What exactly is “terroir” and what has it got to do with growing winegrapes? The literal French definition of terroir (pronounced tehr-wahr) is soil.
Sounds rather esoteric, but it’s about as basic as it gets. Terroir is the dirt, subsoil, and rocks beneath. It is also the hours of sunlight and rain the ground receives, the slope, and weather patterns (wind, fog, frost) that occur in that particular place.
As grapevines sink their roots into the soil to take in minerals and moisture, they absorb in the characteristics of that ground.
“It’s everything that affects the grapes that isn’t man-imposed,” explained Eric Miller, founder and owner of the Chaddsford Winery, who oversees the growing of the grapes and production of the various vintages.
“Terroir is the fingerprint of the earth on the grapes that have grown there and the wine they become. It’s what gives wines their character, the reason all chardonnays or all cabernets do not taste the same.”
The signature characteristic of southeastern Pennsylvania is the gravely, silken loam soils. Millions of years ago after the Appalachian Mountains pushed up, the soils started to wash down.
“We’re at the foothills of the Appalachians and those are good soils, but we can’t plant on valley floors because they’re way too rich,” Miller explained. “That’s where corn and soybeans farmers are planting. If you give a vine too much to eat, it will spend all its time growing green growth, not grapes.”
Another key is the humid climate that is similar to Europe’s Mediterranean conditions. However, with an abundance of humidity there can be too much nutrient uptake.
“We are constantly ‘fighting vigor’ in our bigger plants,” Miller noted.
“Removing the shoots, shoot tips, leaves. We do it multiple times throughout the year.”
In grape growing regions of Napa and Sonoma, Calif., the climate is connected to the ocean so fog rolls in during the mornings, typically allowing sun from only noon to 5 p.m..
“In this region we have a lot of sun all day and warm nights which has a profound affect on the flavor of our wines,” Miller said. “The plant keeps on growing through the night, but it’s not photosynthesizing. That reduces acidity, so we get lower acidic wines. We have a wonderful natural balance to our wines in this region.”
Tucked off Route 1 just south of the tiny village of Chadds Ford, Eric and his wife Lee Miller purchased the 5-acre winery property in 1982 and planted the first crop of grapes in 1989. Over the past decade many of Chaddsford’s vintages have earned a steady stream of accolades, including a Bronze Medal for their 2006 Miller Estate Chardonnay and 2004 Merican from the 2008 San Francisco International Wine Competition.
Mid-September through October brings the harvest. This year an estimated 400 tons of grapes are being trucked to the winery. Chardonnay and Pinot Grigio ferment for several weeks then are aged in stainless steel vats for 9-12 months before bottling. Their red vintages are aged for anywhere from 9-18 months in oak barrels.
This year the Millers expect to produce 20,000 cases of wine.
Those numbers are down about 5,000 cases. The winery shuttered three retail locations at malls in the region, but the greatest impact can be attributed to an unexpected, savage hailstorm last August.
A hilly, south-sloping tract of 30 acres in Elverson, Pa., is home to the Miller Estate vineyard. It produces their primo blocks of Chardonnay, Syrah, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Barbera grapes. A pounding hailstorm ripped across the land, decimating the vineyard crop.
Even the wildlife seemed to disappear.
Miller recalls standing in the middle of his northern Chester County vineyard, the fields pockmarked with damage from the hail and drenched from the rains.
“Instead of being round, the hail was disc-shaped, like razor blades,”
Miller explained. “It came in from the west so anything that ran north-south was decimated. It turned leaves into confetti, slicing shoots and clusters of berries. It was devastating. A bigger question is will the vines survive.”
In the aftermath they immediately fertilized the vines and removed all the grapes, then sprayed to keep them clean of pests and mildew.
“I’m confident that some of the varieties will be fine, but the Syrah and Cabarnet are showing some very serious reactions. Instead of just scarring, they are callousing which tells me the vines are under big-time stress.”
The loss of the Elverson crop is estimated at $1 million and ended their growing season. Their Miller Estate ’08 vintages have been reduced by about 50 percent. The balance of their production is coming from grapes contracted from other growers last winter. Lee Miller says the winery will be able to produce a Proprietor’s Reserve Red.
“If we left the fruit on we might have lost the vines,” Lee Miller explained. “We can’t replace the Syrah and Chardonnay grown on old vines, but we can replenish the Cabernet and Merlot with other growers’ grapes.”
The Waltz family has been farming corn, soybeans and tobacco for five generations in Manheim, Lancaster County. Looking for a new direction, Jan and Kim Waltz planted grapes ten years ago.
“It’s a lot of work,” Waltz admitted. “Much more technical than growing tobacco and a year-round job. A lot of labor goes into making those vineyards look so nice.”
Chaddsford was his first customer. These days their 16-acre vineyard produces 80 tons of grapes annually and the Waltz family will be opening their own winery site in December. The Waltz’s Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon fruit is highly prized and sought after by the best wineries.
“Eric was looking for someone with a farming background and he gave me certain vines to plant,” Waltz recalled. “He was a big proponent of vinifera (European) grapes and was instrumental in pushing the quality level way ahead. He still champions it today.”
Waltz will be expanding his vineyard another five acres next spring, and that means he’ll be renting a backhoe and hiring a soil scientist to dig soil pits. Peep-holes into the secrets of the subterranean environment, it is where roots meet water and nutrients that nourish the vines and give his grapes the special character the ground’s terroir has to offer.
As for Eric Miller, he’s down in his winery’s cellar peeking into a vat of two-day old Merlot berries that came from Waltz’s vineyard. He shares a few of berries with guests before they’re completely broken down. The flavors pop in your mouth.
The Millers are tinkering with an idea that was inspired from a visit to the Alvaro Palacio vineyards in Priorat, Spain last summer. Palacio recently concocted a new vintage by blending native grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon, Franc, Syrah, Merlot, Grenache, and Tempernillo.
“It’s a wonderful story of the winemaker who wants bring all his children together that tells folks about not only the grapes, but the vineyard and the terroir,” related Lee Miller. “We will be blending one with our grapes next year.”