Vineyard relies on soil and family
to make uniquely Nebraska wines
By Matt Low
Photography by Stephanie Nahas
For those who are passionate about wine, few words carry more significance than terroir. At its most basic meaning, terroir (pronounced “ter-war”) is the French word for soil. In winemaking, it is the go-to term for describing a vast number of complex factors influencing the ability to grow specific types of grapes in precise locations.
As Brian J. Sommers puts it, terroir “is used to describe all the local features of environment and society that have an effect on wine.” Sommers’ text The Geography of Wine (2008) is a book-length study of the importance of various local features—microclimate, biogeography, urbanization and so on—that influence winemaking and grape-growing. Terroir stands out as the most important concept to understand regarding how the glass of wine you’re drinking came to be.
As more and more consumers use location as a criterion for the foods and beverages they purchase, one could argue that wine has the most to offer those fully invested in the local food movement. Buying a head of lettuce or side of beef from a farmer or rancher in a neighboring town or county matters because of the short distance it travels from farm to plate, and because it gives the consumer an opportunity for direct interaction with the grower. Yet in this example, the most immediate concerns are not soil type, microclimate and hardiness zones.
When buying wine, however, all of these concerns—each one embodied in the idea of terroir—are front and center.Bordeauxvarietals, for example, require somewhat rocky/sandy soils and a warm maritime climate—neither of which characterize the American Midwest. That is why you won’t be buying a local Merlot from a local winery. Fortunately, there are grapes that do thrive on the terroir unique to this region of the world, and a number of innovative winemakers have been exploring and experimenting with high-quality wines that can be produced locally.
One local winery that is very much in touch with its terroir is Glacial Till Vineyard, which has a vineyard inPalmyra,Nebraskaand a tasting room inAshland. Named for the soil type upon which the vineyard is planted, the name alone imparts vital information about its wines. “Glacial Till” directly alludes to the soils deposited during the most recent glaciation ofNorth Americathat ended roughly 10,000 years ago. It gave rise first to the tallgrass prairie, and then more recently, the rich agricultural land for which this region is best known.
Planted on a north-facing slope and surrounded by more traditional cash crops, the grapes grown at Glacial Till Vineyard benefit from the same rich soils; are sturdy enough to withstand variably cool winters and warm summers; and prefer dry years—though this summer may be an exception—to wet ones.
The importance of the soil is even reflected in Glacial Till Vineyard’s mission statement, which highlights the fact that the vineyard’s terroir, known as glacial till, is ideally suited for wine grapes. “Our mission is simple: To craft the best wines possible from the ground up.” For winemaker John Murman, being attentive to terroir is a practical reality. “You can’t make good wine from bad grapes, and to grow good grapes it starts with good soil.”
Because Glacial Till Vineyard is committed to producingNebraskawines, almost all of the grapes used come from either its own vineyard or from eight growers living within a 50-mile radius. And while the names of the wines might not be immediately familiar to even the most seasoned oenophiles, they reflect a commitment to using locally grown grapes, all of which share a similar terroir.
What’s more, the varietals used by Glacial Till Vineyard allow for a broad spectrum of tastes and styles, from dry to sweet and heavy to light, which you would typically not find at a winery inSonomaorNapa. Chambourcin, for example, is one of the few full- to medium-bodied reds that can be produced in theMidwest. Glacial Till Vineyard’s Chambourcin is a smoky red—the driest and heaviest it produces—and will remind some of a peppery French Rhone.
On the other end of the spectrum is the Edelweiss, a fruity, semisweet white that might appeal to fans of Riesling or Gewurztraminer. Both grown regionally, these are just two of the varietals produced by Glacial Till Vineyard that make up a diverse and expanding family of wines.
Along with the soil, family is an equally important component of Glacial Till Vineyard. Owned and operated by John and Tim Murman, the genesis of this winemaking operation began as a hobby with their father, Mike. His interest in making his own wine and beer led to the planting of the first vines on the site of the current vineyard nearly a decade ago.
As sometimes happens, this hobby grew to be a serious endeavor once his sons showed an aptitude for expanding it to a full-fledged business. This required growing and acquiring more grapes, which in turn necessitated the construction of a state-of-the-art facility. Here the Murman brothers and a small staff can process, ferment, bottle and store all of the wine that they produce, whereas some Midwestern wineries must go off-site or out-of-state to fulfill many of these demands. And almost all of the work is done by the Murman family members themselves.
There’s no denying that the best part of exploring local wineries is getting to sample the products before you buy. Glacial Till Vineyard currently has several options available for those interested in regional wine tasting. The most accessible is its tasting room in downtownAshland,Nebraska, which opened in 2010. The building also houses an art gallery—featuring almost exclusively local artists—on the second floor above the tasting area. The tasting room is open year round, and occasionally hosts artists’ receptions that are open to the public. Another option is to schedule a tour and tasting at thePalmyravineyard, which is located about 15 minutes east ofLincolnor an hour southwest ofOmaha.
Beginning in the late spring and throughout the summer, regular events are held at the vineyard. These include partnerships with local breweries and bands called Fermented Fridays, as well as an annual Harvest Festival, which is usually held in the fall. (This year the festival was pushed up to mid-August.) Finally, Glacial Till Vineyard is part of the Southeast Nebraska Wine Trail, which holds regular events throughout the region.
“Wine is an expression of people and places,” Brian J. Sommers reflects in the closing chapter of The Geography of Wine. It’s certainly possible to consume wine thoughtlessly, but those who consume wine thoughtfully, as Sommers suggests, feel a direct connection to the place from which it came—down to the bare soil itself—and the hardworking individuals who crafted it into existence.
This is why residents of certain parts of the world, such asBordeauxorNapaValley, feel pride in the wines that they produce. Visiting a vineyard and winery like Glacial Till Vineyard gives Nebraskans a chance to appreciate the uniqueness of our land and its terroir in a whole new way.
If You Go:
Tasting room and art gallery
1419 Silver Street, Ashland, NE
344 South Second Road, Palmyra, NE
Visit www.GlacialTillVineyard.com for updates on events and activities, hours of operation and detailed information on each varietal of wine produced.
Matt Low enjoys exploring local food and agriculture throughout the Midwest with his wife and family, including his sister-in-law, photographer Stephanie Nahas. Matt and Stephanie first encountered Edible Communities in Iowa City, Iowa (Edible Iowa River Valley) and Austin, Texas (Edible Austin). They are thrilled to be able to contribute to the Edible family as part of Edible Omaha.