“To be a successful farmer one must first know the nature of the soil.” — Xenophon, Oeconomicus, 400 B.C.
“Consider what each soil will bear, and what each refuses.” – Virgil
As a student of agriculture and viticulture, I’ve been studying the topic of soils for a very long time. They’re usually not described with the same romantic language as say, the wines that are produced from them, but they carry a profound importance. To me, soil is the most influential factor in defining a wine region’s terroir; however their influence greatly transcends wine. Wendell Berry, the American novelist, poet and environmental activist, said it best:
“The soil is the great connector of lives, the source and destination of all. It is the healer and restorer and resurrector, by which disease passes into health, age into youth, and death into life. Without proper care for it we can have no community, because without proper care for it we can have no life.”
Books on wine are littered with in-depth descriptions of the soils of the Old World and the huge effect they have on wine quality. The French in particular are extremely well-versed about their vineyard soils and have done more than any other country in studying them. Their work led to one of the earliest approaches to soil classification, known as the French Soil Reference System (Référentiel Pédologique Français.) French winegrowers have known longer than anyone else how much influence a particular soil can have on wine quality.
When much of the New World talks about their winegrowing districts, there is often a dearth of information regarding soil types and their influence on wine. This is a distinctly New World philosophy where winemaking techniques often take precedence over inherent vineyard characteristics. Of course in the Cool New World we look at things much differently. In temperate winegrowing regions, soils can make or break a vintage. Although locally, many winemakers seem to talk more about the weather, the soil of Long Island is just as important – if not the most important factor in our regions’ success. Over the years, while wine writers swirled and spat over the famous Kimmeridgian chalky limestone of Chablis or the Yellow Tuffeau of the Loire Valley – I realized that little was being said about the soils of Long Island. I made up my mind a while ago to learn as much as I could about our local soil and the effects they produce on our wines. In my opinion, the understanding of our soil – and its expression in the glass – is the sine qua non.
Unlike most of the winegrowing soils of Europe, the soils that make up Long Island are (geologically speaking) relatively new – the last glacier of the Wisconsin Age receded from the region about 11,000 years age at the end of the Pleistocene Epoch. During this period the glaciers carried large quantities of rock, much of which was ground into gravel, sand and silt-sized soil particles. When the advancing ice stopped and began to melt, enormous quantities of water ran from the glacier, carrying and sorting the particles. Most of the material was sand and gravel which was deposited on a broad area in front of the moraine known as the glacial outwash plain. As the ice kept melting, most of this plain was covered by water or wind-deposited silt, clay and fine sand, making up the topsoil of the island.
The South Fork (The Hampton’s AVA) was made from the first glacial event formed by the Ronkonkoma moraine. South Fork soils are made up of 2 main associations – the heavier Bridgehampton-Haven association and the lighter, sandier Carver-Plymouth-Riverhead association. Carver soils are located along the northern edge of the South Fork near Peconic Bay and are mostly sand and gravel. The southern edge of the Hamptons contains the rich and darkly colored Bridgehampton Silt loams which have a much higher water-holding capacity and are considered the best soils of the Hamptons AVA.
The soils of the North Fork were created through the action of the Roanoke Point moraine which happened a few thousand years after the Ronkonkoma moraine. The North Fork is made up of two main soil associations: the Carver-Plymouth-Riverhead association which makes up the coastal perimeter along the Sound and Peconic Bay and the Haven-Riverhead association which makes up the heart of the region. It is in this central area of the North Fork where most local agriculture is found and where the majority of vineyards are planted. Haven-Riverhead Associations consist of Riverhead sandy loam and more importantly, Haven loam.
(You can see these distinctions on the USDA soil map: http://www.bedellcellars.com/images/Bedell_SoilMap.pdf.)
Haven Loam is the ascendant soil of the North Fork AVA and was formed when sand, silt and clay washed down from the top of the moraine towards Peconic Bay. The heavier sand dropped first making up most of the underbelly of the region. The lighter silt and clay remained closer to the surface and mixed with the remaining sand to form our topsoil –officially classified as a loam. Haven loam is slightly heavier and has a higher water-holding capacity than Riverhead sandy loam. Both soils lay over a bed of stratified sand and gravel, are well drained and have low natural fertility- the perfect soil for growing fine wine grapes. This layer cake of geology controls and limits the impact of the periodic summer rains, controlling vine growth and promoting grape ripening in the fall. It also acts as a purifying filter in our regional water-cycle.
Most vineyards on the North Fork are planted on Haven loam and to a lesser extent, Riverhead sandy loam. These soils provide significant differences in vine growth as well as wine style. Red wines grown on Haven loam have an expansive mid palate and can be dense and powerful while reds made from Riverhead sandy loams are often lighter in body and color with a pronounced elegance. Both these soils are naturally acidic and contain substantial amounts of aluminum and iron, lending to the minerality and “steeliness” tasters often find in our red wines. Some grape varieties will also show their preference for a particular soil with Merlot and Cabernet Franc growing better in Haven loam while Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon excel on the more arid Riverhead soils.
Major influences can also occur from subterranean stratification. In some vineyards, Haven loam is close to 4 feet deep while in others it’s barely 6 inches to the subsoil. This heterogeneity in the underground character of our land can create compelling differences in wine quality and style. For example, in vintages with lots of rain, vineyards growing over thinner topsoil will produce better wines than those grown over deep topsoil areas. In dry years, deep topsoil vines receive more water resulting in outstanding quality. Bands of clay scattered throughout the subsoil can also influence water relations to the vines. To know all the locations of these areas and understand their influence isn’t simple, but we’ll get there in time.
The reputation of North Fork wines is literally rooted in our soil. They are the result of thousands of years of deposition – made of particles that were brought here from as far away as northern Canada. The confluence of events that occurred during the glacial period created a soil that is completely unique. This place in time – this convergence of water, ice, sun and rock has left us the soils we live on. No other place in the world can duplicate what we have. The world renowned Australian viticulturist Dr. Richard Smart, on a rare trip to Long Island in February of 2000, stated that the soils of Long Island “are among the finest soils for grape growing that I have ever seen in the world.” With a benediction like that, we as winegrowers are obliged to learn as much as possible about our soils while simultaneously cherishing and stewarding this precious natural resource – the haven of where we live.
Definition of HAVEN (courtesy of merriam-webster.com)
1: harbor, port
2: a place of safety: refuge
3: a place offering favorable opportunities or conditions (a haven for artists)