He also built towers in the wilderness and dug many cisterns, because he had much livestock in the foothills and in the plain. He had people working his fields and vineyards in the hills and in the fertile lands, for he loved the soil. 2 Chronicles 26:10
Soil is my new bestie! One thing I like about my bestie is that she is so hardworking. Soil plays many roles in the health and happiness of grape vines and the people who love them (and the people who happy imbibe their wines). Hey Mon! Dirt has more jobs than the Jamaican family from In Living Color.
Here are my top ten vineyard soil job descriptions:
10. Recycling Plant Foreman: With the help of compost, worms and other mini plant workers, dirt is the world’s first and best recycling plant. The crew of tiny organisms eat waste of all kinds and turn it into humus. My fellow home gardeners will appreciate this! We keep everything – the tops of carrots, radishes, beets and strawberries, banana peels, etc – to feed our lovely worms who in turn feed our lovely plants. That also means less waste goes to landfills. Yay dirt!
9. Head of Pest Control: Some soil helps protect vines from pests. Ever hear the story of the Phylloxera Vastatrix? This tiny little bug (we’ll call him Phyll) is the sworn arch nemesis of our beloved grapevines. In the late 19th century, Phyll and his army laid siege to vineyards all across Europe and almost succeeded in depriving us of the joy of French, Italian, German and Spanish wines. He subsequently reeked havoc in other parts of the word. The recognized hero of this epidemic was (and still is) the rootstock of an American species of grapevines onto which the Vinifera species was grafted. Phyll and them don’t like the taste of American vine wood! But the unsung hero here is soil. We learned that Phyll and fam cannot thrive in sand and schist, so any vines planted in soil that is composed mostly of those types never had to be grafted. And no pesticides necessary!
8. Water Manager: Some soil is prized for drainage – pebbles and gravel, for example. Vine growers like this property because it encourages vines to grow deeper roots. The most obvious benefit here is that the vines will anchor better. But also, when the roots dig deeper, they can tap a treasure trove of minerals and nutrients way down there in the subsoil and even access underground water systems. Also, the vines, which in these types of soil are considered to be under stress, produce less foliage and instead focus all their love on their grapes. The soil in Bordeaux does this job par excellence. In some regions where vines have been growing for decades, the roots are longer than the vines are tall!
7. Tanning Salon Operator: Brightly colored soils, like our beloved Kimmeridgian limestone, reflect sunlight so the lower leaves on the vines also get light from below to photosynthesize and grapes get some assistance ripening. We also find this in the sparkly mixed gravels of the Ribeiro region of Spain.
6. Radiator: In the Châteauneuf-du-Pape AOP in the Southern Rhône, smooth light colored, round pudding stones called Galets that make up the top layer of soil all across the vineyard collect lots of heat from the hot summer sun during the day and they release it at night when the temperature drops so vines don’t get too chilly. Only in the south of France can a plant live such a luxurious life!
5. Storage Unit: The Kimmeridgian soils that are home to the vines of Champagne, the Loire Valley and Burgundy regions have stored marine fossils of shellfish from many ages ago. Vines are happily nourished by a wealth of nutrients from those very fossils.
4. Assistant Vineyard Manager: Soil can help control ripening by managing temperature from below close to where the grape bunches hang. They can also control the amount of acid grapes will have at harvest, which will impact the structure of finished wines. For example high acidity in granite reduces the acidity in the grapes grown in it but also keeps cool and helps grapes still retain some acidity by slowing down ripening.
3. Vineyard Beautification: The soil can be one of the most unique visual features in a vineyard. An example of striking vineyard soil is the viticultural red carpet in Australia called the Terra Rosa, which makes for great for wine country photo ops!
2. Air Conditioning: While some soils are good at retaining and radiating heat onto vines from below, others that are fine, tightly packed and water retentive, like chalk, are good at keeping the vines cool from below. This is how soil can help slow down ripening.
1. Nutrient Marketplace: There’s a lot of nutrition in dirt, remember that the next time you smack your toddler’s hand for putting some of it in her mouth! All jokes aside, the soil that vines thrive in, if allowed to do what it does without any “additives”, provides all the minerals and nutrients (including nitrogen) a vine could need to not only sustain life, but to produce great fruit and in turn, as long as the winemaker has skills, great wine. The subsoil is like an organic GNC. Our friend the noble worm is the plant manager. He works hard to make sure that any available detritus is turned into nutrient rich supplements that plants can thrive on. Nutrients also come from decaying fossils, as we saw earlier.
See? Dirt doesn’t just lie around, she just makes the job look easy! That’s the mark of a true professional.