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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.
We were honored last week to host a group of top sommeliers as part of the CABs of Distinction festivities across Paso Robles. They came out for a tour of our estate Margarita Vineyard, and for a look at the vineyard’s rare diversity of soil types. They tasted our wines along the way, and were the first people outside of the winery to experience our Cabernet Sauvignon soil trials in progress.
To say that these folks have discriminating palates would be an understatement, so we were pleased when they seemed to like what they tasted. The wine that really seemed to ring some bells was our new 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon “Jackpot,” a limited-edition reserve wine made from four selected barrels.
The soil trial tasting consisted of 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon barrel samples from three distinct soil types. During the last harvest, our winemakers, Mike Sinor and Stewart Cameron, chose fruit from three separate Cabernet Sauvignon blocks rooted in ancient sea bed, diablo series clay and Monterey shale, all picked at the same ripeness. Each of these small Cabernet Sauvignon lots is now being made with the same winemaking and aging practices. This will give us a more controlled opportunity to compare the effects of the soils and to share our discoveries.
“The somms were very knowledgeable, and I think they appreciated the fact that we offered something different,” Mike says. “Few vineyards have five distinct soil types like ours, so it’s natural for us to focus on that and share how it shapes our wines.”
On that note, here are our current observations on the soil trials at the moment:
• Block 15 – Ancient Sea Bed
Rich, dense, black fruit core. Shy nose will open up in time.
• Block 50 Bottom – Diablo Series Clay (Rocky Alluvium)
More red fruit on the nose, cherry, zingy, bright and high toned.
• Block 50 Top – Monterey Shale
Earthy, mineral aromas. Supple, round black and red fruit on the palate.
Of course, it’s still early and the wines will evolve, but the distinctions are already apparent. Stay tuned for more details as the trials progress.
Our estate Margarita Vineyard is blessed with a rare array of five soil types, and these soil differences from block to block have always been notable in the wines they deliver.
The geographical map pictured below provides a visual explanation as to why Margarita Vineyard is such a ground zero for soil diversity.
We have cropped the map to show the location of Margarita Vineyard, and all of the black lines you see are fault lines. This abundance of localized faults has churned and turned the terrain over time, which explains why you can see everything from uplifted fossilized sea beds, thick fields of shale, rocky plains of alluvium and more during a short walk through the vineyard.
Why does soil diversity matter to us? Well, it allows us to build natural complexity into a single estate-grown wine. For winemakers Mike Sinor and Stewart Cameron, it’s like giving them more colors to paint with.
Starting with the 2013 vintage, we are taking our interest in soil influence to the next level by conducting a more controlled trial of Cabernet Sauvignon lots grown in calcareous ancient sea bed, diablo series clay and Monterey shale. Each lot was farmed the same in terms of crop load and irrigation; harvested at similar ripeness; went through the same fermentation protocols; and was racked to the same barrels (once-used Taransaud barrels with medium+ toast levels).
In the above video, Stewart provides an update on these lots four months after harvest. And so far, the differences are pretty striking.
The ancient sea bed lot from Block 15 is showing a deep, dense black fruit character. The diablo series clay lot from the bottom of Block 50 is exhibiting a zingy red fruit quality, while the Monterey shale lot from the top of Block 50 is showing plum and boysenberry with assertive tannins.
Stay tuned, as we will be following these wines to see how they mature from ground to glass, and looking into ways to share the results at special tastings down the line.
The French concept of “terroir” is something that goes to the heart of Ancient Peaks wines.
In simple terms, terroir signifies the influence of “place” on a given wine, namely the soil, topography and weather.
Now, any time you talk about terroir, it comes at the risk of sounding high-minded or pretentious. But that’s not our intent here. Our intent is to simply understand and embrace how a sense of place makes different wines distinguishable and ultimately more enjoyable.
We believe that our estate Margarita Vineyard is the epitome of terroir. It stands alone as the southernmost vineyard in the Paso Robles region, with its own distinct microclimate and a rare array of five soil types.
These singular interconnected conditions, in turn, have a direct influence on the fruit and the character of the resulting wines.
It’s also worth noting that “place” is not exclusive of “people.” There is a cultural aspect to terroir. Functional vines don’t grow without supervision, and wine can’t be made without guidance from the human hand—a subject that Director of Winemaking Mike Sinor and Winemaker Stewart Cameron discuss in the accompanying video.
Terroir is what separates wine from a mere recipe or formulaic commodity. In that sense, you could say that terroir is what makes wine fun and interesting. And there’s nothing pretentious about that.
P.S. Come out for one of our Paso Robles winery tours to get a hands-on taste of Margarita Vineyard’s terroir.
Our Director of Winemaking Mike Sinor likes to call it “moon dust,” but it actually comes from the ocean, not outer space…
Of course, we are talking about the uplifted ancient sea bed at our estate Margarita Vineyard, along a block that we call Oyster Ridge.
Here, massive white oyster fossils—some as large as footballs—are literally spilling out of the ground, embedded in fine pale calcareous soil that looks like, well, moon dust.
Considering that Margarita Vineyard is tucked into the Santa Lucia Mountains at the top of the towering Cuesta Grade above San Luis Obispo, the sight of old sea creatures here is rather astonishing. So, how did they get here?
Well, the vineyard is tucked between two local seismic faults, and it is located only about 45 miles from the massive San Andreas fault. Over thousands of years, tectonic grinding and localized earthquakes have turned the old inland sea into today’s dry ground.
Still, you rarely see an ancient sea bed exposed along the surface like you do at Margarita Vineyard. We just happen to be located in a very geologically active spot, which explains why the vineyard spans a rare array of five soil types.
But the bottom-line question is: What does all of this mean to the wine?
For starters, Calcium-rich soil is coveted by winemakers worldwide. And considering that Wine & Spirits Magazine called Oyster Ridge “perhaps the most dramatically calcareous chunk of earth in the entire state,” that is saying a lot.
“Oyster Ridge is planted predominantly to Bordeaux varietals,” Mike says. “The fruit from this soil displays pretty aromatics, with high-toned flavors and really fine tannins. The Cabernet from this spot is different from the Cabernet on other parts of the ranch.”
He adds, “At the end of the day, it gives us another color to paint with, and to create an estate Cabernet blend with balance and complexity.”
The rare diversity of soils at our estate Margarita Vineyard is something we talk about frequently. It’s part of the fabric of our wines—a point of differentiation that defines our sense of place. And if you can’t get excited about a wine’s sense of place, then you’re missing perhaps the most vital aspect of wine appreciation!
Margarita Vineyard lies along the base of the Santa Lucia Mountains between two fault zones, where ongoing geologic upheaval has blessed the land with a striking mix of soils. Walking around the vineyard, you will find fields of flaky shale, slopes of fine sediment and expanses of calcareous ancient sea bed riddled with oyster fossils. Granitic and volcanic soils are also present.
While we can’t say that the mineral content of a certain soil type fosters a specific flavor (such as blackberry, blueberry, etc.), we do know that soil type has a bearing on the available nutrients and how those nutrients are taken up, as well as moisture retention and root zone development. These and other soil factors do have a significant impact on the resulting fruit and wine, in terms of texture, fruit intensity, flavor profile and tannin profile; and these factors shift as you transition from sedimentary soils to calcareous soils to shale soils.
The differences in the resulting wines are obvious to our winemakers, Mike Sinor and Stewart Cameron. They like to say that the varied soils give them more “colors” to paint with when it comes to assembling final blends, allowing them to build natural complexity and dimension into a single estate-grown wine.
Starting with the 2013 vintage, we are taking these observations to a more experimental level. Mike and Stewart chose fruit from three separate Cabernet Sauvignon blocks rooted in three distinct soil types, all picked at the same ripeness. As Mike explains in the video above, each of these small Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignon lots is now being made with the same winemaking and aging practices. This will give us a more controlled opportunity to compare the effects of the soils and to share our discoveries with you down the line. Stay tuned!
P.S. If you want to see some of these soils firsthand, including the sea bed with oyster fossils, come out for one of our Paso Robles winery tours.
We like to say that soils are the ingredients behind our wines, as our estate Margarita Vineyard is home to a rare diversity of soil types that ebb, flow and intermingle from one block to the next. These soil types include shale, sedimentary, granitic, volcanic and ancient sea bed.
In some blocks, the base soil composition is obvious, such as at Oyster Ridge, where the ancient sea bed soil is literally percolating up to the surface in the form of ancient oyster fossils.
In other blocks, however, the nature of the soil isn’t plainly evident. Have a look at the exposed soil pit pictured above in one of our Zinfandel blocks. As you walk along the surface of this block, your boots get covered in young soil that is dark, fine and fluffy.
But as you can see, just 18 inches beneath that young soil layer is a solid foundation of stratified shale rock. It’s a stark and sudden shift that speaks to the true nature of the growing conditions in this block.
Here, the vine roots tend to grow laterally once they hit the hard rocky soil, seeking an easier way to acquire moisture. Consequently, the vines in this block have limited vigor and produce small, intensely flavored berries. In other words, the soil sets the tone for the fruit—and ultimately the character of the resulting wine.
And when the soils are as diverse as they are at Margarita Vineyard, it gives us that many more ingredients to create wines with natural depth and complexity.
Our new release 2011 Zinfandel comes from three blocks spanning three distinct soil types at our estate Margarita Vineyard.
We recently staged a tasting of barrel samples from our various Zinfandel blocks, and our guests were astonished at the profound differences in aroma and flavor—even though all of these Zinfandel lots came from the same vineyard, and several were of the same clonal selection.
Of course, these differences are also shaped by the weather exposure of a particular block and other factors. But there is no doubt that the rare diversity of soils at Margarita Vineyard enhances the distinctions between our Zinfandel components.
So what does this mean to the wine? It essentially gives Winemaker Mike Sinor and Assistant Winemaker Stewart Cameron more colors to paint with, allowing them to naturally build nuance, depth and complexity into a single estate grown Zinfandel.
We are confident that you will taste these qualities in our 2011 Zinfandel, which is now available in our tasting room.