The soul of the soil – a quixotic search

Soil analysis results.

Soil analysis results.

Although I am neither prideful nor a generally proud person, I do pride myself on being rather intrepid and seeking a deeper understanding of the things around me. In some instances, this curiosity merely satisfies a pursuit of trivial factoids and minutia. In others, my quest for knowledge is rooted in a need for its practical application.

So it is with my vineyard and its soils. But more than amassing data, I like to have information: Meaningful, actionable information.

Conducting a chemical analysis of a vineyard’s soil aims to achieve just that. Knowing the pH, mineral and nitrogen content of my soils would guide me in managing the vineyard.

One would think so…

I have also tried to understand the general geology of the area around my vineyard as well as to read up on soils science (two good introductory sources here and here), but I think I will need to start at a more comprehensive text.

To be honest, though I’ve spoken to the viticulturist at the lab where my analysis was done, I can’t make heads or tails out of the data in the chart above. Suffice it to say that, pH aside, there is really nothing all that aberrant or dangerous about the soils of my vineyard. They are lighter, highly varied soils: sometimes silty, sometimes sandy, in other places rich in shales – typical for hillsides.

But the site’s pH is not all that problematic. Most of the Central Coast’s vineyards have soils with pHs in this range. Besides, my vines are growing quite vigorously, so the soils are clearly not hostile.

But this all brings me to the notion of terroir as the “soul of the soil”. I have to say that I find such metaphysical conceptualizations ridiculous.

Terroir, historically, originated from the French denomination system – wherein wines were identified by where they came from and not which grapes they were made of . At some point the term ‘vin de terroir’ came to use and meant that the wine wine from a particular place or territory and, from particular soils. This ultimately evolved into what we conceptualize terroir to be today. It is one of the savviest PR and branding concepts which says: there is an indescribable essence to wines from a particular locale that distinguishes them above others. And that essence is derived from some ephemeral element of that locale. Supposedly. Allegedly. Magically.

A vine is a biological organism whose functioning is governed, ultimately, by the laws of chemistry and physics. The same goes for the soil and the interaction of plant, climate and soil.

Beyond climate, photo period , geology and soil chemistry, local farming, harvesting and vinification practices determine much of regional character. This extends to microbiological factors: the yeast cultures which, over time, became dominant in certain cellars, migrated to vectors and pools outside the wineries (and back) and those fermentative species that thrive in the environment of a particular region and affect (or infect) the wines of a village (or appellation).

So the hallmarks of a specific terroir can be a set or aromatic characteristics, structural (tannin, acid, alcohol levels) characteristics or flaws (high VA, tons of brett, excessively high pH, etc.) regardless if they are introduced by a specific manipulation or intervention or a lack thereof. Essentially, the hallmarks or terroir can be whatever the region’s wine producers agree distinguishes their wines. So terroir hallmarks may not even be the product of a true, natural consequences of the interaction of soil, climate and plant physiology.

We may not understand all those laws and processes that make a particular region’s wines unique, but that does not mean they do not exist or are not exerting their effect (Stu Smith may hate me for writing those words, but I assure all readers that I do not bury cow horns or hang crystals). However, to ascribe some ethereal force to the interaction of soil and plant is just plain magical thinking.

If any geologists or soil scientist (or experienced vineyardists) find themselves reading this post and have any elaboration on my soil analysis, I welcome all thoughts, comments, insights and interpretations.



Father, husband, physician, amateur guitarist, wine lover, wine writer, wine grower and wine maker trying to do it all within eye shot of downtown Los Angeles.
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