This time of year, things are a bit slow and predictable in the cellar. The usual week consists of a blending trial here or there in preparation for the spring bottlings. Some topping and checking of SO2 levels is sure to follow. It’s a good time to do barrel evaluations in preparation for the onslaught of barrel salesmen coming in March. And finally, keep tracking malolactic fermentation of the 2010 wines. So, not much too really talk about in a picture page format as far as cellar activities. If you doubt me, well, here is the chromatography.
Never mind the big drop of DAP there in the middle, I got a bit too excited. Looks like the Estate Grenache, Block 6 Syrah, and maybe the Glen Rose Syrah are ready to go. Yeah, that’s the stuff of award winning blogging eh?
So instead, I’d like to talk a little about something else happening right now that has a massive impact on wine quality for 2011. We started pruning the vines last week. The way a vine is pruned is the first step you take in influencing the fruit of the next vintage. Pruning basically outlines how much fruit we want each vine to produce, while also limiting the amount of energy used in vegetative growth. Here is what the now dormant vines look like; this is Malbec in case you were wondering.
(These vines were planted in 2002! Things grow slowly on limestone.)
Ah, the blank canvas for the pruning shears. It’s time to get to work creating a grape producing masterpiece. Once we are finished, it should look something like this.
Well, sure, it looks like we hacked away at the thing to leave a vine with a bunch of little stubs. But there is quite a bit of thinking that goes into this. The first time I had to prune I was worthless. I stared, measured, counted my fingers, talked to the vine, everything to make the perfect prune. I was slow to the point of just being in the way. And to top it off, even with all my science and thinking, I was still making bad decisions. After a couple of hours though, the Zen of pruning begins to set in. The points where it is best to clip start to organically appear to you. I’m still no Edward Scissorhands like our vineyard manager Martin, but I can hold my own now.
For the home ranch, we use a cordon training system. The central vertical trunk splits into two permanent horizontal parts. This horizontal part is called the cordon. On the above photo, there are 5 nubs on each side of the cordon. Those nubs are the permanent spur positions, the locations where we will allow the yearly vegetative shoot growth.
Here is a close up shot of a spur position before pruning.
As you can see, two shoots grew from the spur position. This is our first and foremost form of growth control. We want to limit things to 10 Spur positions per vine, thus 20 shoots per vine. And since each shoot will typically only produce two clusters per shoot, we would have 40 clusters per vine in a perfect world. You never get that much fruit, but if left untended until harvest, that would be your max. It makes the fruit dropping that takes place at veraison much easier when pruned like this.
So how do you get the nice perfect two shoots of growth from each spur, well here is a handy photo to demonstrate.
This is not an ideal spur here. The buds, the two white bumps, are too far from the cordon for my liking. But this photo nicely demonstrates the two buds per spur position pruning goal. Ideally, your buds will be really close to the cordon so that each year, the spur becomes a nice tight knot on the cordon. If you see a vine with spurs that are growing way away from the cordon, you got some lazy pruners, possible poor growth, and some angry grape pickers during harvest.
Here is what happens when you let your wine maker learn pruning the previous year.
An ugly mess with buds all over the place. Now we will have to come back after bud break and knock off all the excess shoot growth. I let Martin handle this one this year, and he already did a great job of getting it under control. After pruning next year, that spur position will be beautiful.
In my humble opinion it can not be overstated how important vineyard practices like pruning are in determining the final product, the wine. With each cut, we are impacting how the vine will grow, how it will produce fruit, and how healthy it will be. It is a common throw away line in wine maker bios about how “the best wine is made in the vineyard”. This is what is meant by that. Pruning is a back breaking, hand killing endeavor that needs to be carried out as carefully as any sorting, punch down or pressing that happens during harvest. When done correctly with proper care, the foundation for great wine is laid.
The most commonly asked question of our tasting room staff or to me while I am at events is, "What's the deal with the name Calcareous?" Well, maybe not exactly phrased like that, but you get the picture. The quick answer is that we have Calcareous soils here which means they are limestone-based. But the point of this blog is to be able to dig a bit deeper into these questions.
Many of the world's great wine growing regions are located above limestone deposits. Famed regions of France such as Châteauneuf-du-Pâpe, Saint Emilion, Alsace, and Burgundy all share the quality of having limestone soils. The reason limestone seems to be abundant in these great wine regions has been the subject of much debate and thorough research. The easy answer that the chalk imparts unique flavors or minerality to wine has been mostly rejected. There is however hard science proving that high pH, calcium rich soils do have a unique impact upon Vitis vinifera. For the sake of keeping this post somewhat managable, I won't go into all of that here. But if you are the inquiring type that enjoys bringing a bit of wine science to the dinner table or your next tasting, here are some resources. This primer by Valerie Saxton printed in the Wine Business Monthly is a great article for the scientifically inclined. Our neighbor and king of Paso Robles wine bloggers Jason Hass at Tablas Creek, took that info and summarized how it plays out here in Paso Robles.
So, with all that being said, if we dare call ourselves Calcareous, we better produce the limestone to back it up. So my assistant winemaker, two dogs and I went out into the vineyard on a hunt for this magical stone. One thing you'll notice walking around our vineyard, or even while driving the windy roads of West Paso, there are quite a few white chalky looking rocks laying around. My first inclination as a winemaker and lazy geologist was to point out to visitors, "Hark, behold the wonder of limestone!"
Well, sadly, one day a few years ago, an actual geologist was in one of my tour groups. There was a bit of snickering when I picked up my "limestone" and passed it around. Oh the sad comedy of the "know-it-all" winemaker getting called out by the scientist! What I was passing off as limestone was actually shale. I wasn’t way off the mark as it was shale that had some calcite amongst the clay. That's nice, but I wanted outright pure limestone bedrock here to make other vineyards jealous. We're Calcareous for pete's sake! My new scientist buddy told me if I had pure limestone, you would be able drop it in a strong acid and--boom--Carbon Dioxide will come bubbling forth. Sure, vinegar or even our Chardonnay has enough acid to make some slow bubbles, but that's not impressive enough. So, grabbing some Hydrochloric Acid from the wine lab, we put our rocks to the test. If you place that chunk of shale into the glass, pretty boring.
Nothing there to impress a viticulture geek, let alone any ladies on the tour. So we needed to find some of the good stuff. Que the shovels and the digging. Removing a couple feet of dark rich top soil and more chunks of shale had me feeling like Geraldo opening Al Capone's vault. But if you need to dig through a couple of meters of stone and clay at Chateau de Beaucastel to reach limestone, we had to keep going. Then, just a couple inches more and a new texture appeared. A soft, crumbly grayish rock-was this what we were seeking?
There's one fun way to find out, drop it in the glass of acid.
BINGO! And there was much rejoicing. So much excitement actually, we made the ill-fated decision to film me putting rocks into a glass. And the Internets are now richer for it.
So yes, we have limestone, and yes we are abundantly Calcareous. Great, why should any of you care? I know I promised not to go into this for brevity’s sake, but we’ve come this far. If you're still here, you deserve something. From my own personal experience, I have a few reasons to believe having limestone bedrock only a few feet below the surface makes our vineyard incredible. The first thing I have noticed is that we rarely have to drop fruit here. The vines are extremely non-vigorous in either vegetal growth or fruit set. We naturally only produce about 2 tons/acre of fruit. We had a bumper crop this year which netted 38 tons from our 18 acres of vines. What little fruit we do get is of astonishing intensity. The color, tannins, and flavors extracted from fruit here rivals any other fruit I have tasted.
Secondly, if you read any of the sources linked above, you will learn that high levels of acidity are maintained in fruit grown on limestone soils. We achieve wonderful levels of ripeness in our fruit yet maintain pH levels from 3.1-3.5 in all the varietals grown here. This gives us the great necessity of big, fully extracted, ripe wines to be truly palatable:balance. Sure, you can dump a bunch of factory made tartaric-acid in your overly ripe grapes to bring the pH down to where you want. But that can not, and will not replace the flavor of natural grape acids. Natural perfection can not be imitated. Thus from this world-class vineyard, where pure limestone is just a scratch below the surface, we are producing world-class wines.