OWP’s Got All the Dirt

by Hilary Berg, OWP Editor

When I was a little girl, I loved playing in the dirt. While I did adore my Barbies, I also delighted in making what my sisters and I called “nature stew” — made of twigs, acorns, pine needles, grass, maybe a flower petal or two, dirt, etc. We would mix the concoction in the bed of our Radio Flyer and savor its aesthetics and take in its wonderful, earthy smell that still lingers in my olfactory memory.

These days, I get the same satisfaction by cultivating the ingredients for an edible version. Growing tomatoes, peppers, onions, basil, broccoli, etc., allows me the opportunity to get my hands covered, once again, with the good stuff. 

Now, as a winery owner, I have even more appreciation for dirt. In the wine biz, it’s called “terroir.” Well, O.K., it’s more than just the soil. Terroir refers to the complete natural environment in which vines are grown, including topography, climate, as well as soil. Wines made from fruit grown in a particular vineyard should impart that site’s terroir.

While terroir can vary from hillside to hillside, block to block, it helps to master the general differences from region to region by studying AVAs.

American Viticultural Areas were created in 1978 to identify our nation’s wines in a fashion similar to the French appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC) system. Unlike the French regulations, however, the rules governing AVAs — under the jurisdiction of Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) — are a bit more forgiving. A French AOC identifies the grape varieties that may be grown in a geographic area, the maximum production per acre, the minimum level of alcohol required for wines produced in the area and so on. The only requirement for wine with an AVA designation on the label is that 85 percent of the grapes must be grown in that specified region.

AVAs exist through the hard work and research of dedicated growers who petition the TTB for AVA approval. Characteristics such as an area’s topography, soil type, climate, elevation and, to some extent, historical precedent are taken into consideration.

Oregon now has 16 such regions. Most exist within the Willamette Valley and Southern Oregon AVAs, but others like the Columbia Gorge and Oregon’s newest, Snake River Valley, exist on their own. In the story “Learn Your AVAs,”  each area has it’s own story.

At the end of each region (with the exception of a couple), you will find a website for each AVA. I encourage you to visit these sites and get to know the vineyards and wineries that call these AVAs home. There are often group events that give you, the consumer, an opportunity to experience terroir through tasting and evaluation. It is the hope of many winemakers that you will taste the earth — among other notes — with each wine.

When you discover the distinct taste that is terroir, I hope it brings you the same amount of joy my nature stew brought me as a child. Like my good times in the backyard, I connected to the earth; and a wine that successfully makes the same connection is one to remember.

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