We made it to veraison this weekend for our chardonnay and tempranillo. This photo was taken Friday afternoon in the tempranillo in D block.
I thought I would explain “veraison” for this blog post.
Veraison is the division of the two distinct phases of grape growth. In the first phase, cell division and expansion occur. The berries contain all the natural acids (tartaric, malic, citric,…etc) by the end of this phase. Tartaric is produced early on and malic at the end of phase 1. In the second phase, sugars start accumulating and malic acid starts degrading. Cell divisions stops, cell growth accelerates, berries soften and color up. Canes harden off or lignify, and we see some leaf senescence lower on the cane. Chlorophyll is broken down while anthocyanins (black grapes) and carotenoids (green grapes) are formed. Also, pyrazines (herbaceous characters) are degraded and fruity flavors accumulated and/or enhanced.
Whew!, too much chemistry for most people but that is the story. All in all, our vineyards look terrific, only 2 more blocks to hedge and mow and maybe a little color thinning if needed.
Until next time…
The most fascinating pieces of machinery at the winery these days have nothing to do with winemaking. Our new Favorite Things are the two giant Caterpillar D11Ns that are crawling back and forth across the neighboring 2,150 acres we just purchased. These are the triple-XL of tractors and those big boys are suited up for work.
Two months ago, we purchased two parcels of land directly across the road from our Matchbook winery. Neither parcel has been farmed for the past 20-odd years, which, in a nutshell, tells the story of the economics of traditional farming in the Dunnigan Hills. But in the past few years the economics of nut trees and, suddenly this year, of vineyards prompted us to expand our farming operation. That’s where the giant Cats come in. As the land sat fallow, the ground compacted. Before we can plant anything, we need to do a little ground work.
Picture this project much like starting a garden in a brand new subdivision. The soil may have been good at one time, but now it looks like cement. This part of the Dunnigan Hills has nice red, rocky soil, which is perfect for good drainage, but in its current state it is, well, hard as a rock. Just as all the gardening books recommend double digging and a pile of compost for that brand new yard, we need to do the same thing, just on a very large scale. We have three mountainous piles in the middle of our new property: one that looks like black dust, one that looks like white chalk and one looks like dark, loamy soil. The black dust is actually ash that is the residue from processing rice hulls. It is not only filled with microbes and potassium, it’s free. Our favorite price point. We begin all our vineyard developments by spreading the ash all over the ground. Then we fire up the pair of D11s, equip them with one enormous slip plow and rip the soil six feet deep. Three times. This is a slow, but essential effort and that deep plowing and the ash turn the hard tan ground into beautiful loose, black soil. That’s just step one. After smoothing out the rough edges, we lay out the planting rows with a GPS laser and spread gypsum (chalky, white calcium) and rich, loamy compost down each new vine row. This is all mixed in together to create a perfectly lovely little planting bed for the 500 acres of vines and 250 acres of olive trees to be planted in the spring.
It’s already happening, everyone is talking about the weather. Being farmers, we talk about the weather all the time; every day, all year long. But when the weather has the potential to increase the price of a bottle of wine, it broadens that conversational circle.
The 2011 winter in California was cold and rainy, the summer was cool and humid, and then it rained the first week of October – right at the beginning of harvest for a lot of growers. Crop levels were down and then those early rains ruined much of what was left on the vine at the end of the season. Growers were scrambling to fill the grape contracts they had and there was virtually no supply of excess fruit for wineries without contracts. In the short six months from February to August, we saw the price of coastal fruit skyrocket. The cycle has officially turned: it is now a growers market.
When you are both a grower and a winery, these market cycles aren’t really a part of your world. The grapes cost what it takes to grow them and that doesn’t change much year after year. And if you are in the Dunnigan Hills bubble, the 2011 growing season was pretty ideal. Cooler weather to us meant a summer of balmy days in the low 90’s and nights in the mid 50’s. We had a long mild growing season with a dry summer and a harvest that ended the day before the October rains.
The 2011 Matchbook wines will mirror what we harvested for the 2010 vintage: intense flavors from the long hang time. The fermenting Chardonnay already shows pronounced honeysuckle, melon and tropical flavors; the Tempranillo, its characteristic combination of espresso spice and dark berries. The Syrah had time to develop exceptionally deep color and robust tannins.
Wines from the coastal regions will be a different story and the weather will be the story of the vintage. There will be shortages and there will be price increases. But for those of us on the east side of the Coast Range Mountains, 2011 was pretty much the same and it was pretty wonderful.
There is a well-known saying in the wine industry that Wine Begins in the Vineyard. As with most well known sayings, there is a whole lot of truth in this. But to most people this relates strictly to the vintage year, the year the grapes were picked. At wine tastings we are often asked about the weather or the sugar levels at harvest or the tons per acre. These are all important, of course, but every farmer knows that the story starts well before the current harvest.
The Matchbook wines began in 2001, when we found this barren, abandoned sheep ranch and saw our future. The rocky soils and hardy grasses told the story of well-drained, loamy soils. The hills, a natural protection against frost. Then we had to make the huge decision about which clones to plant; they would determine the style of wines we produced in the Dunnigan Hills.
A chardonnay vine may look very generic. Indeed, it looks a lot like the syrah vine planted in the next row. But there are many different clones of chardonnay and the style of our Matchbook Chardonnay is in much part a blend of the carefully selected vines we planted in 2002. The most widely planted clone in the state and in our vineyard is clone 4. Not a very romantic name, but this is the “workhorse” California chardonnay clone because it produces good quality fruit at good yields; always important to grape growers. It also produces the rich, tropical and stone fruit flavors that are a trademark of our Matchbook Chardonnay. We call clone 17 the Robert Young clone, because – as you may have guessed – it originated in that vineyard in the Alexander Valley. We love this clone for its fleshy, full-bodied juice, and those bright green apple flavors as well as its amenability to malolactic fermentation. We planted three different Dijon clones with the unromantic numeral names of 76, 95 and 124. We harvest these at lower sugar levels to capture the natural minerality of the grape that adds the steely, crisp finish to our Old Head Chard. Every winery tour seems to come to a screeching halt at clone 809. Everyone loves it and just wants to stop right there and drink this wine with lunch. Aptly called Chardonnay Musque, this clone produces muscat-like characteristics that are highly aromatic and flavored with natural fruit sweetness. This is where the lovely floral honeysuckle and orange blossom aromas come from and the musky undertones that add a nice layer of complexity to our Matchbook Chardonnay.
There is a reason we print the term Blended for Greater Flavor on the back label of our 100% varietal Matchbook Chardonnay. It starts with the diverse characteristics of the six different clones in our vineyard that were planted nine years ago.