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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.
The crush is on here at our estate Margarita Vineyard, as we finish up our Sauvignon Blanc harvest and move into the picking of our Merlot. Several other varietals, such as our Zinfandel (pictured above) and Cabernet Sauvignon, will follow over the next four to five weeks.
Director of Winemaking Mike Sinor is already bullish on the 2014 vintage. “It’s pretty exciting. The fruit is looking really good, and we’re seeing great fruit intensity in the fermenters.”
Mike says that the grapes overall this year have low juice content, partly as a result of the ongoing drought conditions.
“There’s not much water or plumpness in the grapes this year,” he says. “The tragic reality is that we’ve had so little rain here on the Central Coast, but the silver lining is that the grapes have a high skin-to-juice ratio. This results in more fruit intensity, and that’s going to make the wines taste really good.”
As we wrote earlier, the harvest at Margarita Vineyard is a bit earlier than normal, but still far behind many vineyards in our region, owing to our coastal proximity and pronounced marine influence. The spring can be quite cold at Margarita Vineyard as well, so we’re always on the later side for bud break, and then the marine cooling lengthens the growing season come summer and fall.
Another signature of the 2014 harvest season is that many varietals at Margarita Vineyard are set to reach peak ripeness in rapid succession. This is what’s known as a condensed harvest, and it will require long hours in the vineyard and cellar to make it all happen.
“This is one of those harvests where we need to fasten our seatbelts,” Mike says. “Pretty soon, it’s going to come fast and furious, but we’ll be ready for it.
The Central Coast’s signature food and wine event is almost here, and we are happy to be right in the thick of it…
Indeed, the main event of Sunset Magazine’s Savor The Central Coast will be held right here in Santa Margarita at our historic Santa Margarita Ranch on September 27-28.
The main event will feature a Marketplace with offerings from more than 100 local wineries and restaurants. Other attractions include a Farm to Table Stage and Travel & Adventure Stage (more on that below), as well as a Central Coast Pavilion and educational seminars from leading chefs and winemakers. Trust us, your palate will not be disappointed, and your eyes will be opened!
In addition to pouring our wine at the main event, we are also leading an Ancient Peaks Adventure Tour on Thursday, September 25—and tickets are still available. During this tour, you will be invited to walk on the wild side by creating your own unique blend (see action shot below) of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Zinfandel and Malbec.
Under the guidance of our Director of Winemakeing Mike Sinor, your personal blend will be bottled, custom labeled, and finished with a wax dip. The festive blending session concludes with a gourmet lunch hosted by Sunset’s Wine Editor Sara Schneider in the heart of Margarita Vineyard against the backdrop of the majestic Santa Lucia Mountains.
Also, our affiliated Margarita Adventures zipline canopy tours will take over the Adventure Stage at the main event on Saturday from 1:45 p.m. to 2:15 p.m. and Sunday from 2:45 p.m. to 3:15 p.m. During these free sessions, Margarita Adventures will showcase its entire tour experience spanning ziplines, history, nature and wildlife. We won’t spill all of the beans yet, but be on the lookout for decked-out guides, four-legged friends and much more.
We look forward to seeing you at Savor the Central Coast!
We like to say that our wine club members are part of our family, which may explain why you never know what we will spring on them…
Our latest out-of-the-box wine club adventure was “Gone Fishing” with winery co-proprietor Karl Wittstrom, who invited wine club members out for a morning of fishing along the 13-acre reservoir at our estate Margarita Vineyard . Along the way, Karl (the photobomber above in white, behind guests the Mylan family) instructed the group on how to catch and release the reservoir’s largemouth bass.
A total of 18 club members came out, and all of them caught fish. Club member Ron George, pictured below, kindly called it “heaven on earth.” Another member, Gary Smuts, said that they had a “fintastic” time.
The fun didn’t end there. “We had snacks and water on-site, but once the club members had their fill of fish they headed back to the tasting room to quench their thirst in the tasting room,” says Erin du Fresne, our wine club manager. “What better way to spend a Sunday on the Central Coast?”
If you’re a club member, stay tuned for our next adventure. If you’re not a member yet, click here to check out the many benefits that await (including the occasional fishing expedition).
We are inching ever closer to the 2014 harvest, but the hard work has already begun in the vineyard.
One of our pre-harvest activities is green harvesting, a.k.a. “crop dropping”—the act of removing imperfect grape clusters from our red variety vineyard blocks.
Our crew travels down the vine rows, looking for grape clusters that are lagging in the ripening process—specifically those that are still more than 50 percent green after veraison is well underway (click here for more on veraison). These clusters are unceremoniously cut from the vine and left to compost back into the vineyard.
By removing these greener clusters, we achieve three things: (1) we establish more uniform ripeness in the remaining fruit; (2) we reduce the crop load, allowing the vine to impart more intensity to the remaining fruit; and (3) we open up the fruit zone, creating more airflow to reduce the chance of mildew later in the season.
Of course, it would be easier to not invest the time and money into green harvesting, and to leave more crop in order to maximize production—but when quality is the name of the game, you go the extra mile.
In the following video, you can see crop dropping in action, courtesy of a team training session with our tasting room staff.
Last week, we wrote about the good tidings of our 2012 Merlot, which is our finest vintage to date.
We've been bullish on Merlot since day one, even when the varietal was in the proverbial doghouse after its Sideways-inspired backlash.
Well, as Director of Winemaking Mike Sinor confirms in the following video, Merlot is back, baby!
We are happy to help drive the last nail in the coffin of the “Merlot is dead” movement.
Merlot is far from dead—in fact our new release 2012 vintage is kicking butt, having already earned a gold medal for “Best of Merlot” at the Central Coast Wine Competition and a gold medal with 90 points at the San Francisco International Wine Competition (pictured above are Director of Winemaking Mike Sinor and Winemaker Stewart Cameron with the fruits of their labor).
Merlot’s low point started in 2004 with the hit movie Sideways, in which the lead character Miles staged a hilarious rant against the noble grape. This pop culture moment—combined with some admittedly uninspired Merlots flooding the marketplace at the time—sent Merlot into a tailspin of public perception.
Suddenly, Merlot was on the outs. It was un-hip. It didn’t disappear, but it had its tail between its legs for years thereafter.
But here at Ancient Peaks, we weren’t going to let a fictional movie character tell us what to make. Back in 2005, we knew that our estate Margarita Vineyard—with its ancient sea bed soils and pronounced marine influence—could produce exceptional Merlot. So we’ve proudly waved the Merlot flag since day one.
Now we’re happy to release our finest Merlot to date, at a time when the anti-Merlot movement is happily losing steam.
The 2012 Merlot comes from three different blocks at Margarita Vineyard that exhibit a range of distinct qualities, bringing added natural complexity and dimension to the finished wine. The 2012 vintage presents ample aromas of blueberry and plum with hints of vanilla, tobacco and baking spice. The palate is round and velvety, offering flavors of cherry, blackberry and mocha. Notes of oak and cinnamon join plump tannins on a rich, juicy finish.
The bottom line is that the reports of Merlot’s demise were greatly exaggerated. Long live Merlot!
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.