Soil: Wine’s X Factor

When we think about all the factors that shape our experience of wine – climate conditions, sun exposure, irrigation, yeast selection, vine treatments, natural and chemical additives – it is easy to conjure up an image of vineyards, barrels of wine fermenting in a cellar, a winemaker testing for quality and deciding when to bottle the latest vintage.

What is harder to imagine is another factor, literally millions of years in the making, determined long before wine – or even humans – existed on the earth: soil.

How much impact does soil really have on a wine, and how can we understand that impact?

Luiz Alberto, writer behind The Wine Hub blog and founder of the #winelover virtual community, explains it this way: “Arguably, the 2 most important factors of a soil, for the purpose of growing grapes and making wine, are its structure and texture. These two components will cause a vine to grow and produce grapes differently. In principle, the percentages of clay, sand, silt, loam, and rock present in the soil will determine the grape varieties that would be well suited to produce grapes of the best quality for that specific site.”

According to Alberto, the composition of the soil determines which wines are best suited to a specific sites, which is why certain regions and even certain plots of land come to be closely associated with a specific grape variety.

Soil may be one of the reasons why Le Marche is the ideal home of the Verdicchio grape – and one of the factors that makes Pievalta’s San Paolo Castelli di Jesi Verdicchio Riserva DOCG so exquisite.

The San Paolo vineyard is located on Monte Follonica in the town of Cupramontana, in the province of Ancona, indicated in light blue on this map:

Mappa_delle_Vigne draw2

The soils there are rather loose, characterized by sandstone that dates back to the Pliocene era – 2.5-5.3 million years ago. In antiquity, the area was covered by the Adriatic sea, and the currents of sand that formed these soils came mostly from the Alpine range.

According to the “Strada del Gusto” website of the comune of Cupramontana, the grapes of this zone maintain a bright freshness and intriguing salinity. This helps explain the principal characteristics of Riserva San Paolo; these soils yield extremely complex wines, with a long finish and deep notes of ripe fruit and honey.

While there are some who dispute the importance of soil in shaping the profile of a wine, others, like Alberto, agree that the uniqueness of each plot of soil is that certain X factor that makes great wines truly one-of-a-kind:

“Even if some specialists will argue that the influence of the soil is not as dramatic in wine quality as those presented by the climatic conditions of a region … to a certain extent soil can influence wine quality with its own positive or negative characteristics and the viticultural practices used to optimize the positive ones, and reduce or even eliminate the negative traits,” Alberto writes.

In the case of Pievalta, nature and culture combine in a remarkable way: methodical biodynamic winemaking principles put into practice on a territory characterized by ancient, high quality soils perfectly suited to Le Marche’s native grapes.


Pinot Noir harvest has begun in Franciacorta

franciacorta harvest 2013

Barone Pizzini manager Silvano Brescianini (vice president of the Franciacorta consortium) sent these photos today.

The panorama shot is a great example of Franciacorta’s unique topography: note the morainic hills (glacial debris) that violently shoot up from the landscape.

And note also the cloud cover, created in part by the maritime influence of Lake Iseo: it helps to keep the berries cool in these final days of ripening, helping to develop the nuanced aromatic character of the wines made there.

And feast your eyes on these Pinot Nero babies (below)!

pinot noir harvest italy 2013

Darrell Corti on Franciacorta’s beauty and topography

The latest installment in our continuing series of posts featuring “Darrell Corti on Franciacorta.”

franciacorta landscape

The Franciacorta area is quite pretty.

Seen from Monte Alto, it appears to be a mosaic of different agricultures with blotches of modern life showing up in the form of industrial complexes with their rather graceless forms of concrete and asphalt.

Vines have been here since prehistory. Roman authors had already praised the area’s vines and due to the great influence of various monastic centers, Franciacorta has had a long tradition of grape growing and wine making.

Two areas, Cellatica and Botticino, at the south-eastern end of Franciacorta, were some of the first appellations recognized in the late 1960s by the then newly established Italian system of DOC controls. They both form part of Franciacorta’s territory, but have their own appellations.

Towards the middle of the 1800s, a famous wine the “bordo magher” (Bordeaux magro), sold by nobles having vineyards in Franciacorta, was nothing other than an unblended Cabernet Franc wine.

To anyone used to seeing different vine growing areas, usually a monoculture as in Burgundy or Bordeaux — even the Rhine region — Franciacorta appears quite different.

There are extension of vineyards, but not enormous expanses. The entire viticultural area of Franciacorta is less than 1,300 hectares of land and this amount competes with other crops, cereals and such for space. At one time, the production of silk was more imprtant than wine, and plantings of mulberry trees along cultivation perimeters were very important.

Darrell Corti on Franciacorta geography

The latest installment in our continuing series of posts featuring “Darrell Corti on Franciacorta.”

lago di iseo

Above: The Lago d’Iseo, Lake Iseo.

The area is not large. It is well circumscribed since the geological features of the area are physical boundaries which have distinguishing features. All good viticultural areas have the characteristics in common.

To the north of Franciacorta is the Lago d’Iseo, an alpine lake of some 24 square miles in size, holding Monte Lago, Europe’s largest lake island.

The southern end is bordered by Monte Orfano, a brooding block of terrain left by glacial erosion which produced the area.

To the east and west are the lateral boundaries of Ponte Alto and the Oglio River exiting from the Lago d’Iseo on the west and the massif of Monte Faeto to the east.

Jutting out from the plain as it does, this land mass seems to presage its name, since “orfano” in Italian means “orphan”, and orphan-like it appears with no other land mass around it.