The Question of Terroir

In the study of wine, one often runs across the term terroir, particularly when the discussion revolves around wines from the Old World.  Wines from the famed region of Burgundy can rarely be brought up in conversation without mention of terroir (for an example, refer to the New York Times article from 2011 on Burgundy Terroir).  Terroir is a french term which refers to the unique characteristics of a certain place, the components of which are geography, geology and climate.  It is said that these unique elements can lend distinct characteristics to a wine (or any agricultural product, for that matter) which add a certain measure of quality to the product itself.  In the case of Old World products, terroir has become a well-touted selling point, but one that is surprisingly hard to define in specific, quantifiable terms.

Iowa has been among the agricultural leaders of the United States for years.  Clearly there is something special about this state. But does terroir have any place in the discussion about Iowa wine?  Does Iowa have a distinct terroir?

Iowa Decanted decided to take the question to the experts, and the answers we received were far different from the otherworldly and oft-times vague or confusing descriptions of terroir we see coming from overseas.  Instead what we got was good old fashioned Iowa straight-talk, clear cut answers from experienced agriculturalists and oenophiles whose confidence was born of many hours of labor in the vineyard and with the tasting glass.

Michael White, viticulture field specialist at Iowa State University’s viticulture extension program leaves the romanticized concept of terroir by the wayside.  “I really do not put much weight in the concept of  ‘Terroir’  and its effect on wine,” wrote White in an email exchange with Iowa Decanted.  “It is an inflated term that is overly flouted.”  Instead, he says, differences in wine can be attributed to the unique cultivars Iowans grow.  And there are plenty of those.  As of this writing there are over 70 varietals listed on ISU Extension’s cold climate cultivar list.

Seth Miller of Cedar Valley Winery in Batavia, Iowa is hesitant to attribute characteristics in his wine to his specific terroir, but out of a lack of something worthy of comparison.  “I really can’t tell you that our our location and our soil is giving a licorice hint with a metallic finish or something,” said Miller.  “We’re making a lot of wine that others in Iowa are not making.  There’s not very many comparables.  I really haven’t been able to line up twenty different varieties that are similar to what we make and make distinctions like that.”

Michael Vincent of Wooden Wheel Vineyards in Keota isn’t hesitant to use the term terroir, but in a strictly scientific sense, and in reference to the makeup of his particular plot of land.  But, like White and Miller, the conversation about terroir is a relatively minor point in a longer conversation about the grapes themselves.  “One must consider his own specific location and his terroir.  On our farm we have soil types that range from Mahaska with a 0% slope to Lindley which has a 10% slope.  Our vineyard is primarily [Ladoga] soil with a 2-4% slope,” wrote Vincent, in response to Iowa Decanted’s inquiry.  “The climate, weather and soil of SE Iowa – these are all critical factors in our varietal selection.”

In other words, the specific makeup of the land, or terroir, doesn’t influence the quality of the finished wine by infusing it with some unique characteristics, rather the terroir simply informs the grower about how and what he or she will grow.

ISU Extension offers potential growers many resources in an effort to help them understand the relationship between the specificities of the land and grape-growing.  Among these is a document which urges growers to ‘carefully and honestly analyse site liabilities and assets.’  This is reasonable advice since the makeup of Iowa is actually quite varied.  By inspecting a soil region map of Iowa (such as the NRCS soil regions map), one will notice 22 distinct regions spread across the state.  The DNR’s Bedrock Geologic Map is equally as diverse.  Soil surveys, like the ones published on the NRCS website, reveal at a closer level just how divergent Iowa’s land can be.

Traditionally, grapes headed towards the wine press had to be grown in an environment with a long but not overly hot growing season, a short winter, an adequate amount of rainfall during the spring and early summer, dry conditions during the late summer and early fall, no late-spring frosts, and no early-fall frosts.  That meant the best place to grow the wine grapes of the world were in Mediterranean or Marine West Coast climates (a resource for the understanding of how geography affects wine growing, see Brian J. Sommers’ The Geography of Wine).  But in recent years breeders have produced a wide variety of new wine grape cultivars which can survive, and even thrive, in the mid-west’s more intemperate climates.  With a little research growers can approach their vineyard plan in a strategic manner by finding and planting cultivars which are adapted to local growing conditions.

“In general terms being further south allows us to look at some varieties not grown in areas further north, like Noiret, which is believed to be cold tolerant to -15F compared to Marquette (which we also grow) that can be winter hardy down to -35F and is grown in both Iowa and Minnesota,” wrote Michael Vincent of Wooden Wheel Vineyards.

“On the climate map we have a little area in southeast iowa that juts up from Missouri and so we kind of have the climate down here that northern Missouri gets, the rest of Iowa does not get.  So that’s really benefited our winery in particular because we kind of push the limits on the varieties of grapes that we’re growing,” said Seth Miller of Cedar Valley Winery.  “It gets too cold for our grape vines to be grown in other areas of the state and they will either die out because of the low freezing temperatures during the year or the growing season is not long enough for the particular grapes that we grow to ripen out.  And one particular variety that we grow is Cynthiana.  It’s a native American grape that makes a really great full-bodied dry red wine.  They grow it a lot down in Missouri, over in Virginia, [and] some of the southern states.”

ISU’s Michael White acknowledges that certain elements of Iowa’s soil can influence its wines but, in contrast to the viticulturalists and winemakers of the Old World, does so without attributing its terroir or alluding to other unquantifiable forces.  “Our winemakers do tend to deal with higher levels of potassium and nitrogen due to our highly fertile soils,” wrote White.  “Nitrogen is good for the fermentation and the potassium tend to increase the tartrates in our wine and increases the pH higher than we, the winemaker, would like.”

Not very dreamy, but luckily the magic of terroir isn’t what makes wine great – hard work, experience, and know-how make that happen, and Iowans seem to have plenty of that.