Here are some of the facts:
- 1980s and 1990s – Some of the best Pinot Noir grapes used by Ponzi came from Jim Taylor’s Five Mountains Vineyard (Iowa Hill south of Hillsboro, Laurelwood soil on southeast slope. Pommard clone.) Ponzi has always ranked as one of Oregon’s best Pinot Noir producers. The winery has chosen, however, to ally itself with Dundee’s top wineries moreso than with Washington County’s.
- 1980s until about 1995 – Elk Cove Vineyards’ single vineyard bottlings from Sandy Reece’s Wind Hill Vineyards (Banks, Laurelwood soil on south slope, Pommard clone) repeatedly ranked among Oregon’s best, outpointing Elk Cove’s also single vineyard bottlings from Dundee Hills Vineyards (Jory soil on south slope) in Wine Spectator reviews.
- 1983 – Oak Knoll 1980 Pinot Noir won Gold and Best of Show at Oregon State Fair. Legendary winemaking consultant André Tchelistcheff, one of the judges and the “Dean of American Winemakers,” called it the ”best American-made Pinot Noir he’d ever tasted.” The grapes came mostly from Dion Vineyards (Iowa Hill south of Hillsboro, Laurelwood soils on a south slope, almost ½ and ½ Pommard and Weydenswil clones, with a small portion from a vineyard in Hood River. Winemaker: Ron Vuylsteke.
- 1984 – Tualatin Vineyards 1980 Pinot wins Best Pinot Noir in the World at the London International Wine Competition. Bill Fuller was the winemaker. (Estate vineyard north of Forest Grove now owned by Willamette Valley Vineyards, south slope on Cornelius soil. All Pommard clone, which is true of all but the Oak Knoll 1980 in these examples. The Dijon clones” would not be available for planting until almost ten years later)
- 1989-1991 – newcomer Montinore Vineyards was ranked among Oregon’s top three Pinot Noir by Wine Spectator magazine. The wines were made from 6-9 year old vines, normally considered too young to produce top quality wines. The wines were all 1988-1991 Winemakers Reserve Pinot Noir (½ and ½ from Blocks 7 and 3. Block 7 is close-planted and the first in America trained in traditional Burgundy style, southeast slope; Block 3 is on an east slope, and trained in the typical Oregon upright canopy style. Both are Pommard clone. Both are about 20% Laurelwood and 80% Cornelius.). Winemaker: Jeff Lamy.
- 1993 – One of those wines, Montinore 1990 Winemakers Reserve Pinot Noir, won Gold for Pinot Noir and Governor’s Trophy for Best of Show Red Wine at Oregon State Fair.
It is apparent from this list, that Cornelius soil has been overlooked.
Technical (see Figure 2): Cornelius and Laurelwood are very similar in pH to Jory, but are not encumbered by sub-5.0 readings below 5 feet of depth. The clay content is adequate, as is the cation exchange capacity (CEC). The CEC of Cornelius runs 17.2-23.6, 50-65% of Jory’s, but that is more than adequate for grapevines. The unrestricted rooting depth of both soils compared with Jory and Willakenzie, is a significant advantage should there be a severe drought in August and September.
How do we know that Cornelius and Laurelwood soils are as deep as 200 feet? In 1984, a geophysical research company from Houston ran their big thumper across Montinore, from northwest to southeast, seeking natural gas. They gave us a detailed look at the profile of the soils we’re talking about, mostly Cornelius and some Laurelwood, along a 1.3-mile line.
Which Oregon soil is most like those of Burgundy’s Cote d’Or?
The answer is simple: none of them!
All up and down the famous Côte d’Or, the soils are underlain by Oolitic and other limestone strata. Their origin is a massive ancient seabed, loaded with oysters and other crustaceans. The shells formed the calcium carbonate that dominates this area. There were no lava flows like Oregon’s Columbia River Basalt to cover it up. The best place to view the pink Comblanchien marble is a quarry just south of Nuits St. Georges. Examples can be found everywhere in Burgundy, in floors, walls, doorsteps and monuments.
Near the surface, where most of the vineroots are, is a mix of limestone that has crumbled off of the edge of the strata and topsoil that is largely composed of the detritus from grapevines and grape solids. The vines are growing in their ancestors’ remains.
These limestone soils are called calcareous. They are alkaline. The soil pH runs 8.2-8.4.
Vive la difference!
Why is it that Oregon’s acidic soils produce Pinot Noir so similar to those of the Côte d’Or? Oregon’s soil pHs run in the range of 5.5-6.0, compared with the Côte d’Or’s typically alkaline 8.2-8.4. Logic says that this discrepancy should result in wines that taste different. And yet, tasters in blind tastings are frequently unable to distinguish between the two. Almost always, they easily identify California-produced Pinot Noir.
Here is another comparison. Back when I was blind tasting wines every week, I played the game of “guessing” which Pinot Noir were grown in Washington County versus those from Yamhill County. Most of the time (about 95%), I was able to identify them correctly. Most Yamhill County (and Polk, too) Pinot Noir exhibited red fruit flavors and aromas (raspberries, red cherries, strawberries, cola, chocolate cinnamon). Washington County Pinot Noir, on the other hand, showed black fruit characters (blackberries, dark cherries, dark plums, anise, licorice to the point of “tarry” and pepper). That was a simpler time, before the Dijon clones had arrived in America. The only clonal selections were mostly Pommard, some Weydenswil.
The red fruit versus black fruit divide was the same difference that is typical, in general, of Volnay Pinot Noir as compared with those of Côte de Nuits, respectively, in Burgundy. And, such simplification has always been inexact for Burgundy . . . or should we say, for Pinot Noir itself. In Côtes de Beaune, the sturdy Pommard wines grow almost next door to the luscious Volnays. At Vosne, the powerful La Tâche grows a mere stone’s throw away from voluptuous Richebourg and Romanée St. Vivant. Could clones make such a difference?
The foregoing does not imply that Côte de Nuits wines are superior to the Côte de Beaune wines of Volnay, even though all but one of the red Burgundy Grand Cru Appellations are in Côte de Nuits. Volnay was offered some opportunities for Grand Cru status, particularly Clos des Chênes, Les Caillerets and Clos des Soixante Ouvrées. Why that did not happen is lost somewhere in the murky world of industry politics.
Sources consulted in preparation of this post:
- Burgundy, 2nd Edition; Anthony Hanson, MW; Faber and Faber Limited; London; 1995.
- In Search of Ancient Oregon, A Geologic and Natural History; Helen Morris Bishop; Timber Press. 2008.
- Making Sense of Burgundy; Matt Kramer; Quill-William Morrow & Co., Inc., New York.
- Oregon: A Geologic History; wall map by Ian P. Madin, Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries; 2009.
- Soil Surveys of Marion County, Polk County, Yamhill Area, and Washington County Oregon; USDA Soil Conservation Service; 1982 for all but Yamhill Area, which was 1974.
- Soils: An Introduction to Soils and Plant Growth, 5th Edition; Donahue, Miller and Shickluna; Prentice-Hall, Inc. Englewood Cliffs, NJ; 1958.
- Terrroir: The Role of Geology, Climate, and Culture in The Making of French Wines; Octopus Publishing Group Ltd., London,1998; U.S. edition, University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles and Wine Appreciation Guild, 1999; James E Wilson, Geologist with cooperation of the Geology Department at University of Burgundy.