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Sometimes “normal” is a good thing!
Indeed, after a wet winter and spring, the 2017 harvest signaled a return to the pre-drought days at Margarita Vineyard, with a long growing season once again stretching into November for late-ripening varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon. This is, in a word, normal for us.
“We cruised right along at what you might call a typical pace this year, if you’re looking at it from a 10-year perspective,” says Director of Winemaking Mike Sinor. “When things were really dry in recent years, we were picking our early-ripening varieties starting in August. This year, our harvest began September, which is how it typically was at Margarita Vineyard before the drought really kicked in.”
People often remark about how our wines exhibit a unique balance of full flavors with structure and acidity—and these qualities are a direct reflection of our long growing season and later harvests at Margarita Vineyard. And this year will be no different.
“I like what I am seeing and tasting in the fruit this year,” says Winemaker Stewart Cameron. “We are getting the ripe flavors we want, but with really nice structure as well.”
Tannin management is one of the priorities of Winemaker Stewart Cameron here at Ancient Peaks, where we are frankly obsessed with creating balanced wines with firm—but not astringent—structure.
A perfect example is the 2014 Syrah “Jackpot” from our estate Margarita Vineyard, which will be first shared with wine club members in February, and in our tasting room shortly thereafter.
Unlike more naturally tannic varieties such as Petit Sirah, Petit Verdot and even Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah can often need encouragement to raise the tannin profile.
Therefore, on half of the 2014 Syrah, Stewart employed “whole-cluster” fermentation, whereby the stems are included in the fermentation bins, ultimately enhancing the tannin presence. “Whole-cluster fermentation gives you more savory characteristics and more complexity, along with a tannin bump that affects the perceived dryness of the wine,” Stewart says.
Whole-cluster fermentation, however, is very labor intensive and has its own pitfalls if not managed properly. For the 2014 Syrah, for example, the whole-cluster portion was done on a later pick with riper fruit. “You don’t want the tannins you pick up from the stems to taste young and green, which is why we waited to do the whole-cluster portion on the riper fruit,” he says.
The end result is a Syrah that is loaded with rich, velvety dark fruit flavors—but it also exhibits noticeable backbone that takes it to another level.
Stewart says that his approach to Syrah is inspired by the wines of Cornas in the northern Rhône Valley, where whole-cluster fermentation is part of the local winemaking tradition.
“There are a lot of California Rhône-style wines that are really pleasurable in a softer, fruit-driven way,” Stewart says. “We want our Syrah to exhibit some of those qualities, but we’re also aiming for something with added complexity and the ability to age well.”
Keep an eye out for this Syrah soon in our Paso Robles tasting room, which is also a place to eat in the Paso Robles wine country at the adjoining Ancient Peaks Café.
They say that a picture is worth a thousand words, and here is a perfect example—a photo taken the other day of coastal fog clutching the peaks of the Santa Lucia mountains in Santa Margarita on an otherwise sunny morning above the Cuesta Grade.
We often talk about the climate of our estate Margarita Vineyard here, because we are on the dividing line between the warmer inland environs to the north and the cooler coastal region south of the grade.
As such, our climate is a bit of a hybrid that is vividly captured in this photo—a borderland of sun and fog, situated in the mountains but only 14 miles from the beach.
Of course, this can’t help but have a significant impact on our fruit and ultimately the character of our wines.
Indeed, this consistent cooling effect creates a long growing season with later harvest dates. We are still able to fully ripen signature Paso Robles varieties such as Zinfandel, Cabernet and Merlot, but in a manner that maintains a signature structure and balance that are rooted in the climate. You can taste it, and sometimes you can even see it on a September morning like the one pictured here.
On certain wines, such as our Petit Verdot, we make note of aging the wine in “tightly grained” oak barrels, which may raise the question: why does oak grain matter? Let us explain…
The notion of tightly grained wood is fairly self evident. Most woods, including oak, come in different grains, depending on the species and where they are grown. Some are more widely grained, others are more tightly packed.
Now, in the wine aging process, wide-grained oak tends to produce a wine that has a more pronounced oak and wood tannin character. In other words, if you want your wine to taste more oaky, or if you have a powerful wine that needs a more assertive oak balance, you might veer toward wide-grained oak.
On the flipside, tight-grained wood is more restrained in its influence. So if you want the oak character of the wine to be more subtle, then you will choose tight-grained oak for aging.
One example is our aforementioned Petit Verdot. In the words of Winemaker Stewart Cameron, “Petit Verdot has some unique varietal flavor profiles that no other Bordeaux varieties have, and we want to keep those at the forefront of the wine. We don’t want it to taste like French oak, so we choose wood with a tight grain and lighter toasting to produce a wine that is varietally true.”
On a more powerful wine, however, such as our Petite Sirah, Stewart might loosen the reins on the grain to ensure that the oak influence is sufficiently present.
And therein lies the significance of oak grain. Ultimately, it’s just one of many arrows in the winemaker’s quiver for guiding the style of a given wine.
In the world of wine, it’s easy to take the act of bottling for granted. Everyone likes to see vineyards and barrels, and to taste the finished product. But who goes out of their way to think about bottling?
Yet for those willing to take a closer look, bottling is, in fact, a fascinating ballet of moving parts. As we get set to bottle our 2014 Sauvignon Blanc, here’s a breakdown of what it takes:
First, cases of empty bottles are emptied onto a conveyer. From there, each bottle is sparged with inert nitrogen gas. Since nitrogen is heavier than air, it displaces any oxygen in the bottle.
Next, each bottle is filled along a wheel of 18 individual nozzles for simultaneous and continuous filling. At full speed, it can fill up to 60 bottles per minute, or one every second. And remember that nitrogen? Since it displaced the air from the bottles, the wine doesn’t come into contact with any potentially problematic oxygen as it fills the bottle.
At this point, the process for our Sauvignon Blanc and other screw-capped wines deviates from our corked wines. As the filled Sauvignon Blanc bottles continue down the conveyer, a laser detects each bottle, triggering a drop of liquid nitrogen into the top of the bottle, where it immediately turns into inert gas. That last drop of nitrogen is crucial, because screw-capped bottles have larger head space in the neck compared to corked bottles. The gas ensures an air-free environment to keep the wine fresh and vibrant.
Next, a screw cap is applied, and then crimped onto the bottle. From there, the bottles are labeled under the watchful eyes of quality control staff, who remove any bottles with crooked labels or other defects.
When things are really humming at 60 bottles per minute, our mobile bottling line can produce up to 300 cases per hour. So while bottling may not be the sexiest part of winemaking, it’s certainly action packed, and it’s the final step on the wine’s journey from ground to glass.
Sometimes you’re defined not just by the wines you make, but by the wines you don’t.
A case in point is our 2011 Petit Verdot, or more specifically, what might have been our 2011 Petit Verdot.
Petit Verdot has been a mainstay of our White Label reserve series for many years, along with Malbec, Petite Sirah and the Oyster Ridge red blend. But in 2011, the Petit Verdot just didn’t measure up to our White Label standards, so we didn’t bottle it.
“Petit Verdot is always the last grape to ripen at Margarita Vineyard,” says Mike Sinor, our director of winemaking. “We had a cool year in 2011, and the Petit Verdot fruit just never developed the intensity we were looking for at the White Label level. It was close, but in the end, we decided not to bottle it.”
He adds, “It was hard. That wine has a fan base, and we were walking away from revenue. But one reason it has that fan base is because of the White Label standard of quality that we’ve set.”
Such decisions are part of a larger culture here at Ancient Peaks, where ownership and staff routinely taste our wines together and push each other for honest feedback (one such tasting pictured above!). As Mike says, “You can get so caught up in cutting wood that you forget to sharpen your saw. It’s easy to lose sight of that when things get busy, but we’ve made it a priority here to set aside time for gut-checking ourselves.”
We also conduct comparative tastings of different varietals and wine regions from the U.S. and beyond. “It’s easy to develop what we call a ‘house palate,’ where you become too focused on your own wines,” Mike says. “It’s critical to have more of a global view of wine, and to understand where you fit into it.”
So there you have it—the true story behind a wine that we didn’t make.
We often talk about the diverse soils and complex geography of our estate Margarita Vineyard, which spans a variety of different slopes, aspects and elevations.
If you’re inclined to ask, “Why does it matter?”, we’ll forgive you—and then pour you a glass of our 2012 Zinfandel, which is a perfect example of why it matters.
As Director of Winemaking Mike Sinor explains in the short video above, the 2012 Zinfandel is a blend of three separate blocks grown in three distinct soil types at Margarita Vineyard.
Fruit from the volcanic soils of Block 32 brings a core of varietal spiciness to the wine, while a contribution from the shale soils of Block 49 adds a layer of dark, ripe fruit. Lastly, the cooler climes and alluvial soils of Block 39 bring enhanced structure and backbone.
The nuance doesn’t end there. As Mike explains, he and Winemaker Stewart Cameron target specific subsections, which you might call “blocks within blocks.” So from Block 32, they choose fruit from the middle of the block, which they call the tenderloin. In Block 49, they focus on the elevated crown of the block. In other words, a slight change in aspect or elevation can be the difference between good and great.
The result is that Mike and Stewart have what they call “different colors to paint with” when assembling the final blend. It allows them to craft an estate-grown wine that naturally exhibits fullness and complexity, qualities that you can taste in our 2012 Zinfandel.
Big news is breaking here in the Paso Robles wine country, and it’s really big news for Ancient Peaks Winery.
Last week, the U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) issued a final ruling creating 11 new American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) within the Paso Robles region: Adelaida District, Creston District, El Pomar District, Paso Robles Estrella District, Paso Robles Geneseo District, Paso Robles Highlands District, Paso Robles Willow Creek District, San Juan Creek, San Miguel District, Templeton Gap District…and Santa Margarita Ranch.
Of course, the last one, Santa Margarita Ranch, is home to our estate Margarita Vineyard—which now becomes by far the most predominant vineyard within the Santa Margarita Ranch AVA boundaries.
We’ve long talked about the uniqueness of Margarita Vineyard as the southernmost vineyard in the Paso Robles region, standing alone and apart just 14 miles from the Pacific Ocean. This new recognition of Santa Margarita Ranch as its own distinct AVA confirms what we’ve been saying all along, and we’re very excited about it.
In the words of the TTB, an AVA designation “allows vintners and consumers to attribute a given quality, reputation, or other characteristic of a wine made from grapes grown in an area to its geographic origin.” AVA designations are not taken lightly. They must be petitioned, and their unique growing conditions must be proven.
As the Santa Margarita Ranch AVA petition stated, “The Santa Margarita ‘valley’ has a distinctive maritime and mountain-valley climate within the large Paso Robles AVA, different than the other proposed viticultural areas… The region is very much a true, cool Region II climate.”
We will be drilling deeper into this topic and the special attributes of the new Santa Margarita Ranch AVA. Stay tuned…
The harvest is well underway at our estate Margarita Vineyard and the crush is on at our winery, which means that several of the 2014 vintage wines are now happily fermenting away.
But while fermentation is the most obvious and celebrated part of the crush, there’s something else important taking place right now: maceration.
Maceration signifies the leaching of “phenolic” materials—such as tannin, color and flavor compounds—into the new wine by way of the skins, seed and (sometimes) stems. In other words, maceration is vital to developing the color, flavor and tannin structure of any given red wine.
Since red wines are fermented with grape skins and seeds, the maceration process takes place naturally as the fermentation progress and the grape matter breaks down (see above photo of mid-fermentation wine). However, maceration must be managed and manipulated in order to make great wine.
Here’s how we manage maceration at Ancient Peaks:
Cold Soaking: This is the act of soaking the “must” (the juicy crushed grape mass) prior to fermentation, typically for 24 to 48 hours. “Once fermentation starts, the presence of alcohol tends to extract more seed tannins, which are harsher,” says Winemaker Stewart Cameron. “When we cold soak, we’re mainly getting flavor and color extraction. So cold soaking allows us to create a more extracted wine without the tannin levels getting too astringent.”
Punchdowns/Pumpovers: As fermentation proceeds, the grape matter tends to float to the top of the bin or tank. By punching the mass down into the wine, or pumping the wine over the top of the mass, you make sure that everything remains mixed during fermentation. “There has to be contact between the skins and the wine in order for these compounds to be extracted into the solution,” Stewart says. “It’s something you have to manage throughout fermentation.”
Extended Maceration: This is the act of leaving the wine on the skins after fermentation for a period of time, to develop further extraction. However, we don’t employ extended maceration at Ancient Peaks. As Stewart explains, “We typically have enough tannin in our Margarita Vineyard fruit naturally, where I don’t think a short-term extended maceration would help. If our tannins and phenolics were light, then it might be something we’d consider.”
So there you have it, the lowdown on maceration, the unsung hero of red wine creation.
A few percentage points may not sound like a lot, but when it comes to blending wine, even the smallest portions can have a big impact.
Case in point: our new release 2011 Oyster Ridge, an estate reserve blend composed of Cabernet Sauvignon (48%), Merlot (44%), Malbec (4%) and Petite Sirah (4%). While Cabernet and Merlot take center stage in this blend, it’s the small degrees of Malbec and Petite Sirah that make the blend whole.
For example, Petite Sirah is a consistent annual contributor to this blend, and it’s what makes Oyster Ridge unconventional compared to more traditional Bordeaux-style blends. We find that Petite Sirah adds crucial depth and structure to the finish of Oyster Ridge. But the trick is identifying just the right amount each year, and that’s where a few percentage points can make all the difference.
“We might try it at six or eight percent, and then ultimately back it down to four percent,” says Winemaker Stewart Cameron. “In other years, we might bump it up from that. But there’s no question that a little goes a long way in shaping the blend.”
Even a trifling one-percent component can have a big impact on a wine. “Our Petite Sirah tends to be pretty intense,” Stewart says. “If you were to add just one-percent of it to an otherwise soft, easy-drinking red blend, you would notice a pretty significant difference in the wine’s tannin profile. Oyster Ridge is always a big wine to start with, however, so the impact of a percentage or two is more subtle. But it’s still there.”
The same goes for the four-percent contribution of Malbec in the 2011 Oyster Ridge, particularly on the aromatic front. “The small percentages of Malbec that we played with didn’t have a pronounced impact on the mouthfeel like the Petite Sirah,” Stewart says. “You really notice this in the nose. It adds these pretty high-toned aromatics to the blend.”
In other words, in matters of blending, a huge role is often played by the supporting actor.