“Relish love in your old age! Aged love is like aged wine; it becomes more satisfying, more refreshing, more valuable, more appreciated and more intoxicating!”
― Leo Buscaglia
On hearing the word, “Niagara” you undoubtedly think of Niagara Falls and its thunderous roar. Wine lovers may know Niagara because of the Canadian ice wines. Most are unfamiliar the wine on the American side of the Niagara River that forms the boundary between Western New York and Ontario. And the word, “Escarpment”? you might as well be speaking Greek. The escarpment is the essence of Niagara. It is the reason that there is a waterfall. It is the ledge from which the water cascades.
An escarpment is a steep slope or cliff. Often they are divided by faults or by water. The Niagara Escarpment helped form the Great Lake Basin and runs through New York State, into Ontario, Canada before disappearing into Lake Huron before reappearing near the Upper Peninsula of Michigan then into Wisconsin’s Door County Peninsula. The rocks are hard dolomites with layers of softer limestones and shales intermixed.
The Niagara Escarpment appellation runs along the section of the area between the Niagara River near Lewiston and Johnson Creek near Middleport. The elevations range from 400-600 feet above sea level with steep slopes and well-draining soils. The cliffs face to the north, which is not normally associated with prime vineyard lands but ultimately helps moderate the climate by keeping warmer, moist air from Lakes Erie and Ontario in the vineyards. Though bud breaks may be later due to cool spring temperatures, the warmth captured in the lakes helps extend the growing season. Cool air rolls down the hills which prevents frost and the unequal erosion of the escarpment create microclimates within single vineyards.
The region has long been part of the fruit belt in the Great Lakes region. Viticulture, at least for hobbyists has existed for 100 years while most grapes cultivated were destined for producers such as Welches. As wine production restarted, initially hybrid grapes were produced but vinifera varieties are equally represented, particularly those fruit that thrive in cooler climates such as Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Riesling.
Located southwest of the city of the same name, the McMinnville viticultural area was created in 2005 and is found between Sheridan and McMinnville. The appellation surrounds Gopher, Muddy and Dupee Valleys and is found at elevations between 200 and 800 feet above sea level. The geology and climate are notably different from the surrounding Willamette Valley.
McMinnville was formed by the uplift of ancient marine sediments, primarily mudstones, and sandstones. The uplift was caused by movement of the Juan de Fuca plate as it was subducted under North America which created the Oregon coast range. These rocks were then subject to volcanic flows of basalt from the Columbia River flows. The hills of McMinnville largely face south and east and are located at a boundary between the northern and central coast ranges which optimizes the amount of sunshine it receives and protects it from the full effect of the Pacific Ocean. Rivers have acted on these rocks over millions of years to create the unique terroir. The soils in McMinneville are among the oldest and most complex in the state. They are more shallow than the those in the valley floor as well as less fertile and less soil water holding capacity. As a result, the vines must work harder to establish a foothold in the hills.
McMinnville’s unique terroir has an impact on its climate as well. The hills are less likely to suffer from damaging frosts and are drier and warmer which prevents molds and mildews. Lest the grapes ripen too quickly, cool afternoon ocean breezes flow up the Van Duzer corridor along the course of the Salmon River at that coast range border to allow fruit to develop more slowly, improving flavors and structure.
The city of McMinnville has long been an agricultural district. Prior to the 1970s when viticulture became dominant the area was producing other fruit and dairy cows. Now that wine is king, it is known for fruit-forward wines with good acidity and minerality. The primary varieties produced in the McMinnville AVA include Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir and Riesling.