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The Prehistoric Roots of Volcanic Terroir

The act of soil creation is one of constant destruction. Material melted in Earth’s mantle erupts through holes, fissures and formations in a slipping and sliding surface, cools and is broken down into ever finer soil, which contains the nutrients a plant, such as a grapevine, needs to survive. It’s almost as if Bacchus himself coordinated this dance, directing geysers of molten lava to form hills, valleys, bowls, benches. And eventually, sometimes, they become vineyards.

“Every act of creation begins with an act of destruction.”

–Pablo Picasso

Surely, when Picasso said those words, he was not thinking of the eons of cataclysmic upheaval that formed the Earth billions of years ago. However, his sentiment still rings true: The old must be transformed (or destroyed) to create something new.

Our planet is a master of said transformation. It continually recycles, reshapes and reforms itself, often violently so, like a pyroclastic Slurpee machine, churning the geologic goodies to the benefit of our vineyards. Perhaps the most commonly conjured example is the Earth’s earliest formative origins, that is: a once destructive hells-cape filled with massive volcanic eruptions, spewing lava and scalding ash raining down. “Think: the fires of Mount Doom,” says Jackson Rohrbaugh, MS, referring to the volcano of Mordor raining cinders and “rivers of fire” in The Lord of the Rings when describing the molten setting.

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Not an LOTR fan? Then maybe think Disney’s 1940 animated classic Fantasia, which provided a mind’s eye view of those tumultuous origins, set to Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring,” which also conveys themes of renewal and rebirth, wherein the Earth’s primitive roiling surface bears little resemblance to the planet as we currently know it.

And this was not just in many places, but EVERYWHERE. Earthquakes, volcanoes and a general baseline of apocalyptic chaos was the order of the day … er, millennia. The calamitous lava-ridden environment that led to many of the relatively calm vineyard vistas of today may seem incongruous, but they are essentially cut from the same cloth.

“It’s hard not to think about the lava flows that were covering something like 63,000 square miles of the Pacific Northwest millions of years ago,” says Todd Alexander, winemaker of Force Majeure. “It paints a harsh picture of the landscape, pretty stark.” Based in the Walla Walla Valley, and sourcing fruit from nearby AVAs in eastern Washington, such as Red Mountain and The Rocks District, the name “Force Majeure” is itself a reference to the unrelenting power and transformative nature of the Earth that created the terroir where their vineyards grow.

Soil that is derived from basaltic volcanism, which is the dark, heavy end of the volcanic rock spectrum, originates from partial melting of the Earth’s mantle, and typically contains more minerals such as iron, magnesium and titanium, along with other heavy metal oxides, more than your typical crustal rock. “Volcanic rocks are sort of the primitive starting point for pretty much all the rocks that we have on the surface of the Earth,” says Dr. Kevin Pogue, professor of geology at Whitman College. “So, granite and rocks like that, are blobs of molten rock that cooled underneath the ground. All the typical rocks, even the calcium in limestone, ultimately was derived from minerals from the interior of the Earth.”

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illustration of lava pouring out of an vat made of organic material onto grapes
Illustration by Jorge Corona

These prehistoric fiery purges dredged molten rocks from deep within the planet—like when you need to shake up a fruit juice or hot sauce to bring the rich ingredients that have settled up to the surface. “The sandstones, limestones, the minerals and the elements that are in those, got to the surface originally during that time,” says Pogue, “and they’ve just been recycled a jillion times and spread all over. But they got out of the interior of the Earth through volcanic eruptions.” Mother Nature, truly the ultimate mixologist.

Alexander’s other wine label, Holocene, which sources grapes from acclaimed vineyards in the Willamette Valley, is a reference to Earth’s current geologic epoch, the last 10,000 years or so, where the volcanism is the most recent. “In most cases, that’s basalt, cinders and ash,” says Pogue. “That’s really unique soil. It’s not very weathered and it’s very granular and it’s well draining, and it tends to be black, which absorbs and radiates heat to the grapevine. And so, in those cases, that’s a very distinctive soil environment for grapes.”

Volcanic terroir is just one example of the inexorable change the Earth routinely undergoes. What’s old is new again, and what’s new is older than dirt. But most geologists or winemakers will point out that volcanic soil only sets the stage. “Within the overall class of volcanic soils, you have lots of soil subsets and resulting nuance,” says Alexander. “Combined with climate, cultivar and winemaking, you can then have a wide array of wines that can still have a common thread between them.” Pogue echoes the sentiment, noting that whether a soil is volcanic in origin or not, climate and other factors are also important. “A soil derived from granite bedrock is massively dependent upon the climate that it’s in because the granite can be deeply weathered and the minerals be breaking down into clays,” he says. “Or it could be a super dry climate where the granite is just breaking down into grains of granite. And these are completely different soils—both derived from granite, but completely different in terms of cation exchange capacity, which refers to how easy it is for the for the roots to get at the nutritive elements they want.”

The Earth’s ever-unfolding fractal of becoming is most brutal and awe-inspiring when considering it never stops, it’s relentless. Or as naturalist and environmental philosopher John Muir said, “Nature is ever at work building and pulling down, creating and destroying, keeping everything whirling and flowing, allowing no rest but in rhythmical motion, chasing everything in endless song out of one beautiful form into another.”

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This article originally appeared in the Winter 2024 issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine. Click here to subscribe today!

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