By Colleen Halverson
When I think of terroir, I think of time. Imagine the entire history of the world in a single bottle of wine. From the big bang to the present, humans’ time on this earth would just be a small drop of wine in that bottle, a single whisper of tannin on the tongue, a small burst of fruit on the palette. Time moves slowly in the vineyard — measured in the long rows of vines waiting to be pruned, bud break, a burst of green, then the subtle shift of veraison — the miracle of nature that turns the fruit from dull green to rich rubies, garnets, citrons and dark blue sapphires. There are the aching hours of harvest, pulling cluster after cluster of grapes until they fill a bucket, a bin, a tank; and finally, the slow churn of fermentation, racking, finishing, bottling. The process of making wine can feel as endless as that bottle, but like the proverb says — to everything there is a season. And before you know it, the cycle begins all over again.
My husband and I purchased what would become Wild Hills Winery two years ago, and, while in geological time two years is nothing at all, for us it has felt like an age. On top of the many responsibilities of owning a new business, we found ourselves in the unlikely roles of farmers. Most people are surprised that anyone can grow grapes at all in a place like Wisconsin — with cold, snowy winters and temperatures that can easily sink to the depths of 40 below zero — but we plant grapes that are particularly cultivated to survive the frigid conditions. Each grape has its own history, but many of them are named after these cold, Midwest places — Marquette, La Crosse, Frontenac, Itasca. You only find these grapes in hardy, rugged landscapes, and they don’t just grow here: they thrive here — ripening under the honeyed sunshine of our summers, sleeping soundly in the cruel blankets of snow that pack layer upon layer on the hillside. And by some miracle, the vines return again, just as we return again to cut away, trim back, tie down, and whisper soft, silent prayers during our walks through the vines, our fingertips brushing against their tender leaves. Let this be a good year. Let this wine be good. Please, God, let this be good. There are no atheists in the vineyard.
Terroir is a word with no small amount of controversy in the wine world because no one exactly knows how or why it exists. What we do know is that certain terroirs bring out very specific flavors in certain varieties of wines. Bordeaux, Napa Valley — these are terroirs you likely know. But what about Driftless terroir?
Terroir is a French word that means the soil, climate and atmosphere of a place. It’s a word with no small amount of controversy in the wine world because no one exactly knows how or why it exists. Some scientists speculate it has something to do with microbes in the soil or tiny, microscopic fungi that act as carriers of the phenomenon. What we do know is that certain terroirs bring out very specific flavors in certain varieties of wines. Bordeaux, Napa Valley — these are terroirs you likely know. But what about Driftless terroir?
The Driftless Region is literally older than the dinosaurs. Dolomite, sandstone, onyx, shale, quartz — we have rock and mineral formations here that date back to the beginning of the world. Tens of thousands of years ago when the Laurentide Ice Sheet should have turned left, it went right instead, preserving a terroir that would recite its geological story in every bottle we produce. We don’t know how that terroir got there or what miracle of biology wrote a poem in its chemistry, but all we can do is tease out its colors, tones and phrases. It can be flinty or chalky, herbal or floral. It’s the wind that blew up from the Wisconsin River that summer. It’s the early song of the robin in spring or the cry of the Sandhill crane in the fall. It’s the laughter of our children as they chase after fireflies at twilight, the tears we shed in frustration when everything falls apart, and it’s the gasp of triumph when the wine ends up better than we could have ever imagined.
Terroir is a story, a song, centuries in the making, and for one summer in the vineyard, we dare to hum along with it. Terroir is a sense of place, and in a time where one town looks like the other, one strip small can be swapped out for the next, when our whole lives twist in the throes of the digital firmament, leaving us lost and unmoored in a land of emails, texts, and Zoom meetings, terroir grounds us. Terroir is home.
Colleen Halverson is a vineyard owner, novelist and educator. When she’s not traipsing through the vines, she can be found at wildhillswinery.com or her author page at colleenhalverson.com.
Driftless Terroir (ter-WAHR) is a series featuring guest voices celebrating the intersection of land and culture — the essence of life in the Driftless Area — with topics including art and architecture, farming and gardening, cooking and eating, fermenting and drinking, and more. To read past columns, see voiceoftherivervalley.com. To contribute to Driftless Terroir, e-mail email@example.com.