Last week, more than 125 scientists from 22 countries convened for the 11th International Terroir Congress in McMinnville, Oregon, to present and discuss their research on grape growing and wine making. Terroir is the notion that environmental characteristics such as soil, climate, and plant management are expressed in the wine and reflect a specific place. Southern Oregon University Professor Dr. Gregory V. Jones organized and chaired the four-day conference. 

The International Terroir Congress has never before convened in the United States. The 10th International Terroir Congress was held in Tokaj, Hungary, in 2014. Jones’ international reputation in the climatology of viticulture and his work in vineyards around the world influenced the decision to hold the Congress in Oregon.

“Bringing the congress to Oregon was about the pride I have for our state's natural beauty, our lively food and wine scene and the passionate people that make it all happen,” Jones said. “Many of the attendees had never been to Oregon before and now know us as something other than 'a state north of California'!"

An eager and attentive crowd gathered to hear technical and scientific papers about climate change, precision agriculture, vineyard zone mapping, geologic and soil influences and social constructs of terroir — themes that resonated with all despite the range of languages and accents.

Climate change was high on the agenda and all scientists recognized the need to adjust growing practices and plan for changing growing conditions. 

“The climate is becoming warmer and in many situations drier, so we will have to manage more and more water deficit and in some situations water stress,” Kees van Leeuwen, viticulture professor at Bordeaux University said. Van Leeuwen noted that increased irrigation is not always a satisfactory environmental response, adding, “We’re running out of water and water is more and more scarce.”

He pointed out that some Mediterranean growing areas do not irrigate at all and consider other ways to manage water deficit, including choice of rootstock, varietal selection and vine training systems.

European scientists, polished and urbane, were in turn surprised, delighted, amazed, and puzzled by some of their Oregon experiences: cannabis and drive through coffee shops seemingly on every corner, the profusion of goods at Albertson’s, the smoky scent of planked salmon fired over open pits, and biodynamic vineyard practices. 

Oregon’s wines were featured at every meal, paired especially with the locally sourced foods prepared for the event. Oregon’s pinot noir and chardonnay were celebrated as among the best in the world. Erath Family Winery, a major sponsor, singled out Michael Moore and Quail Run Vineyards’ pinot blanc. The Southern Oregon Winery Association provided wines for lunch on July 12. 

Southern Oregon winemakers at the congress included Dr. Earl Jones of Abacela, Del Rio Vineyard’s Toni Muhlbacher, Serra’s winemaker Liz Wan, and Melanie Ford of Schmit Family Winery. Dr. Jones also presented his research on temperature variability. Southern Oregon Research and Extension staff Andrew Swann was also at the Congress. 

Terroir scientists are soil geeks and, after a day listening to papers, headed out to the vineyards equipped with picks and rock hammers. Highpoints of the congress were tours to three Willamette Valley vineyards: LEED-certified vineyard Stoller Family Estate (Dundee Hills AVA), the steep-sloped Maysara biodynamic vineyard (McMinnville AVA), and Adelsheim (Chehelem Mountains AVA), one of the oldest Willamette vineyards.

These vineyards, along with the wines poured there, illustrated the unique landscapes, soil composition and grape growing, and winemaking techniques of the growing areas. Soil scientists and volcanologists clambered into the 6-foot deep trenches excavated at each vineyard, examining handfuls of dirt, picking up rocks, and photographing findings. 

The word "terroir" was first used centuries ago in the Burgundian vineyards of France to describe defined grape growing regions and is now the basis of the French system of appellation d’origine controlee, or AOC. Today, American wines are defined and labeled as to American Viticultural Area, a system derived in part from the AOC.

The Southern Oregon AVA consists of several sub-AVAs, including the Rogue Valley, Applegate, Umpqua, Elkton, and Red Hill AVAs, as well as a number of distinctive growing areas that are not defined as AVAs, including the Illinois Valley and Bear Creek Valley. Terroir is now widely applied to many agricultural products and is considered a cornerstone of the artisan food movement. 

The 11th International Terroir Congress gave Oregon’s wine grape growers and wine makers an opportunity to learn from and share with viticulturalists from all over the world. Mark Chien, Program Director of the Oregon Wine Research Institute, said, “This is about the most international conference I’ve ever been at in my entire career in the wine industry and the talks have been superb.”

Italian geologist Enzo de Novellis thanked Greg Jones for organizing the Congress, saying, “All in Oregon was fantastico: people, wine, terroir, and your special kindness. I’ll not forget for the rest of my life.” 

The 12th International Terroir Congress will be in Zaragoza, Spain, in 2018. For more information, including the full proceedings of the 2016 Congress, visit www.TerroirCongress.org.

Maureen Flanagan Battistella is a research affiliate in Sociology and Anthropology at Southern Oregon University.