Photo essay: head-trained, dry-farmed Grenache on Scruffy Hill

Over recent years, we've become more and more convinced that dry farming is perhaps our most powerful tool in making wines that express their place.  I wrote about this in detail in 2010, and since then most of our new plantings have been very traditional: head-trained, dry-farmed and wide-spaced, reducing the competition from neighboring vines and allowing each vine access to a generous portion of soil from which scarce water can be pulled.  Of course, the vines have to grow an enormous root system to pull out this water, and it's probably of little surprise that the lots from these dry-farmed blocks are typically among the most compelling in our blind tastings.  The En Gobelet wine (read about the 2010 here) made entirely from these blocks is probably the clearest example.

We source the majority of our En Gobelet from a block we call Scruffy Hill, a relatively isolated dozen-acre planting on the south side of Tablas Creek, bordering Vineyard Drive. I spent some time this morning, under rare summer cloud cover, prowling around Scruffy Hill to see how the vines were faring after our second consecutive drought winter and our hot spell a few weeks back.  I was, as I consistently am, blown away by how healthy and vibrant the block looks, typically at least as vigorous as blocks that we plant in the trellised, densely planted configuration more commonly seen in California vineyards.  A few photos will illustrate.  First, an overview of the block, with head-trained vines retreating down the hill:

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You can see how chalky the soils are even in the above photo. Here's a closeup:

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The Grenache vines (which comprise a big piece of this block) are still pre-veraison, vibrantly green but fully sized, ready to change color in the next few weeks:

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In my ramblings, I found exactly two purple berries.  One is below, presaging the coming transformation:

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One of the advantages of head training is that the weight of the growing clusters pulls down on the canes of upright-growing grape varieties like Grenache, opening the canopy to the circulation of light and air and reducing the pressure of fungal diseases like powdery mildew.  For the same reason, it's not a great technique for more horizontal-growing varieties like Syrah.  And even when the canes have been pulled down, like in the vine below, the leaves still sit above them and offer shade.  I didn't see a single sunburned berry in my explorations.

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One more photo will give you a sense of the whole picture at this deceptively quiet juncture in the ripening cycle:

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The transformation that will take place over the next few weeks will change the look and feel of the vineyard dramatically.  But for now, things look just great.


Biodynamics and dry-farming: repairing the failings of "modern" viticulture

Week before last, I had the privilege of representing Tablas Creek at the Yosemite Vintners' Holidays.  This event (which I wrote about a few months back in my post 5 great events for food&wine lovers) was as usual a treat, with unexpectedly warm weather, about 175 attendees at our session and a wonderful culminating gala dinner that was probably the best meal I've seen the Ahwahnee dining room turn out.  Each attending winery is expected to present a seminar, with the topic of their choosing, and I spoke about the great 2007 vintage in the Rhone and in Paso Robles, and showed our 2007 Esprit de Beaucastel and 2007 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc, as well as the Beaucastel Chateauneuf-du-Pape red and white from 2007.

One of the pleasures of this great event is the opportunity to hear the presentations of the other speakers.  At most wine festivals, talks and tastings happen simultaneously, but the leisurely pace of the Vintners' Holidays allows the attendees to sit in on the other speakers' talks.  I was followed by John Williams, the winemaker and proprietor of Frog's Leap, who chose the intriguing topic "The Worst Wine Tasting Ever: A Retrospective Tasting & Discussion of Napa Valley’s Five Worst Years in the Last Twenty-Five Years".  He showed Frog's Leap Cabernet from vintages widely panned by the critics: 1988, 1989, 1998, 2000, and 2003 [ed. note: the original version of this article mistakenly listed 1990 rather than 1988].  The older wines were very pretty, and John made the point that what often makes a Cabernet appealing when young (lush fruit, soft tannins, low acidity) don't necessarily carry through in an appealing way as that wine ages, while some of the characteristics of "lesser" vintages (particularly higher tannin levels and higher acidity) can actually allow a wine to age gracefully.  Of course, a wine needs a certain level of concentration to age whatever its other characteristics, and it seems to me that this flaw is one that never gets better with time.

But apart from John's point about the ageability of "lesser" vintages -- a point on which he convinced me -- what I took away from his presentation was his inspiringly full-throated defense of traditional viticulture.  Frog's Leap has been farming organically for more than two decades, and biodynamically for roughly a decade.  What's more, they dry farm every acre they control, use exclusively native yeasts in their winemaking, and value balance over power.  Why?  His argument went more or less like this:

Grapevines, like most other plants and animals, are principally concerned with reproduction.  It is in their interest to get their fruit ripe, because then the fruit tastes good enough that birds will choose to eat their berries and spread their seeds more widely than those of the plants they're competing with.  How does it know what the season is, and what it has to do to get its fruit ripe?  It measures the angle of the sun, the amount of water in the soil, the actions of the other plants and the pheromones of the insects in its ecosystem.  But what might be termed "modern" viticulture (the use of irrigation, chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides, even aggressive crop-thinning and canopy management) has divorced a grapevine from its environment and therefore confused its natural processes, leading to grapes that are over-sugared and under-flavored at ripeness.

John used the analogy of a tomato.  A modern grocery store tomato is grown hydroponically, with fertilizer and water given at regular intervals.  When you get it home, it has very little flavor, so you let it get riper and riper on your windowsill.  It does continue to accumulate sugar, but while it may get as sweet or sweeter, it won't ever have the intensity of flavor and the balance of sweetness and acidity of a tomato grown to ripeness in real dirt in your back yard.  And too many grapevines in California are grown in conditions that are effectively hydroponic thanks to regular irrigation.  Of course, there are parts of the state where unirrigated viticulture would be impossible.  But even in places like Napa Valley, whose mountain appellations receive something like 40 inches of water per year, irrigation is the norm.  And giving a grapevine regular water begins a self-perpetuating cycle.  The vine will grow more roots where there is water, and those where there is no water will wither.  Since irrigation is typically done on a schedule, sometimes as often as every week, nearly all this root growth is concentrated at the surface.  These roots can't get the minerals they need from the small cone of moisture under an irrigation line, so growers have to add fertilizer to the irrigation.  These roots are also sensors for plant and animal activity that vary with the seasons, but the topsoil of a modern vineyard is nearly devoid of life thanks to the actions of herbicides (for weed control) and pesticides (for insect control).  So grapevines continue to accumulate sugar but don't receive the signals that they rely on to move their grapes to ripeness.  To help accelerate ripening, it's normal for vineyard managers to begin to remove leaves in August, which further reduces a vine's sensory inputs.  The net result is grapes that have to be left on the vine longer for a grapevine to get the appropriate signals that they should ripen the seeds and produce the flavors winemakers want.

I hadn't heard this explanation before correlating irrigation and over-alcoholic wines.  But it makes good sense to me.  We've long been advocates of dry-farming and organic viticulture for their ability to stimulate grapevines to pull character of place out of the vineyard and give it to the grapes they produce.  And more and more I'm hearing people comment how remarkable it is that the alcohols in Tablas Creek's wines are a point or more lower than our neighbors, yet the wines have plenty of intensity and great balance.  Is the fact that we dry-farm a significant factor in this difference?  It seems likely to me.

Ladybug So how does a vineyard hope to restore balance?  Enter biodynamics.  Biodynamic farming gets a lot of press for being a little on the touchy-feely side, with homeopathic applications of micronutrients that are supposed to be implemented based on the lunar calendar.  But when John was asked about burying manure-filled cow horns (one of the most often noted biodynamic applications) he dismissed it as little more than a distraction.  The vast majority of biodynamics, he said, is the effort to restore a plant's natural abilities to sense and respond to a vibrant environment.  This includes restoring its enviroment first by eliminating chemical applications that destroy plant and animal life and then by building life back into the soil through composting, cover cropping and insect habitat creation.  These healthier soils are also better at retaining moisture.

Often, moments like this help me reaffirm the choices we've already made.  Occasionally, they suggest new directions.  We've been farming organically since we founded Tablas Creek in 1989.  We've dry-farmed most vintages, and set up our irrigation to mimic natural rainfall patterns in the years when we couldn't.  We plant a vibrant cover crop each winter, and Neil, Ryan, David and the rest of the vineyard team have been increasingly focused on creating habitats in unused parcels.  But it was just last year that we started farming 20 acres biodynamically.  I have always focused more on the homeopathic elements of biodynamics, and have been interested -- in a skeptical way -- to see what we found were the differences.  But after hearing John Williams speak, and after tasting several Frog's Leap wines that I found noteworthy for their balance and character over the three-day event, I think my position may be changing.  And I am more convinced than ever that dry-farming is perhaps the most important key to making wines of character, balance, and, yes, sustainability.


Creating a new wine: En Gobelet

Our model at Tablas Creek is pretty consistent from year to year.  We make our Esprit de Beaucastel (red and white) and Cotes de Tablas (red and white).  We make our Rosé.  We make somewhere between six and nine single varietal wines depending on what's compelling when we're doing our blending.  Some years we make a dessert wine or three.

Okay, maybe that doesn't sound very simple.  But practically speaking, it doesn't change much from year to year, or at least hasn't changed much since we introduced a relatively extensive lineup of single varietals in the 2002 vintage.  The specifics of which varietals to produce have been more or less dictated by the production levels of the vintage and what we taste when we're putting together our core blends.

One thing that we have not done is subdivide our vineyard and do vineyard block designates.  It's not that we don't believe that this might make for interesting wines; we would love to celebrate any block-level differences we learn about.  We do expect eventually to make a block-designate wine from the dry-farmed, head-pruned, west-facing eleven-acre block on the south side of Tablas Creek.  But we have not yet seen a distinctive character from a specific block that we can track from year to year.  Ask us again in a decade.

Head-pruned-mourvedre One experiment that has shown some promise has been our decision to plant small head-pruned blocks of vines in several of the flatter, lower-lying areas such as the Mourvedre block between the winery and Adelaida Road (visible at right).  We created several other head-pruned blocks in vineyard that we reclaimed from rootstock when we outsourced our nursery operation to NovaVine in 2004.  That effort accelerated when we planted Scruffy Hill (the vineyard block on the other side of Tablas Creek I mention above) in the winters of '05-'06 and '06-'07.  At this point, we have about eighteen acres of head-pruned vines, scattered here and there around the vineyard.

Head-pruning is appealing both for its simplicity and because it is traditional.  The Chateauneuf du Pape regulations which specify the rules for the appellation controllée dictate that all grape varieties except Syrah be head-pruned (taillé en gobelet; literally translated as "pruned in goblet form").  And in Paso Robles, too, the old vineyards are all head-pruned, largely Zinfandel but also Petite Sirah, Carignan and other California "heritage" varieties.  It's much less expensive to plant a vineyard this way, as you plant with less density and no posts, wires, irrigation lines, etc.  And the yields are controlled naturally, as dry-farmed, head-pruned vines rarely produce more than 2 or 3 tons per acre.  This natural yield control is why head-pruning is legislated in Chateauneuf du Pape. 

As we've had a chance to get some of these blocks into production, we're noticing they seem to share  an elegance and a complexity which is different from what we see in the rest of the vineyard.  Perhaps it's the areas where they are planted (generally lower-lying, deeper-soil areas).  Perhaps it's the age of the vines and a comparative lack of brute power.  But, whatever the reason, we believe that these lots show our terroir in a unique and powerful way.

We got the idea of putting several of these lots into one wine for our VINsider wine club last summer, as we remarked again and again on the character that they shared.  We chose to base the wine on Mourvedre and Grenache (which comprise most of our head-pruned blocks) but also added a splash of head-pruned Tannat which gives the resulting wine a little more smokiness and a little firmer finish.  We are calling it En Gobelet, after the French term for head-pruning.  We expect it to act like many Mourvedre-based wines, drinking well when young, then tightening up after 3-4 years in bottle before reopening for another 10 years or more as a mature wine.  A bottle of the wine will go out in the fall 2009 shipment.  The label for the wine is below.

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Getting Ready to Plant "Scruffy Hill"

After a five-year hiatus in planting, we're getting ready to begin again, at the deliberate rate of 5 acres per year over the next five years.  This will allow us to gradually build our capacity from the around-16,000 case level we are now (on 80 acres) to the 22,000 case neighborhood (on 105 acres) we'd like to max out at.

What will be fun is that we're going to have available a new selection of vinifera clones (many of which weren't available during our key planting years of 1994, 1995, and 1997).

A view looking back across Tablas Creek from Scruffy Hill
A view looking back across Tablas Creek
from Scruffy Hill

We will begin the planting, this and next year, with the 10-acre section of land at the southeast corner of the property, on the far side of Tablas Creek, that we have named "Scruffy Hill" after its often unmowed appearance.  This beautiful piece of property was originally discussed as a house site, but with all the members of the family having decided to live in town, and the obvious suitability of the west-facing slopes for vines, we've decided to plant.

We are planning to plant the plot to Mourvedre, Grenache, and Counoise, all dry-farmed and head-pruned, without even irrigation lines to get the young vines started.  In order to increase the likelihood of the vines surviving, we will plant quite sparsely (about 10' x 10') to allow the vines to make the most of the little available water.  The dry-farming will control our yields, once the vines get into production, around the 2 tons-per-acre level.

As we try to do whenever possible, we want to allow anyone who's interested to learn more about our vineyard and winemaking practices, and hopefully demystify wine a bit in the process.  We have scheduled a Vineyard Development Seminar for Saturday, January 21st (weather permitting).  The details:

January 21, 2006 10 a.m. (rain date January 28th)
Planting and Vineyard Development Seminar

In 2006, we will begin the planting of the remaining 30 acres we have available to us at Tablas Creek, at a pace of roughly 5 acres per year. The first section of the vineyard to be planted will be the section we call "Scruffy Hill" on the south side of Tablas Creek adjacent to Vineyard Drive. In this beautiful section of property we'll be planting head-pruned, dry-farmed Grenache, Mourvedre and Counoise. Join us on Saturday, January 21st to help us put the vines in the ground! Neil Collins, Winemaker and Vineyard Manager, will lead attendees in some hands-on planting as well as a discussion of vineyard development issues including irrigation, vine spacing, rootstock selection, and more. We'll finish the morning with a field lunch either down by the creek or at the winery, depending on weather. The event is free for VINsiders and $20 for guests. Space is limited and reservations are required for this unique event; contact Nicole Getty at events@tablascreek.com or 805.237.1231 x39.

You can read a complete list of upcoming events, both at the winery and around the country, on our Web site.