Why Vineyard Aspect Matters

One thing I learned in the WSET Level 2 course is the significance of location. Minor differences in altitude, aspect (vineyard orientation) and soil type can be the difference between successful harvest and bust.

In a cool spot on the northern hemisphere, for example, an ideal location would be a south-facing, steep slope with stony soil. These factors mean a) maximum warmth, b) optimum drainage and c) extra heat from the sun-warmed stones.

As you might guess, in a hot climate a northerly aspect protects grapes from being blistered by strong sun, and sandy or clay soils generate less heat build up.

This made logical sense but was hard to visualize. Grape vines look pretty tough. The flourish across twenty degrees of latitude. Surely a few feet of elevation or degrees of aspect can’t be that big a deal. Can it?

Turns out, it can. A recent cold snap plus three pots of Plectranthus tomentosa (Vicks plants) demonstrated that minuscule variations in location have life and death consequences.

Exhibit A: North-facing porch

Photo: VM

This was, believe it or not, a vibrant green plant until night-time temperatures dipped below freezing a couple of weeks ago. One day, it was its usual glowy lime hue; the next morning it was corpse grey, its plump leaves wilted to damp tissue.

Exhibit B: Shaded south-facing wall

Photo: VM

A few months ago, I started some Vicks plant cuttings from the original planter (Exhibit A) in an empty container hanging on a cinder-block and plaster wall behind the house. This is just 10-12 metres (33-40 feet) from where Exhibit A lives. To my surprise, the temperatures that killed the parent plant caused only minor damage. Despite the fact it got no direct sun, the wall soaked up and transferred enough heat to keep the plant alive — just as stony vineyard soil might.

Exhibit C: East-facing porch

Photo: VM

The final iteration of this unwitting experiment was another started-from-cutting plant that was on a tiled surface on the east side of the house, about 10 metres from Exhibit A. This meant it got morning sun and, even after the sun moved over the corner of the house, the tiles beneath continued to release heat. As you can see, it is in perfect health and growing like a weed.

Thanks to my Vicks plants, location is no longer an abstract concept. I now appreciate why one sliver of vineyard can produce wildly different grapes than another just metres away.

An excellent example of this is Hermitage, an appellation (region) in the Northern Rhône in France, renowned for its Syrah. The entire appellation is a mere 345 acres on one side of a hill. Wine Searcher explains:

The whole of the granite hillside where the Hermitage vineyards are planted faces south, overlooking a short section where the river Rhône flows west to east, not north to south. This orientation means that the grapes benefit from the maximum amount of sunlight throughout the day…. As intense Rhône sunshine warms the hillside during the day, the granite bedrock stores this heat, encouraging the grapes to ripen more fully than those in less-exposed sites.

Wine-Searcher.com

For more on the Northern Rhône check out WineFolly, or buy a bottle of Syrah!

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