Finding the vineyard’s personality
Alma Terra partners bring out the terroir by using the same winemaking process across three single-vineyard wines.
Left: Alan Busacca is finally carrying out his dream project of bringing out place differences in the same wine varietal grown in different locations. Right: Alma Terra’s Robert Smasne uses a minimalist approach to winemaking to showcase the fruit’s characteristics.
Former Washington State University soil scientist-geologist Alan Busacca knows his dirt. And now, together with winemaker Robert Smasne, he’s out to teach Syrah lovers all about it.
Busacca and Smasne are partners in a venture called Alma Terra. They produce 250 cases of three single-vineyard Syrahs, as well as a blend of the wines called Coéo, in a venture that could be described as the ultimate mash-up of technology and taste. They also bottle a Viognier blend, with plans to repeat the single-vineyard approach with the white wine. They market the wines as somewhat-scientific proof that terroir really does affect the tastes and aromas of wine.
Alma Terra means, roughly, soul of the earth, a good descriptor for an experiment Busacca envisioned while still a soil scientist to document sensory differences in wines from different appellations that might be a direct result of a vine’s location.
“If you source grapes from one of the best vineyards in the Walla Walla Valley, and then from a vineyard in the Yakima Valley and one from the Wahluke Slope or somewhere else,” he explained, “and then make wine, using the exact same methods in a lab and track the wine chemistry and the result of taste tests with tasting panels, would there be believable, consistent differences in the flavor profiles of the wines, based on the fact that they come from different areas?”
Busacca said the idea got great reviews, but no funding. “There always seemed to be more urgent priorities, like vineyard pests,” he said.
So the idea stayed in his head. Years later, after retiring from WSU, he met Smasne, a prolific winemaker in the Columbia Basin. Smasne makes wines for a host of companies including his own labels, Smasne Cellars and Farm Boy wines. Busacca’s concept intrigued him, and in 2006, over a long lunch, the winemaker and the scientist decided to take the plunge. They shook hands, made a short list of notable vineyards they’d like to work with, and started making calls.
Jim Holmes, owner of Ciel du Cheval Vineyard on Washington’s Red Mountain, warmed to the idea immediately, said Busacca. “They were already picking, but Jim said he’d find 1.5 tons for us,” Busacca recalled. Dave and Claude Minick, owners of Minick Vineyard in the Yakima Valley, and Mike Andrews of Coyote Canyon Vineyard in the Horse Heaven Hills, also agreed to supply fruit.
The Alma Terra partners decided to focus on Syrah. “We wanted to create a series of wines whose reason for being was to highlight great vineyards and great vineyard terroirs, and then of course the different viticultural areas,” Busacca said. “Any number of wineries or winemakers make three or four Syrahs from different vineyards, but they tend to make the wines differently. They use a different yeast for this one and a different barrel for that one. We thought it would be really cool to pick a winemaking style and make each of the wines identically in the winery.”
Smasne chose a minimalist method so the fruit’s natural characteristics would dominate. With each lot from each vineyard, he repeated the process exactly, from crush to fermentation to yeast and barrels. The only technical difference, he said, was determining the peak harvest time from each vineyard. “We picked from each of the vineyards when the grapes were best for that site.” Brix at Yakima Valley, he explained, will always be lower than at warmer sites in the Horse Heaven Hills or Red Mountain.
Now, with the 2006 vintage in the bottle and three more in production, Busacca and Smasne are thrilled with the results of their experiment. “When you taste through the wines, the very unique characteristics stand out in each of them,” Smasne said. The Minick Syrah shows a delicate Rhone style, with soft red-fruit flavors over a spicy undertone, while the Coyote Canyon wine is more silky and elegant, and the Ciel du Cheval is big, bold, and exuberant.
Handouts detailing the statistics of the wines for customers at their Woodinville tasting room are a geologist’s dream, documenting everything from soil classification (Xeric Haplodurids at Minick Vineyard, Calcidic Haploxerolls at Coyote Canyon, and Xeric Torriorthents at Ciel du Cheval), to slope direction to annual rainfall at each site. Elevations range from a low of 685 feet at Red Mountain to 1,250 feet in the Yakima Valley. Grape growing degree-days were recorded at 2,571 at Minick Vineyard, 2,922 at Coyote Canyon, and 3,070 at Ciel du Cheval.
And Busacca said the soil differences give the vines dramatically different stresses. “At Minick Vineyard, the soils are about 15 inches of loess over shattered basalt,” he said, adding that the vines can be expressive, but not so much through the heat stress that you would expect from a warmer site. “Their struggle comes from having almost no soil to root in, no water-holding capacity and having to send roots deep into the shattered rock. I think that’s where some of that spice character comes from, that particular combination of a cooler climate and the shallow soils.”
He continued that in the block at Coyote Canyon, the soils are about four feet of windblown loess, but there’s a massive layer of lime hardpan right under that. “There, the vines are exposed to the really calcium- or lime-rich soil environment,” Busacca said. “One thing Robert picked up right away is the super-supple, fine-grained tannins with unbelievable balance in the wine. We think that calcium environment might be responsible for that.”
The block at Red Mountain is windblown sand, about 30 or 40 feet deep. So, there, you match arguably the hottest climate in the Columbia Valley area, along with some of the droughtiest soils,” Busacca said. There’s wind stress, there’s drought stress, there’s sun stress and heat stress. “The vines are putting roots way down in sand, so any rainfall or irrigation water just drains away. And because of all of that, that fruit gets so deeply flavored—thicker skins, smaller berries, more fruit tannin.”
But most important, according to the Alma Terra partners, is the consistency of those traits across several vintages. “I knew that Red Mountain would be really powerful,” Smasne said. “Ciel du Cheval has that reputation. If you go to the Horse Heavens, at Coyote Canyon, you really the see elegance in the wine from there. I think we’re really showcasing each region.”
Busacca added, “Robert has been able to confirm that the terroir characteristic from the first vintage he bottled carries through. There’s a vintage difference, but that personality of the vineyard is coming through.”