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Columns – Wayne Belding

Current Affairs: Oceans in Motion
Wayne Belding
Nov 14, 2017

One important factor for many of the world's famous winegrowing regions is the influence of ocean currents. The movement of warm or cold waters off the coasts of continents can profoundly affect the local climates and growing conditions. Oceanic currents are found all over the globe and vary in size, importance, and strength, and some are key to understanding the distinction of winegrowing regions. There are seventeen major surface currents flowing through the oceans of the world. As students of wine, we focus on the cold ocean currents that affect the growing conditions of coastal vineyards.

Geology Among the Vines
Wayne Belding
Oct 3, 2017

Grape growers know that specific sites consistently yield better or lesser quality fruit. The site differences may range from a few rows in a vineyard block to a whole winegrowing region. Piecing together the complex puzzle of factors that result in superior vineyard sites enhances one's understanding of the true meaning of terroir. In a broad sense, geology plays a key role in determining the relative quality of a vineyard or winegrowing region. As a study of the forces that shape the earth, every specific site, vineyard or not, has a geologic story behind it.

The Earthly Underpinnings of Mexico's Vineyards
Wayne Belding
Aug 22, 2017

It was nearly 500 years ago when Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortéz conquered the Aztecs and created New Spain. In 1524, as Governor of the new colony, Cortéz decreed that all colonists who received a land grant must plant grapevines. Thus, the Mexican wine industry was born. There is record of grapes being planted in the Valle de Parras of Central Mexico in 1593 and the Casa Madero Winery was established in 1597, making it the oldest winery in the northern hemisphere.

Hotspot for Wine: The Geologic Underpinnings of Madeira
Wayne Belding
Jul 11, 2017

The wines of Madeira are among the most historic and unusual in the world. With a mythic history of discovery and plantation, Madeira wines have been alternately exalted and ignored by the world's wine consumers for over four centuries. A favorite in colonial America, Madeira was the wine of choice for many a gathering during the struggle for independence. A visit to Madeira reveals a very unusual winegrowing area. The six thousand foot high island is rugged, with steep slopes and cliffs dropping down to the ocean. If you want a flat place on Madeira, you probably need to make it yourself.

It's Classified! Exploring the Intricacies of Stratigraphic Nomenclature
Wayne Belding
May 30, 2017

Rock types are important for understanding the geologic history of any given area. Wine enthusiasts and salespeople frequently refer to the rock types of a particular vineyard site with an air of importance that implies much greater certainty than a simple rock name can convey. The famous Kimmeridgian Clay/Limestone is part of the legend of Chablis. Students of the Langhe Hills revel in knowing which Barolo vineyards are on Tortonian Limestones and which on Serravalian (a.k.a. Helvetian) Sandstones. Additionally, the Willamette Valley of Oregon offers differences based on the composition of soils derived from volcanic rock vs. the sandstones and siltstones that comprise the marine sediments of the Willamette Valley AVA.

Leading Edge Geology and Wine in Oregon
Wayne Belding
Apr 18, 2017

Wine enthusiasts are quick to embrace the lexicon of geology when describing the provenance of their favorite wines. Throughout the wine world, we find references to the special limestone, granite, volcanic, schist, slate and other rocks that imbue wines with their special characteristics. This is a controversial point and often more than a bit overdone. The change in bedrock color or composition is the most visible of the many elements that create a beneficial site. There are clearly more important aspects, but it is always a combination of factors that coalesce to create a top vineyard. Geology is certainly important, but the broad impacts are sometimes overlooked when the focus is on the details.

Terrace Terroir
Wayne Belding
Mar 7, 2017

Throughout the wine world, we find many noted growing regions that owe their distinction, at least in part, to the existence of river, or fluvial, terraces. This is not surprising, since many classic wine regions are situated along significant watercourses. Terraces often provide an excellent habitat for grapevines, combining extra elevation with effective drainage for both air and water. For the geologist, the study of fluvial geomorphology investigates the reasons why the landforms we observe have come into existence.

Franciacorta's Icy History
Wayne Belding
Jan 24, 2017

In the beginning, there was Ziliani. And Ziliani said 'Let there be Franciacorta.' And there was Franciacorta. And it was good. While there is much more to the history of the region's wines, Franciacorta as we know it today is a thoroughly modern invention -- quite out of character in the litany of Old World wine regions. Franco Ziliani was the winemaker for the Guido Berlucci estate who, in 1958, decided to make sparkling wine from vineyards in the glacially-formed hills at the south end of Lake Iseo. In rather rapid fashion over the intervening half century, Franciacorta has evolved to become Italy's premier sparkling wine.

Safe Deposits: How Depositional Environments Influence the Wine World
Wayne Belding
Dec 6, 2016

As students of wine, we often find our investigations involving the geology of a specific winegrowing region. We talk about various soil types and bedrock origins with great enthusiasm, although the exact connection between the earth and the vine remains something of a mystery. When geologists look at the surface of the earth, we ask how it came to be. The surface and subsurface features we see in sedimentary rocks and soils are consequences of their respective depositional environments. We study the processes that create the bedrock and surface soils that we observe.

Vines on Ice: Glacial influence on Great Lakes Vineyard Sites
Wayne Belding
Oct 25, 2016

If you travel throughout the north-central United States, you know you are in Great Lakes country. Agriculture in many forms thrives on the lakeshores. The large lakes have a profound influence on all agricultural endeavors, but particularly for grape growing. Wine grapes, more than fruits destined for the table or processing plant, are scrutinized to determine the perfect time to pick. Many microclimates around the Great Lakes owe their viticultural prowess to the presence of these massive bodies of water.

Fan-tastic Vineyards: Alluvial Fans in the Wine World
Wayne Belding
Sep 13, 2016

The impressive force exerted by flowing water sculpts many of the landforms we see throughout the world. To a geologist, these are fluvial forces and the various gravels, sands and clays they deposit are known as alluvial sediments or alluvium. While rivers and streams arguably influence all landscapes in some respect, their power and the sediments they leave behind have a dramatic influence on many of the worlds most famous vineyard regions.

Wine in the Heartland - Investigating the new Loess Hills District AVA
Wayne Belding
Aug 2, 2016

Iowa, although famous for agriculture, is not known for wine production. Amidst the profusion of corn and soybean fields, however, there is a burgeoning wine industry. With nearly one hundred wineries now operating in the Hawkeye State, it's clear that wines overall are improving. While a few wineries are experimenting with vitis vinifera grapes, most are working with cold-hardy varieties bred for the harsh winters experienced in the state.

The Mysterious Methods of Science in the Vineyard
Wayne Belding
Jun 21, 2016

When wine sellers tell the stories behind the wines they present, they frequently wax poetic about the soil from which the grapes are drawn. Statements about wines being grown, variously, on limestone, granite, sandstone, clay, alluvium, colluvium, volcanic rock and on and on are made with great emphasis and certitude that they mean something - something really important. Generally, when you question further, you don't find a scientific reason why the touted soil type is meaningful, just that it is different. A host of questions then besets the curious mind regarding the reasons that might underlie the long-standing axiomatic superiority of the noted soil type. This is the way wine is spoken about and sold in many establishments that sell the bottles.

When Continents Collide: How Wines are Affected by Plate Tectonics
Wayne Belding
Apr 26, 2016

One visit to the vineyards of Santorini and you will know that there is no other winegrowing region in the world quite like this. Santorini is very new land in a geologic sense. Its vines grow on the slopes of a volcano that erupted with cataclysmic force some 3500 years ago. The violent eruption not only destroyed civilization on the island, but also wrought destruction far beyond the shores of Santorini. The massive ash falls, pyroclastic debris flows, concurrent tsunamis and atmospheric shock waves likely caused tremendous damage throughout the Mediterranean, and the clouds of fine particles and sulfur that reached the stratosphere and probably caused the yellow fogs, reduced sunlight and cold temperatures observed in China at that time. Santorini today is a caldera, a remnant of the collapsed volcano that spewed billions of cubic feet of ash outward when it exploded.

Sauvignon Blanc and Plate Tectonics: The Extraordinary Geology of Marlborough
Wayne Belding
Mar 15, 2016

What makes Marlborough such a distinctive growing region? Its advantage is tied to its underlying geology. The sunny climate and strong diurnal shift that allows the vivid Sauvignon Blanc flavors to develop is possible because of the rain shadow protection of the Southern Alps. The geologic story begins here.

Bubbling Up From the Chalk: Exploring the Geologic Heritage of Champagne
Wayne Belding
Feb 2, 2016

Because Champagne is so popular, much is made of the chalky soils that comprise the vineyards of the Montagne de Reims and the Côte des Blancs. Let's delve into the geologic history that created this distinctive terroir. The name Champagne is derived from the Latin word 'campania' -- meaning an open place. This is reflective of the relative infertility of the soils. When the Romans arrived on the scene, they described what we see today if we look east from the Champagne vineyards. Known as the Champagne Pouilleuse (literally 'lousy Champagne' -- a reference to its relative infertility), this large expanse of land is underlain by chalk, but without the benefit of sand and clay interbeds that make the Champagne vineyard area so bountiful for the vine.

The Dark Side of Volcanic Rocks: Basaltic Basics
Wayne Belding
Dec 22, 2015

Oenophiles are often consumed with details about the soils of various vineyard sites around the wine world. One term that is widely expressed with gravitas is that a vineyard has volcanic soils. Let's explore the meaning of the description.

A River Runs Through It: Exploring the Range of Fluvial & Alluvial Influences on Vineyards
Wayne Belding
Nov 3, 2015

Wine folk are fond of making definitive pronouncements about specific soil types, as if the meaning of the term is self-evident. Thus, we hear about limestone, granite, Kimmeridgian, red slate, blue slate, schist, volcanic, and so on. One term that is casually broadcast in similar fashion is 'alluvial,' in reference to soil. Let's delve into the implications of this designation. Alluvial soils are, by definition, those that are deposited by fluvial processes, i.e. flowing water. These diverse soils are created by rivers, creeks and streams in a variety of environments. As we consider the universe of alluvium, it's clear that it encompasses a wide range of depositional circumstances, from a small mountain stream emptying onto a valley floor, to a massive river emptying into the ocean. We find alluvial impacts throughout the wine world.

Living in the Shadows
Wayne Belding
Sep 8, 2015

Wine fanciers often speak of the beneficial 'rain shadow' effect in their favorite winegrowing regions. When you study the world's wines, you find the rain shadow words mentioned in regard to Eastern Washington, Alsace, Mendoza and more. In it's simplest form, it just means that there is a mountain range that forces air upward, causing it to drop its moisture content on the windward side and leaving drier air on the leeward side of the range. The incessantly quizzical among us will wonder why this favorable circumstance occurs.

Geology on Display: The Vineyards of South Africa
Wayne Belding
Jul 14, 2015

South Africa is home to some of the most strikingly beautiful vineyards in the world. Those who visit the winegrowing areas of Stellenbosch, Paarl, Franschhoek and beyond seem compelled to take photos almost constantly because every turn reveals a new and dramatic vista. The distinctive soil types of the Cape, combined with access to cooling marine air, create a diverse environment for grape growing. With experimentation and study, some growers have identified distinctive wine characteristics from the various soil types. In Stellenbosch, Chenin Blanc from sandstone based soils tends toward a livelier, lemony style while vines grown on decomposed granite soils will offer more depth and tropical notes. In Walker Bay, the admirable Pinot Noirs are most often grown on shale-based soils, whereas the sandstone soils are used for livelier white wines.

The Geometry of Geology
Wayne Belding
May 19, 2015

Geologists are map freaks. It comes with the territory. Part of one's training in the field of geology will likely be drawing maps based on observations of the local geology. We can gain a great deal of information from a well-drawn geologic map regarding the history of the area detailed by the cartographer. As we transition to wine geeks, we bring our fascination for maps with us. Pretty as they are…with their bright colors, geologic maps tend to be completely incomprehensible to the uninitiated. Seemingly random patterns and obscure abbreviations abound, and the maps are often quickly relegated back to the bookshelf or for use as an attractive wall hanging.

Bringing Clarity to the Clare
Wayne Belding
Apr 7, 2015

When geologists study winegrowing areas, part of the fun of exploration is figuring out the earthly influences that make the area especially hospitable to wine grapes. More than just the study of rocks and their derivative soils, we consider the forces of nature that combined to create the topography we observe. Piecing together the complex puzzle of factors that result in distinctive vineyard sites allows us to understand the entirety of the place -- the terroir, if you will. In the broadest sense, the geologic underpinnings of any specific place, vineyard or otherwise, affects the character of that site. One of the many geologically intriguing wine regions is the Clare Valley of South Australia.

Digging Into the Details of Limestone
Wayne Belding
Feb 17, 2015

winegrowing areas of France are underlain by limestone terroir. Chablis, the Côte d'Or, the Mâconnais, much of St. Emilion, Champagne, the Loire Valley, and many of the Grands Crus of Alsace all have limestone as a base for their soils. Is this the pixie dust of vineyard soils? Does it yield magnificent wines wherever it is found? Let's investigate the particulars of this nearly mythic rock type.

Getting More from Loess
Wayne Belding
Dec 16, 2014

Loess soils are found throughout the world, comprising nearly ten percent of the earth's soil surface. These widely distributed soils are of interest to winelovers because they are the underpinning of several famous and highly desired wines. We find references to loess and wine most commonly in Austria, Germany, Hungary and the western United States. Loess (Löß in its native German) means 'loose' -- a reference to the poorly compacted nature of the soil. Loess is, in geologic terms, a recent deposit of windblown silt. Silt particles are very small -- 0.002 to 0.063 millimeters in diameter. That's 100 times smaller than your average beach sand grain size, so it's easy to see how silt particles can be transported by strong winds.

Ice is Nice: The Effect of Glaciers on Wines We Know
Wayne Belding
Oct 21, 2014

One of the most profound influences on many of the winegrowing regions we revere today is the direct and indirect action of glaciers. Winegrowing regions at high latitudes often exist because the local microclimate is warmed by a large body of water, either a lake or river. In a multitude of instances, glaciers are the reason for those impacts. Our world has been locked in ice for most of the past two million years. When measured against a human's lifespan, that's a long time but it represents only 0.0004 percent of the earth's 4.5 billion year history. If you compressed the earth's history to the span of a single day, two million years is equivalent to the last 35 seconds of that span. Thus, the glacial activity of the most recent epoch (the Pleistocene, in geologic parlance) is very recent in geologic timescale terms.

A Tale of Shale...and Schist and Slate: How the Rock Cycle Affects the Wines We Love
Wayne Belding
Aug 26, 2014

The best vineyard soils are notable for having a fine balance between water draining and water retaining properties. Vinifera vines tend not to produce great grapes when they have their 'feet wet.' Excessive water can lead to vigorous leaf growth and perhaps large quantities of not-particularly-flavorful grapes. Many of the best vineyard sites allow most water to drain away but retain just enough so that the vine roots have access to water during a dry summer. The agent for water retention is, generally speaking, clay.

The Kimmeridgian Exposed and Explained
Wayne Belding
Jul 1, 2014

The legend of the Kimmeridgian has assumed mythical proportions in wine circles. Exalted as the bedrock and soil source of Grand Cru Chablis, the mere suggestion of Kimmeridgian origins brings knowing nods among wine aficionados. There is a presumption here of a more absolute entity than close inspection will support. The term Kimmeridgian is a label that is applied to a sequence of rocks of a specific age. The actual components of those rocks can vary substantially from place to place.

Rock Solid: Granite Terroir in the Wine World
Wayne Belding
May 6, 2014

Wine lovers are fond of associating famous wines with the soils from which they are drawn. One of the first facts the Burgundy neophyte learns about the region is that Pinot Noir does not perform well in the decomposed granite soils of the Beaujolais Mountains. Thus, it is learned that Gamay is the preferred grape there because it makes the better wine. From this starting point, many assume that it is the mineral composition of the soil that yields the striking character of fine cru Beaujolais.

Musings about Geology and Wine
Wayne Belding
Mar 11, 2014

Much has been written and spoken about the connection, or lack thereof, between great vineyard sites and their underlying geology. There are many points of discussion and certainly differences of opinion about the degree of influence. The recent dialogue in the wine press about 'minerality' in wine continues a long-standing debate about the importance of terroir.