What’s the most important element of a truly great wine? It's correct to suggest it's all about grapes. But there’s even a step before that. There's something that predetermines a vine's potential to yield grapes fit for remarkable wine.

It’s the dirt. Great wine is made in the vineyard.

Bloomberg recently published an article on the “dirty” side of wine – a reality we’ve been talking about since the inception of Old Westminster – that even before any emphasis on grapes can be made, a winemaker has to start with the right soil.

As many of you know, terroir (French: terˈwär) refers to the conditions in which grapes grow – especially the soil and climate. Above – and especially beneath it all – terroir gives wine its uniqueness.

This dirty truth spurs the thoughtful vigneron to study his or her soils and farm in the perfect geographical and topographical setting. That’s the real dirt on great wine – that soil types and climate are the essential foundation for distinctive wines that capture the story of the place in which it’s made.

In fact, soil type is a great way to classify wines. We’re increasingly seeing wines that marquee their unique dirt type on their labels. So it’s not just about varietals. We need to be digging deeper into the dirty side of great wine.

Here’s the dirt on distinctive wine: Smart viticulture focuses on matching the right grapes with the right soil.

Examining soil at the future home of Burnt Hill Vineyards

Examining soil at the future home of Burnt Hill Vineyards

That’s what we had in mind when we searched long and hard for the perfect soil in Maryland. And we found it. On Burnt Hill.

The ancient dirt on Burnt Hill – formed from decomposing slate – is rocky and nutritionally poor, requiring the vines to send roots deep into the earth for sustenance. The high elevation exposes the site to abundant sunshine and wind which are nature’s antibiotics. The steep hills quickly evacuate rainwater. All of these are characteristics of a promising vineyard site.

The next few years will be spent studying the soils and getting to know the rhythms of the land. We will till the earth, cultivate cover crops and prepare the foundation for our vineyard. The exact varieties, clones and rootstocks to be planted aren’t yet known – in time the site will tell us that. And we will wait patiently with the understanding that terroir gives wine its uniqueness.

This hillside – with all its elements in harmony – has the capacity to yield iconic wines.

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