The Dirt on Hudson Valley Terroir: The Wine Beneath Your feet

By Debbie Gioquindo / Photography By Richard Israel | March 20, 2017
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A Hudson Valley Winery
Stone soup. Geology and history conspired to leave the valley with a grab bag of shale, slate, schist and limestone.

No getting around it: That lovely wine in your pristine glass owes a big debt to dirt.

Soil, the literal foundation of vineyards, plays a crucial role in a wine’s eventual character. So do rainfall, drainage, sun exposure, slope, even wind. The French like to bundle these influences up, with the whole greater than the parts, so to speak, captured in the word terroir.

That terroir, dirt on up, is the reason a Pinot Noir from the Hudson Valley and a Pinot Noir from Burgundy, France, or Sonoma, California, will taste similar yet quite different. It’s also the reason why the same grapes growing in two different parts of a vineyard can vary in taste, secondary flavors and/or texture.

Many people don’t realize that the Hudson Valley is one of the most complex geological regions of the world. You have the steep Palisades that form a conduit for the maritime air and weather generated by the Atlantic Ocean. The Hudson River itself is a tidal estuary, responsible for glacial deposits of shale, slate, schist and limestone in the soil throughout the region. Here are three soil types widely found in the Hudson Valley:

A statue of a woman holding grapes

Castile soil is made up of shale, sandstone, clay and quartz conglomerate. The small stones and shale allow Castile to drain quickly and retain heat. Vines in this soil tend to foster lighter tannins and good aromatics.

Cayuga soil is characterized by a gravelly loam, derived from a 10,000-year-old glacier deposit which is higher in sand and lower in clay but has a lot of quartz scattered throughout its profile. Loam is very fertile and can cause vineyards to be vigorous, which means growers may need to prune aggressively.

Churchville is a heavier clay soil that doesn’t drain as well as others and tends to retain water. These wines will be bold in flavor and color.

One of the great ironies of wine is that the best wines often come from the most forbidding soils. Survival is not an issue—grapes are hardy like weeds. But the balance of all those terroir factors, in and around the soil, can mean everything as vintners aim to keep the vines healthy but “stressed” throughout the growing season to produce a crop of optimum size and ripeness.

And, fortunately, winegrowers have developed some time-honored ways to help control their vines. It starts with choosing where to plant—picking the right sites for the right grape varieties. Also crucial is the choice of rootstock. Different rootstock will grow differently in different types of soil—very dry, sandy soil treats a vine much differently than dense clay. Matt Spaccarelli, winemaker at Benmarl Winery and Fjord Vineyards, compares rootstock to shoes: If you go to the beach you wear sandals; a mountain hike calls for boots. Different soil structures will affect how the roots travel down into the earth and bring water and nutrients to the vine.

Next time you are in a vineyard, find out what you are standing on. There is a great app for your phone called SoilWeb. It uses GPS to match your location to USDA-NRCS soil survey data and gives you an image of the soil composition under your feet. That’s one new way to know where you stand in the Hudson Valley.

SoilWeb is available on iTunes and the Google Play store.

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