Soil sommelier: Terra Rossa

Your monthly guide to the soils grapes love


Despite being an Italian moniker, “terra rossa” is found in abundance in the Castilla-La Mancha region. Sun-baked and rosy with iron ore and delicious minerals, the characteristic redness of the soil in La Mancha makes for beautiful photographs and wines that can boast superior minerality - or, if you’re a minerality-denier (see Rachel Hendry’s wonderful piece on salt in this very issue), it at least crafts wines with an unmistakable complexity and depth, given how far vines have to travel under the surface to reach the nutrients below.

The terra rossa soil type can range from burnt orange in colour to deep, unctuous ochre, with ploughed fields that, to a Lancastrian used to thick, saddle-brown mud that clarts on boots and blackens in rain, look bright, vibrant — almost exotic.

A metre below the hematite and goethite (the ore that gives the colour ochre its pigment), terra rossa descends closer to the Earth’s core with limestone and dolomite layers, eroded into waterways, caves, sinkholes and grottos. These porous rocks, once an ancient seabed, now hidden from the bright Spanish sunshine by red soil for millennia, create perfect drainage. Where you find terra rossa, you usually find wine — in Castilla-La Mancha, in the Barossa Valley and Coonawarra regions of Australia, in Mallorca, the Rhone Valley in France and in many regions of Croatia and Slovenia.

Officially, the somewhat romantic term “terra rossa” has been made obsolete but its position in our hearts and minds as the “red Mediterranean” remains. While pedology has erased its importance within the official soil classifications of the world, the separation between terra rossa and more mud-coloured soils sticks to our ideas of wine production. It might not matter to soil scientists what colour the vineyards are in La Mancha, but to our holistic enjoyment of the wine, it adds a great deal.

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