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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.
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.
We are pleased to share that our winemaker, Stewart Cameron, is featured as one of five “up-and-coming” Paso Robles winemakers in the new issue of The Tasting Panel Magazine.
In the story, wine authority Christopher Sawyer “gives a shout-out to the winemakers to watch in California’s most dynamic AVA.”
Sawyer writes, “Since joining the winemaking team at Ancient Peaks in 2006, Stewart Cameron has mastered the art of interweaving the personality of the vineyard into the special estate cuvée called Oyster Ridge.”
Oyster Ridge is a red blend crafted each year to exemplify our finest winemaking efforts. The name Oyster Ridge honors a block of fossilized ancient sea bed at our estate Margarita Vineyard, which exhibits the type of calcium-rich soil that is coveted by winemakers worldwide.
You may recall that Stewart was promoted to the position of winemaker last summer. At the time, Ancient Peaks co-owner Doug Filipponi stated, “Stewart has a knack for making wines that really capture Margarita Vineyard’s sense of place.” That’s something that Mr. Sawyer has clearly noted as well.
The story also notes that Oyster Ridge pairs well with elk medallions, Stewart’s favorite dish at The Range restaurant here in Santa Margarita!
While the vines are bare and the autumn grape harvest is still eight months away, we are already taking action in the vineyard to maximize the caliber of the fruit to come—starting with pruning.
As our Director of Winemaking Mike Sinor says, “The 2014 vintage starts right now with pruning season. The wines of 2014 are already being shaped by things we are doing in the vineyard—long before the grapes have even started growing.”
Our estate Margarita Vineyard is planted to a VSP (for vertical shoot position) trellis system. With this system, the main part of the vine is shaped like a “T,” with the vine branches trained upward with catchwires. The vines in a VSP system consist of four key parts: the trunk, the arms (called cordons), the spurs (the large knobs on the cordons) and the canes (the branches).
We prune for quality over quantity, so we select one cane per spur and cut it back so that just two buds remain. The buds will open up during “bud break” in early spring. From the buds grow new canes and, ultimately, the grape clusters.
Pruning sets the stage for the upcoming growing season. With pruning, you directly control your grape yields, which in turn impacts fruit balance and intensity. Pruning decisions also affect the amount of sunlight and airflow that will penetrate the fruiting zone of the vine. Diffused sunlight aids with grape ripening, while healthy airflow keeps mildew in check.
Smart pruning requires training and commitment. The vineyard crew must move quickly, making split-second decisions on where to best make their cuts.
“When deciding where to cut, you have to think of where you want the clusters to sit on the vine,” says Vineyard Manager Jaime Muniz. “You want to separate the clusters as much as you can to get that airflow and sunlight, and to deliver the best quality to the winery.”
And so begins the vintage to come...
You’ve probably seen a stainless steel wine tank before. In fact, you walk right by them on most winery tours. Stainless steel tanks are popular in winemaking because they are durable, easy to clean and temperature controlled. You can ferment and/or age wines in stainless steel, depending on the style of wine you're trying to achieve.
Stainleess steel tanks are fairly straightforward vessels, but they do have a lot of moving parts. Have you ever wondered what all of the ports and levers are for? If so, here’s the scoop:
The swirling patterns along the side of the tank are glycol channels. Glycol is a viscous liquid that can be chilled well below 32 degrees without freezing. We typically chill our glycol to a temperature of 25 degrees. As it flows through the channels around the jacket, the cold glycol chills the wine to a desired temperature. We can control the wine temperature with a thermostat (the little box on the right) that regulates the glycol. Temperature level plays a major role in shaping fermentations as well as the aging environment.
When new wine is placed in a tank, natural solids settle to the bottom and become what is known as “lees.” The lees can be fairly thick at the bottom of the tank, so when you want to rack (ie: transfer) the wine, you start by hooking up the hose to the higher valve on the left, known as the racking valve, to make sure you’re not sucking out a bunch of lees.
Once you’ve racked wine via the racking valve, you can open the upper racking door. That allows you to peer in and see how much more wine you can manually skim off the top of the lees.
This gives you access to the inside of the tank for cleaning and removing lees. Come on out, we could use a hand!
The bottom valve is used for filling an empty tank.
The tiny little valve protruding on the right of the tank allows you to quickly draw a sample of wine for evaluative purposes.
One of the more iconic annual moments in the winery cellar is the “barreling down” of new wine to begin the aging process.
Today, our team is barreling down Cabernet Sauvignon from Block 50 at our estate Margarita Vineyard, which is one of the last 2013 vintage lots to make the transition from tank to barrel.
The cellar is surprisingly quiet as the wine is barreled down. The Cabernet Sauvignon is being racked (transferred) from a larger tank about 100 yards away from the awaiting barrels. It is flowing through the hoses via gravity, so there are no pumps making noise. As the wine flows into the barrel through a long racking wand, it makes a splashing sound at first, and then goes silent as the level rises.
Gravity racking is preferable because it’s very gentle on the wine. Also, if there are any hiccups, you can just shut the valve on the racking valve without having to make an uphill 100-yard dash to turn off a pump!
The splashing and aeration of the wine as it fills the barrel is also beneficial. After fermentation, the wine has been resting in the tank with very little air exposure. Barreling down allows any suspended CO2 in the wine to blow off (if CO2 remains suspended in the wine, it will taste spritzy). This controlled air exposure also gives the wine a moment room to breathe and develop, setting the tone for the maturation period.
You have to be alert when barreling down. Right now, our cellar master Octavio is operating two racking wands. He starts one barrel, and then about halfway through he starts another. It takes three minutes for a 60-gallon barrel to fill up. So once the barrel is nearly full, Octavio has less than 90 seconds to gently top it off (see below photo), secure the bung and move the wand to begin filling the next barrel before rushing over to the other barrel that is rapidly filling.
Any hitch in the rhythm can result in what is known around the winery as a “volcano”—red wine erupting from an overflowing barrel. It doesn’t happen often, but it does happen. Rumor has it that Winemaker Stewart Cameron recently had a nice sweater ruined by a volcano!
So there you have it—a look at the quiet yet momentous occasion of barreling down at Ancient Peaks Winery.
One of our mantras at Ancient Peaks is that we aim to “over deliver.”
This means that we always strive to provide value at any given price point, whether it be one of our $17 varietal reds or our $35 reserve White Label wines or our $50 Oyster Ridge cuvée. It’s part of our winery culture, and it has helped us earn a loyal following.
We have a few things working in our favor. For starters, we have an estate vineyard—Margarita Vineyard, the southernmost vineyard in the Paso Robles region—that delivers high-character fruit. Better yet, we only use a fraction of the fruit from this vineyard (the rest is sold to other wineries), allowing us to pick and choose blocks that fit our winemaking vision, and to farm them exactly how we want. On top of that, our Director of Winemaking Mike Sinor and Winemaker Stewart Cameron are really talented and in tune with the estate fruit.
On that note, and at the risk of sounding like we’re tooting our own horn, we are very pleased that two of our wines have earned a spot on Wine & Spirits magazine’s annual Top 100 Best Buys of The Year list—our 2010 Merlot ($17) and 2010 Renegade ($23).
This list was compiled from 12,500 wines tasted from around the world! So to place two wines on the list is quite gratifying, and it affirms that our pursuit of over-delivering is going well.
When it comes to Paso Robles, you’ve probably heard about the eastside and the westside, but here at Ancient Peaks, we’re on the southside—and still in the thick of the 2013 harvest at our estate Margarita Vineyard. View and read our report below:
On the whole, we are just past the halfway mark in our picking. As of October 13, only about 20 percent of our Cabernet Sauvignon is in the house. About 60 percent of our Syrah has been picked, and all of our Merlot, Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc fruit is off the vine. Zinfandel is mostly done. But we just began harvesting our Malbec, and haven’t even started on the Petit Verdot.
At this rate, we should be fully done with the grape harvest by the end of October or first week of November. This is rather typical—and even a bit early—for Margarita Vineyard, which is the southernmost vineyard in the Paso Robles AVA. It’s cooler here, and so the growing season is long.
Yields are a bit larger than normal, which is somewhat surprising in the wake of such a dry year. We’re not alone, as larger yields are one of the stories of the 2013 vintage in California.
The sailing has been smooth this harvest, especially compared to recent years. In 2008, we experienced eight inches of rain in one harvest day. In 2010, an unusually cool summer forced us to drop an inordinate amount of crop just to make sure we got things ripe. The 2011 growing season was fairly cool, too. Last year was nice, but a bit more erratic with regard to hot weather events.
But this year has been rock steady—warm but rarely hot, with consistent temperatures heading into fall, and just a few drops of rain one day in early October.
Even with the healthy yields, we’re getting a nice intensity of color and flavor out of the fruit. Yesterday morning, during our first Malbec pick, the picking bins were stained a dark purple—an unscientific yet clear indication of what we’re getting in terms of concentration. By mid morning, the air was still chilly and thick with fog, demonstrating why we still have a few weeks to go.
With later-ripening varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon, we sometimes find ourselves on what we call “the edge of ripeness”—that long wait for the grapes to fully mature. And we’re fine with that, because it’s a great way for the fruit to maintain its balance and varietal character.
This year, however, full maturity is coming more easily. We’re not looking over our shoulder at a coming storm or at our watches waiting for the fruit to get in gear. Mother Nature has smiled upon us, and it should result in a banner vintage.
Making wine isn’t for the faint of heart. It can be tough and physical—especially during harvest, when the to-do list is long and the hours even longer.
When it comes to making small-lot red wines, one inescapable duty during harvest is the punchdown.
When new red wine is fermenting, the skins float to the top of the fermentation bin, forming a cap that can easily dry out. With a punchdown, you perch yourself on the edge of the bin and use a specially designed paddle to mix the skins back into the juice. This keeps the cap from drying out, and it ensures steady, optimal extraction of color, flavor and tannin from the grape skins. At Ancient Peaks Winery, we perform punchdowns on each small lot three times per day.
In the accompanying video, harvest intern Chris Thompson demonstrates the art of punching down on a lot of Pinot Noir recently harvested from our estate Margarita Vineyard.
Plunging and pulling the paddle through the heavy skins requires exertion, and doing it on multiple bins three times per day requires endurance. Hence the third and final rule of the punchdown: Don’t wimp out!