The Knot link of Aurora cellars
Clay Ribbons: The Foundation of a Vineyard


When visiting Aurora Cellars, you can enjoy a glass of wine while looking out over our vineyard. You can sit and view the progress of the fruit in the vines in the vineyards, however, it is often what you can’t see that really makes our wine unique. 

If you were to dig far enough under our vines, you would find what is called ‘clay ribbons’ in the soil. Experts use a ribbon technique to estimate soil texture and measure the amount of clay in the soil.The advantage that clay provides for vines is water retention.  

There are several different types of soil that are great for growing a vineyard and the best type of soil largely depends on your location.   If you are in a cool climate or a warm climate, the preferred soil type will vary. With Northern Michigan being in a cool climate, hard-compact clay soil is advantageous for growing high quality red varieties. Warm climate growing regions tend to favor sand, gravel, or other rocky types of soil.

Wine experts say the grapes that love and thrive in clay soil are Sangiovese and Merlot. Clay soils are known to produce some of the most bold and muscular red wines and white wines of the world.

“The solids of the vineyard are the foundation of every wine,” explains Aurora Cellars Winemaker Drew Perry. “The complex relationship between soils and what’s in your glass goes deep, though is rarely straight forward.”

There are many things that make Leelanau County a great wine growing region. When glaciers cut through our land, shaping dunes, hills, and valleys, they left us with a bevy of soil types that are ideal for growing wine. We are able to elongate our growing season and escape some of the inland temperature extremes thanks to the deep lakes that were left behind. 

The region consists largely of sand and silt, and silt’s finer cousin, clay. Depending on the soil composition in your vineyard, where the roots go, the availability of water, and the mineral and nutrition value in every horizon can vary. As Perry explains, what is in the soil doesn’t directly transport up through the vine and end up in your glass. 

Often, the term minerality will be used to describe a wine. It isn’t the actual minerals being translocated to your glass, but more the cascade of reactions of the plant to its environment. “Everything you smell and taste in the wine starts with the relationship the vine has with the soil,” explains Perry. Wine is the most expressive because of the stress that comes from the soils’ composition. At Aurora Cellars, on the surface, we have what are sandy soils but underneath, there are ribbons of clay. The clay allows the vineyard to drain water properly without over-saturating the roots. If soil is well-drained, it will ensure the vine doesn’t end up expiring all of its energy being vegetative and growing wildly. Instead, it will trigger signals throughout the vine to focus on fruit production.

Allows the Harbor Hill Fruits

Clay allows the Harbor Hill Fruits Farms crew to farm our vineyards without the need to irrigate.  It provides the moderating effect during the drier spells in our seasons. The mineral composition also assists with the development of much of the plant material early in the spring. The ribbons in the soil allow us to farm more minimally, retain more nitrogen and other elements that help the plant develop properly.

The proper balance of nutrition is required in every phase of growth in the plant and formation of the grape clusters to ensure timely development. The site in which Aurora Cellars sits is unique because of how the soils are able to properly drain while still allowing the plant access to available and necessary nutrients. In turn, it allows for a healthy canopy that goes with a good fruit set that isn’t excessive. While managing the canopy throughout the season, we are constantly causing the plant to react to us and the stresses we are causing. Every unique element of a vine’s growing condition causes a reaction which, in turn, will give us greater development of precursors in the fruit.

“Everything that we create starts with the soil. It shapes our aromatics and provides a palette of flavors that are as unique as every inch of glacial deposit,” says Perry.