Grapevines are very sensitive to their environment, and climate is a key factor in grape and wine production. So when the weather changes from the norm it does have an effect. And, when that weather change is prolonged or extreme, growers must take special note to harvest their grapes at the optimum time.
Wes Hagen, formerly of Clos Pepe and currently a consulting winemaker at J. Wilkes Wines, reported that this year was the “earliest winegrape harvest in modern California history.” While historically harvest has been in late September through October, due to the unseasonably warm weather, crops were harvested in August for the second year in a row.
Larry Schaffer, winemaker for tercero wines, was thankful that the region experienced a bit of rain at the beginning of the year, but “the above average heat that followed led to early bud break once again, setting the schedule for an early harvest.” In addition to the lack of rain and unseasonable heat, strong cold winds in late spring and early summer, during flowering, led to shattering in a few of Larry’s varieties and uneven fruit set for other vineyards. This resulted in decreased crop levels. Larry felt the challenge was to “allow for the grapes to reach their ‘physiological ripeness’ without sugar levels rising too quickly.” Although time will tell, he feels that challenge has been met and is very happy with the quality of fruit he has received and the young wines that have been produced.
Although the yields were lower, Wes reports that “quality is high and lots of folks are reporting dense, flavorful wines like we haven’t seen since 2010.” With drought and lower yields, Wes also believes this is the perfect time to stock up your cellar. Wine prices for quality bottles have never been better, and he predicts the prices are only going up in the next two years. J. Wilkes, where he consults, uses vineyards throughout the Santa Maria Valley, Santa Rita Hills, and Paso Robles Highlands, and they “are very excited about the quality of the 2015 vintage from all of these appellations, and will blend wines into the best AVA blends we can and offer them at great value.”
David deLaski, winemaker for the Solminer Wine Co (an organic vineyard) found that when they tested for pH and Brix (sugar content) to determine the best time to harvest, the pH was climbing faster than the Brix. In order to get the flavor profiles they wanted, they ended up with wines that have a higher pH than usual, but he is “….very happy with the flavors and aromas that the 2015 harvest is providing. The wines are developing beautifully in the cellar!” Solminer received Grüner Veltliner and Blaufränkisch (a red Austrian varietal that is quite rare in California). David says they also, “got a good amount of our Syrah this year, and we are making rosé, a fresh Syrah blend, a Syrah Reserve and last but not least, a sparkling Methode Champenoise. We also are sourcing Riesling grapes and this year a first, some Pinot Noir grapes.”
Sam Marmostein, owner of the Bernat Vineyard, Los Olivos Café Farm, and the Los Olivos Wine Merchant and Café, said his vines were a little stunted this year, despite being watered by drip, because of the “very dry winter.” He reports that his grape crop was 25% of what they normally get, but “the grapes taste great, and it should be a good year.” The newly established Los Olivos Farm has gotten off to a wonderful start. Sustainably and organically farmed, the crops are used in the dishes served at the Los Olivos Café with extra produce being pickled into jars with recipes developed by Executive Chef Chris Joslyn. The pickled produce will be available for sale at the Los Olivos Wine Merchant and Café very soon. In the beginning, the fields yielded so much zucchini that it initially outpaced the pickling process. Luckily, the Los Olivos Café Farm was able to donate the excess to the non-profit Veggie Rescue group, who redirects gleaned local produce to charitable organizations and school lunch programs in the Santa Barbara, Santa Ynez, and Santa Maria areas.
During this prolonged drought, where water use is extremely critical and everyone is concerned with saving as much of this precious resource as possible, vineyards have been using drip irrigation and inspecting regularly to make sure they only use as much as needed to ensure the vitality of the vines. According to Wes, this lack of water has begun to impact yields and vine health because of the “salts at root level caused by the extended drought.” He believes that the expected El Niño “…needs to bring us 20”+ this year to give us what we need for the next year, 30”would be better, but it needs to be spread out over the whole winter so it can recharge the water table and drench the vine roots, washing the salts away.” All of the growers are hoping for a wetter season with rain spread out evenly – no floods, and not during flowering!
When you combine the Los Olivos Wine Merchant & Café with Wes Hagen of Clos Pepe for a winemaker and pairing dinner, you get an exceptional culinary evening that is not only “UnTraditional” in it’s bold wine and food pairings, but an experience that leaves you surprisingly convinced that, as Wes claims, beer and wine truly are the foundations of all modern civilization.
The “UnTraditional” Winemaker and pairing dinner on June 7th started off with Wes introducing himself and promising to give, over the course of the evening, an explanation of each dish before it was served and, at some point, the history of why wine is the most important fermented beverage in the world…in 5-min. As an example, Wes emphasized the importance of gathering friends and family together around tables, such as those that evening, to share a good bottle of wine and linger to talk and connect in a way that is not possible through electronic gadgets. That face to face connection, enhanced by a glass or two or three of wine, often brings out the true natures of companions, and is a space where novel ideas can flow and alliances can be formed.
With the first course, Wes explained that he collaborated with Chef Chris Joslyn on a menu that would go beyond the usual, traditional pairings, and reach for courses that were a little outside the box; a little untraditional, but equally as complementary and delicious. Chef Joslyn’s team set the bar with the first plate, which featured a beautifully crafted Ahi, cucumber, and avocado mixture neatly tucked into a crispy sesame cornet. Light and slightly sweet, the amuse bouche paired beautifully with the Clos Pepe Estate 2013, “Axis Mundi Rose of Mourvedre.”
As the evening progressed that culinary bar got higher and higher. The appetizer was followed by a small plate which featured a Fanny Bay oyster beside a Short Rib croquette, paired with a steel barreled Clos Pepe Estate 2012 Chardonnay, “Homage to Chablis.” The third course brought the same pressed grapes back to the table, but this time having been fermented in an oak barrel so that guests could easily taste the difference between the two processes. Paired with grilled Longline Sword Fish, leeks, sweet corn, fingerling potato, and a lemon buerre fondue, the Clos Pepe Estate 2012 Chardonnay “Barrel Fermented” was the perfect compliment.
Moving on to the red wines, the fourth course introduced Clos Pepe Estate 2011 Pinot Noir to the table. Paired with a roasted chicken roulade, Oyster and Shitake mushrooms, braised chard, and chicken jus – the course melted in your mouth. A Cassoulet of pork sausage, pork confit, slab bacon, and duck confit was the feature of the fifth course. Neatly baked into small ramekins, this was the grand crescendo of the evening, and was excellently paired with the Clos Pepe Estate 2012 Pinot Noir.
Before the final course of assorted cheeses paired with an Olin 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon, Wes delivered on his promise to explain why wine was the most important booze in the world and was the reason we have advanced in our civilization. Perhaps it might have been a little more than 5-min, but no guest complained. They would have sat there for an hour more listening to Wes deliver his information in such an accessible, humorous style, and with such an infectious enthusiasm for life.
“I’ll go out on a limb and say the Sta. Rita Hills is a Chardonnay AVA that’s famous for Pinot Noir.” Wes Hagen is not one to mince words, particularly when it comes to his beloved Sta. Rita Hills. Hagen’s Clos Pepe vineyard has become highly sought-after for Pinot Noir, so his statement may come as a bit of a shock. However, after years of tasting Chardonnay from the Sta. Rita Hills, particularly its Northern half, I am inclined to agree with him. These are unparalleled expressions of the grape, distinctly different from the south of the appellation, channeling a saline minerality rarely found outside of Chablis, yet with a presence of fruit and power that could come from nowhere else. This week I spoke to several producers of Chardonnay from the Northern Sta. Rita Hills to find out what makes this part of the AVA so special.
The Northern Sta. Rita Hills corresponds roughly with the path of Route 246, which is essentially one giant wind tunnel that opens up to the Pacific. As one heads west, the temperatures get cooler and the wind gets more extreme, making for subtle but noticeable differences from vineyard to vineyard, and very severe conditions overall. In fact, Chardonnay often struggles to ripen here, a rarity for sunny California. “We’re not guaranteed full ripeness in any vintage,” says Hagen. “It is these on-the-edge appellations that produce world-class wine.” Indeed, wines grown in marginal climates, such as those from Chablis or Germany’s Mosel River Valley, have an intensity and depth that can only come from challenging conditions. The battered vines in this part of the region are better for their hardship, with a complexity borne from struggle that is readily apparent in the bottle.
The marine influence carries over into the soils, which are comprised of sand and sandy loam. Much like Burgundy, the heavier soils are favored for Pinot Noir, while the leanest, sandiest blocks are comprised mainly of Chardonnay. The Tierra and Elder series are dominant, with minor amounts of the extremely sandy Arnold and Corralitos soils. This stands in contrast to the Southern Sta. Rita Hills, which has more clay, shale, and diatomaceous earth, and seems to produce Chardonnay with more weight and power. Bryan Babcock, one of the area’s pioneers, sees significant difference in the flavor profile between the two: “I find the Chards in thesouthernhalf, most of which are growing on more fertile soils, to be fruitier in an apple-y or tropical way. In the northern half, along Highway 246, growing in more sandy soils, I find the wines to have more minerality. They are often more steely, mossy/wet stream bed, or broth-y, even to the point sometimes of having a bit of aspirin character.” Tyler Thomas, a Sonoma transplant who was recently appointed winemaker for Dierberg, finds a similar soil-driven intensity unparalleled in California, saying “in the North Coast I used to seek out Chardonnay vineyards I thought would give us mineral character; almost a citrusy-saline nose with an electric mouthfeel. I didn’t realize I just needed to source from the Northern Sta. Rita Hills.”
One of the biggest questions with Chardonnay, particularly in an area such as this that produces fruit with an already distinctive character, is how to best capture it in the cellar. From stainless steel to full barrel fermentation in new oak and everything in between, producers have explored the fruit from every possible angle. Greg Brewer has crafted Chardonnay from numerous sites in the region for two decades, and while he does utilize some neutral oak in his programs, stainless steel is the chosen medium for what are, in my opinion, his top expressions of place: Melville’s Inox and his own Diatom label. “The flavor profile we typically see has citrus character such as lime, lemon, meyer lemon, and yuzu,” says Brewer. “There also tends to be oceanic/saline characteristics, particularly texturally. Frequently, the sandier the parcel, the more crystalline and precise the resultant wine is.” Without the support of oak, these wines are incredibly intense, bordering on austere, even at alcohols that can climb into the 16s. Clos Pepe’s “Homage to Chablis” bottling, also rendered in steel, has this same stark character; one can taste the punishing wind and the sea air in every sip.
For those winemakers seeking a bit more textural breadth while still capturing the distinctive character of the fruit and the site, oak is utilized. “The growing conditions, certainly if you compare them to Chardonnay outside of the Sta. Rita Hills, lend more European lines to the wines, and it sets them up for a very strong and integrated expression of malolactic fermentation, lees character and new cooperage if the winemaker chooses the full elevage route for the maturation of the wine,” says Babcock. His “Top Cream” bottling is a great example of this, beautifully integrating this approach into a wine that is still very much driven by place. The team at Liquid Farm, one of the new critical darlings of the region, utilize mostly neutral oak in their renditions from the area. “We are White Burgundy freaks,” says co-owner Nikki Nelson. “We wanted to support something that was domestically grown that really hit home to the energy, minerality, ageability and overall intrigue that the best wines of Chablis and Beaune deliver. The best place for us to do that was undoubtedly the Santa Rita Hills.” They also choose to blend sites from the North AND South of the appellation, and the components that each brings to the blend are readily apparent. The flesh and more tropical/stone fruit character of the South makes for a beautiful contrast to the North’s sea salt and citrus notes. The result is almost like a marriage of Chablis and the Cote de Beaune, while still remaining uniquely Californian.
In the coming decades, I would not be surprised to see the Sta. Rita Hills subdivided further as our knowledge and experience with the site character here becomes more developed. This is not to say that one part of the appellation is better than another; rather, the goal is to better understand the subtle nuances of soil and climate that are distinct within the region. Chardonnay from the northern Sta. Rita Hills is a great jumping-off point because its voice is already so distinctive and has been captured so vividly by its practitioners. Over the next few months we’ll be exploring other facets of the Sta. Rita Hills and learning more about its sense of place. In the meantime, grab a plate of oysters and some Northern Sta. Rita Hills Chardonnay; it’ll blow your mind.
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