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There’s word that at least one winery in Santa Barbara County is harvesting Pinot Noir today (that’s right, in July!), a sure sign that we are all headed for a very early harvest in 2014.
Or are we?
At our estate Margarita Vineyard, our fruit is only just beginning to show signs of “veraison”—the process whereby the berries turn color and transition from the growth phase to the ripening phase. In other words, we still have a ways to go before the harvest begins in earnest at Margarita Vineyard.
According to Winemaker Stewart Cameron, our harvest timing is stacking up to be similar to last year, which was somewhat early by historical standards, but not extraordinarily so.
At the same time, many other wineries are said to be on pace for harvesting up to two or three weeks earlier than normal. This has been a year with mild-to-warm temperatures and very little rain—conditions that are known to accelerate things in the vineyard.
So why is Margarita Vineyard trailing by comparison? The reasons go to the heart of what makes the vineyard unique from a climate perspective.
Margarita Vineyard is sheltered by the coastal mountains and can be very cold in the spring, so the vines take their time emerging from dormancy, resulting in a later start to the growing season.
Then, come summertime, a pronounced marine influence begins to exert itself. As the southernmost vineyard in the Paso Robles region, Margarita Vineyard is located just 14 miles from the Pacific Ocean, and the afternoons tend to be considerably cooler than other areas of Paso Robles. The same mountains that shelter the vineyard in the spring are powerless to stop the cold marine air rushing over their peaks, and the result is an extended growing season and later ripening.
In the end, we don’t mind being later than most, because we feel that the extra “hang time” allows the grapes to develop intense flavors without losing their structure and balance.
We talk a lot about the rare diversity of soils at our estate Margarita Vineyard, but sometimes it’s helpful to dig a bit deeper to get the complete story.
On that note, we are excited to share the accompanying photos of the pronounced shale soils in our Block 32 Zinfandel.
While plenty of shale flakes percolate up to the surface in this part of the vineyard, much of the soil base is obscured by a thin layer of topsoil. By digging pits, we are able to get a much better look at exactly what the vines are rooted in, and to discover exactly what lies beneath.
In the above photo, you can see the layer of darker topsoil along the top of the ground. Below that is the deep base of compacted stratified shale. You can often pry this shale apart with your bare hands. Some of the pieces crumble apart into thin wafers, as if Mother Nature had neatly stacked a million corn flakes. It’s truly a geologic marvel.
Many people will look at this and ask, “Vines grow in that!?”
The answer is yes, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. When vines grow in extreme rocky conditions like this, the roots are challenged and soil moisture is scarce. This results in vines with limited vigor and smaller yields that produce intensely flavored grapes—and ultimately exceptional wine.
Shale is one of five soil types that ebb and flow through Margarita Vineyard, the others being volcanic, granitic, rocky alluvium and ancient sea bed. Not all of these soil zones are as visually extreme as the shale pictured here, but each brings its own unique influence to our wines (for example, check out this earlier post on our ancient sea bed soils).
If you hear us talking about soils a lot, this is why. Soil diversity speaks to the uniqueness of our place, and therefore the essence of our wines. You can see it with your eyes, and you can taste it in the glass.
After the bustle of harvest each fall, the winery cellar goes relatively quiet as the new year arrives. By summertime, even the momentary uproar of the spring bottling season has subsided.
But while the cellar may not be action-packed at the moment, there’s plenty happening underneath the surface—specifically the barrel surface.
At this point, our core 2013 red wines such as Zinfandel, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon are halfway through their typical 18-month barrel aging period, and they are quietly transforming from the exuberant roughness of youth into the smoother, fuller richness of maturity.
“Inside the barrel, the wine is changing from grapey, primary simple fruit flavors to something with more depth, nuance and complexity, and the tannins are also softening,” says Winemaker Stewart Cameron. “Much of this maturation comes from microxygenation through the pores of the wood. You can’t see any of this happening with the naked eye, but you can definitely taste it as time goes on.”
Because a small amount of wine evaporates through the wood—a phenomenon known as the Angel’s Share—the barrels are “topped off” with additional wine each month to keep the barrels full. Stewart and Director of Winemaking Mike Sinor also periodically pull representative tasting samples from each lot to ensure that everything is on track.
But beyond that, Stewart likes to simply let the wines work their magic with minimal intervention.
“We try not to move the wine around much,” he says. “We temporarily rack our red wines to tanks after secondary fermentation is finished early in the year, but we put them right back in the barrels and they stay there for a year or more until bottling time. If we do our job and start the wines off well, we can back off and let everything develop at a natural pace.”
In other words, while winemaking is largely a hands-on vocation, there are times when a hands-off approach helps make a better wine.