Terroir affects Oregon’s vineyards

What distinguishes Oregon’s wine from wine anywhere else? According to a Portland State University professor, it is something the French call terroir.

Dr. Scott Burns is no stranger to Yamhill County as he returned to speak to winemakers, vineyard owners and wine enthusiasts about his research titled, “The Mystery of Terroir in Oregon: The Relationship of Geology, Soil and Climate to Wine.”

Burns treated Linfield College to his 113th lecture focusing on the topic of terroir, which he roughly defines as “the taste of the place,” April 30 in T.J. Day Hall.

Speaking on his own history with wine and the Northwest, Burns revealed his family roots in Yamhill County that stretch back 150 years.

“I’ve been involved in wines for forever,” Burns said.

Burns attended Stanford University, which put him in the new developing wine area of the Napa Valley.

Burns started teaching in Switzerland as an assistant professor, located in the heart of wine country in Switzerland and was able to teach geology, chemistry and biology by making wine with his students.

When Burns returned to Oregon, he started teaching at Portland State University in 1990. Although Burns was a geologist, he specialized in soil.

“I was very interested in the soils used in the vineyards,” Burns said.

Burns encountered many different tasting wines through his experiences traveling around the world.

“In visiting all the major wine making places in the world, I think [Oregon] is the best place in the world to taste terroir,” Burns said. “There are a lot of differences in the soil, which makes for different tastes in the wine in a short period of time.”

According to Burns, every bottle of wine is going to be different, based on seven factors. The first factor is grape type. The grape type determines the type of wine that can be made. The second factor is the geology.

Burns talked about just how much the geology of the vineyards matter.

Burns described the age and color of soil as playing a major role in the geology of wine making.

“The redder the soil, the better the soil,” Burns said. “The age of the soil determines the color of the soil.”

Third, the climate affects the terroir of each wine. Soil hydrology also plays a major role in the taste of the wine. Physiography affects the directions in which wine makers plant the grapes. In Oregon, the best physiography is south facing hills.

“These five factors are traditionally what the French call terroir,” Burns said, “But, there are also two other important factors.”

Burns also looks at the wine makers as a factor.

“Wine makers determine how the wine will be made, what will go into the wine and how long the wine will ferment,” Burns said.

The last factor he talked about is vineyard management. This determines what ways the rows of grapes will be planted and how the grapes will be grown.

“These are all important factors in the development of the wines,” Burns said.

Though the French have a solid definition of the term terroir, it is not the same for everyone. At the first North American Terroir Conference at the University of California-Davis, 300 people debated about the meaning of terroir.

“We drank huge amounts of wine, and we came up to no conclusion,” Burns said. “Everyone’s definition is different, but I really like the definition of the taste of the place.”

According to Burns, “terroirists” believe that wine is made up of 80 percent of the vineyard and 20 percent of the wine makers.

“It is my goal to turn you all into ‘terroirists,” Burns said.

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Kaylyn Peterson/
Sports editor

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