At 2:00 am on an August Saturday, a grape harvester slowly moved into place over a row of chardonnay vines, revved up the picker rods and began harvesting the first crop off this Dunnigan Hills property in 50 years. In what could be called the ultimate makeover, 1120 dry, barren acres have been transformed into an economically viable agricultural enterprise. Chardonnay was the first fruit to be picked from the new vineyard and the grape clusters were beautiful and uniform, the flavors intense and the fruit chemistry off the charts.
Three years ago, we purchased an old sheep ranch across the road from Matchbook winery and literally started ripping it apart. We chiseled the soil six feet deep and worked in a homemade mixture of ash, lime and compost. We plowed it north to south, east to west, and then diagonally. Just for good measure, we added a ribbon of the mix down the vine row before planting. All those natural ingredients were a tonic for the sluggish soil.
The combination of ash, lime and compost acted like a super vitamin, making the soil healthier. Bringing the soil chemistry into balance helped break down years of compacted dirt making it easier for water to infiltrate a deeper and wider area. This set off a domino effect of benefits. Changing the calcium/magnesium ratio increased the absorption rate of potassium, which lowered pH and raised the total acidity (TA). And that’s every winemaker’s end game. Low pH and high TA stabilizes color in red wines and enhances flavor in white wines.
We saw the effects of all that good earth in the first bin of chardonnay fruit we crushed mid-August. The berries were uniformly golden, small and intensely flavored. The pH checked in at a near-perfect 3.76 to 3.78 with TA at or above 6 grams/L. Those are numbers a wine lover loves without realizing it; bright flavors balanced by crisp acidity. Numbers like these are easy to achieve in a cool region like the Russian River Valley, but are seldom seen in a warm weather growing region. This dramatically raises the quality bar for our Matchbook and Arsonist Chardonnay.
Three days later, the pattern was repeated when we harvested the Tinta de Toro clone of tempranillo from the same vineyard. Small, uniform berries with deep color and intense flavor. To quote Winemaker Dan Cederquist, “This is a game changer”.