Yes, we've started picking... but there's still plenty of ripening to be done

We've been picking, little by little, for about two weeks. We began with some Pinot Noir from my parents' place and Viognier from here, and then last week got our first Grenache Blanc, Syrah, and (bizarrely, since both are typically late-ripening) both Counoise and Roussanne. This week, we've been picking lots more Syrah, our Vermentino, and more Grenache Blanc. Chelsea estimated yesterday that we were about 10% done, and our harvest chalkboard isn't as empty as it used to be:

Harvest chalkboard mid-Sept

After a hot few days over the weekend, we've had a bit of respite the past few days. Clouds are unusual here in the summer and early fall, and although we didn't get the rain that some other parts of California did yesterday, it made for an unusual tableau. Equally welcome, temperatures topped out in the seventies:

Clouds over Tablas mid-Sept

It's useful to remember, when thinking about harvest for a Rhone specialist like us, that we'd expect it to take roughly two months between beginning and end. And since it's roughly six weeks between veraison and harvest, it's not surprising that we still have rainbow clusters (particularly in Mourvedre, our latest-ripener) even as we're bringing in our first grapes:

Mourvedre cluster mid-Sept

Our other grapes have mostly finished veraison. This Tannat cluster looks like it's ready to pick, although sugars are still a little low and it's likely a couple of weeks out:

Tannat cluster mid-Sept

White grapes are starting to pick up the more golden hue that they get as harvest approaches. Roussanne isn't quite at the russet color from which it derives its name yet, but it's getting there. It's a sign of the vineyard's health that Roussanne, often not ready until late October, has already started to come in. Normally, the grape's susceptibility to virus and stress-related devigoration slows ripening to a crawl sometime in August. Not this year:

Roussanne cluster mid-Sept

Even Counoise, which we wouldn't normally expect until mid-October, has made an appearance in the cellar. The clusters are beautiful, and the grapes make amazing eating. You might be able to tell, just by looking, why it was so valued as a table grape before the development of seedless grapes last century:

Counoise cluster mid-Sept

Most wine lovers, I've found, have pictures in their heads about what a vineyard should look like. These pictures pretty much all have ripe grapes hanging on the vine, dark purple and delectable. In reality, the window in which that scene is present is a relatively narrow one. But it's happening now. If you're coming out for a visit in the next few weeks, you're in for a treat:

Counoise

And no, that's not a stock photo. I took it in our Counoise block yesterday. Happy harvest season, everyone.


The delayed 2019 Harvest begins slowly, but we can feel the wave building

This is the time of year when everyone in Paso Robles begins every conversation with "so, how's harvest coming for you?" Typically, they're asking if you've begun, and if so, if you're far enough in to have a sense of how things will look. And we have begun, although only a little, and just two grapes. But even these grapes give us useful data points as we look to compare the 2019 harvest with other recent vintages. And one thing is clear: there's a lot more on the way, soon.

We began harvest on August 29th with a pick of about five and half tons of Pinot Noir from my parents' place in Templeton. As we typically do for the first pick, the whole cellar team goes out and works alongside the vineyard crew. Perhaps that's why Vineyard Manager David Maduena, overseeing his 26th(!) harvest here at Tablas Creek, is looking amused:

DSC09594

The grapes look amazing. It's remarkable how little stress the vines appear to be under, at a time of year when they're usually starting to look a bit ragged. That's a testament to the ample and distributed rainfall we got last winter, and to the relatively moderate summer we've seen. Even with the past four warm weeks (average high temp: 92.4°F), we've only seen eight days this summer top 100°F, with a high of 103.5°F. That may sound like a lot, but it's well below the average here, and the nights have remained cool: the average nighttime low over the last four weeks was 54.9°F, and every one of the seven 100+ days saw nighttime temperature drop into the 50s. A few photos should help give you a sense of the health of the vines. First, the Pinot block. Everything is green, not a hint of red or yellow to be seen in the leaves:

DSC09499

And it's not just Pinot. Check out this photo looking out over two blocks that would normally be showing signs of stress in early September: a hilltop Grenache block in the foreground (still only partway through veraison) and the dry-farmed "Scruffy Hill" block on the other side of the creek. Both are still vibrantly green:

Looking over Grenache to Scruffy Hill

But for all that we're still recovering from the delayed beginning to the growing season, we're making up time fast. The conditions (mid-90s highs and mid-50s lows) have been absolutely ideal for grapevine photosynthesis to proceed with peak efficiency. And we've definitely caught up. In my veraison post on August 6th, I looked at the 36-49 day range that we've observed between first veraison on the estate and first harvest and made a prediction that we'd start between September 4th and September 17th. As it turned out, 2019 will tie for our shortest-ever duration between veraison and harvest, and at 3am yesterday (September 4th) the team convened at our oldest Viognier block to kick off the 2019 harvest. Shepherd/Videographer Nathan Stuart was there to capture it. Definitely turn on the soundtrack for this one:

If you haven't been a part of a night pick, it's a memorable experience. There's a camaraderie in the shared work, the early start, and the silence that surrounds you. Until, of course, the lights go on and the tractors rev up, and then it's go time.

DSC03376

We didn't pick that much, just eight bins (a little under four tons) from the top of the block. The bottom of the same hill was enough behind the top to make it worth waiting until next week. But after having run numbers on most of the early-ripening grapes, we know that things have moved enough that it's likely we'll see more Viognier as well as our first Syrah and Vermentino next week. And then, we'll be in the thick of things.

How does this compare to last year? With only two data points, it's hard to say. We picked Pinot quite a bit earlier this year than last (August 29th vs. September 10th) at similar numbers. But we picked the first Viognier from here bit later than last year (September 4th vs. August 31st). Yes, the regions are different, but not wildly so. Instead, I think that the Pinot vines were delayed last year by the swings between cool and hot which we largely avoided this year. In 2019, the two regions have accumulated almost exactly the same number of degree hours compared to average: Templeton Gap 2249 (0.4% above average) and Adelaida District 2430 (1.2% above average). By contrast, to this point last year, we were 9.6% above average here at Tablas Creek, and 5.9% above average in the Templeton Gap. So, why are many of our grapes coming in earlier despite the cooler year?

To understand why, it's important to know what degree days (or degree hours) is measuring, and how it does and doesn't correlate with how grapevines ripen. Degree days measure the number of hours that temperatures spend above an arbitrary line, which corresponds roughly to the point at which plants start photosynthesizing. But in a year like 2018, when we had cool stretches interspersed with one long scorching hot stretch it's important to remember that neither cool nor very hot temperatures are ideal for grapevine photosynthesis. Instead, grapevines photosynthesize optimally in consistent very warm (but not hot) weather. And we've almost entirely avoided those hot days this year. Last year? Not so much. We saw 25 days that topped 100°F, including ten hotter than our hottest day this year (103.5°F). At those very hot temperatures, grapevines close the pores in their leaves to protect themselves from dehydration, slowing their photosynthetic capacity. This year, it's been all systems go.

It may be early in the harvest season, and we may only have brought in two grapes, but all signs point to it getting busy soon. If you see a winemaker out at a restaurant in the next few days, you might want to wish them well. Because you may not see them again until November.


A Mid-veraison Photo Essay

 

Although most of the 2019 growing season has been on the cool side, we've had a couple of warm weeks since my last update. Nothing extraordinary for August (when our average high temperature is 92°F) but the first half of the month saw an average high of 93.8°F and two days late last week topped 100°F. And then, the weather broke, and we had an absolutely stunning weekend, with highs of 73 and 74, a nice breeze off the ocean, and cool, crisp nights down in the 40s.

I took advantage of the cool this morning to hike through the vineyard and get a sense of where the different grapes are sitting in their path to harvest. Overall, I think we're just a touch before veraison's midpoint, maybe 40% overall. So, there are nearly as many berries pink or red as there are still green.  Of course, that varies quite a bit by variety, and even within a variety, with cooler spots at the bottoms of hills a bit behind those same grapes at the tops of the hills.  I'll take them in the order in which we saw veraison start.

Syrah

Syrah is easily the most advanced red grape. I'd estimate it's at roughly 80% versaison. The clusters in the below photo are maybe a touch more advanced than average:

Syrah C

Mourvedre

Although it will be late to harvest, Mourvedre actually went into veraison before Grenache. It's still only at about 40% through, I would estimate, and because it takes so long between veraison's end and when it's ready to pick, we're not likely to see it before October.

Mourvedre

Grenache

There is not much in a vineyard setting that is more beautiful than a Grenache cluster going through veraison. A single cluster can look like a rainbow:

Grenache

I'd estimate that Grenache is only about 30% into veraison; the cluster above was unusually advanced.

Counoise

Last week, I walked two different Counoise blocks and couldn't find any veraison except on a few weak vines. But this morning, I didn't have much trouble finding it. It's still far more green than red, and overall, I'd estimate it's only at 10% veraison:

Counoise closeup

White grapes go through veraison too, although it's hard to photograph the subtle color changes that they undergo. But as they get close to ripeness, you do start to see a yellower tint to the formerly-green grapes. 

Viognier

We're guessing that the first grape we'll get into the cellar will be Viognier. You can start to see the color change in the grape clusters in the photo below:

Viognier at Tablas Creek August 2019

With the combination of plentiful rainfall last winter and our relatively mild summer, I saw fewer signs of stress than I can ever remember in mid-August. I'll share some shots that give you a little more of a view of the vines (in addition to the multicolored clusters). First, Syrah:

Syrah C cordon

And second, another Counoise shot, maybe my favorite of the entire day. Counoise is typically looking a little ragged by now, with as much brown or yellow in its leaves as green. Not this year:

Counoise

Overall, things look great as we turn into the home stretch. But we're going to have to be patient. We're starting to read stories about the grape harvest beginning in other parts of California, and even at Beaucastel things are getting close:

Syrah close to harvest. #familleperrin #beaucastel #syrah #rhonevalley #rhonevalleywines #winery #harvest

Posted by Famille Perrin - Beaucastel on Monday, August 12, 2019

But here, we're going to have to wait a bit. I still don't expect grapes before September, and not much before the middle of the month.


Veraison 2019 Suggests a mid-September Start to Harvest

This year, as both Jordy and I have noted, has been cool. Even the warm stretches have been moderate. And the vineyard has noticed. While in most years I would be posting about veraison in mid-to late-July, this year we didn't see any evidence of color until just a few days ago. And it's still barely started. But now, if you head to one of our Syrah blocks, you don't have to look too hard to find veraison:

Veraison 2019 Syrah 1

Veraison is a physiological stage of grape evolution where the berry stops accumulating mass and starts accumulating sugar. More visibly, red grapes start their color change from green, while white grapes take on more of a yellow tint. Both red and white grapes start to soften. [For more about what's happening chemically, check out this veraison post from the archives.] This landmark comes roughly six weeks before the onset of harvest, and gives us our best estimate for when harvest will begin. The most advanced Syrah cluster I could find has some berries that don't look all that different than they will at harvest:

Veraison 2019 Syrah 3

It's important to note that this cluster is exceptional. Even at the top of the hills, most of the Syrah clusters are green (you can see this in all the other clusters in the above photo). At the bottom of the hills, there's very little color change to be found. And as for the other grapes, I couldn't find any red in any of them. This Mourvedre cluster is just one example; I could have pointed the camera just about anywhere and shown you the same thing:

Veraison 2019 Mourvedre

Although the "first veraison of the season" posts you're likely seeing from your favorite wineries may make it seem like veraison is a moment, like Christmas, it's probably better understood as a continuum, like winter, and first veraison is like first frost, or first snowfall. It will likely be several weeks before even all the Syrah clusters are red, and longer than that until late grapes like Mourvedre and Counoise finish coloring up. 

While six weeks is a good basic guide for the duration between veraison and harvest, it's not totally constant, and can be influenced by the weather that we get in the interim, as well as by the amount of fruit the vines are carrying.  For example, 2007's first veraison was in mid-July, but relatively light crop levels and a very warm August produced a beginning to harvest before the end of August. By contrast, in 2010 a veraison ten days later than 2007's (July 30th, just like this year) was compounded by a very cool August, and we started harvest after the mid-point of September, three weeks later than we had in 2007. The last dozen years are compiled in the chart below, with each year linked to my blog post about that year's veraison:

Year First Veraison Noted Estate Harvest Begins # of Days
2007 July 20 August 28 39
2008 July 23 September 3 42
2009 July 20 September 1 43
2010 July 30 September 16 49
2011 August 5 September 20 47
2012 July 25 September 5 42
2013 July 17 August 26 40
2014 July 9 August 23 45
2015 July 18 August 26 39
2016 July 13 August 18 36
2017 July 20 August 30 40
2018 July 29 September 101 42
2019 July 30 ? ?

Using the range of durations between first veraison and first harvest (36 to 49 days) we can have good confidence that we'll begin picking sometime between September 4th and September 17th. The weather between now and then will determine where in the range we'll fall. 

What's next for the vineyard? We'll watch the different grapes go through veraison. Syrah will likely be followed by Mourvedre and Grenache soon, and Counoise a bit later. White grapes too stretch out across a continuum; in fact, Viognier has already started veraison, according to Jordy, although the visible changes are subtle enough that a photograph doesn't really show anything. Vermentino and Marsanne will move into veraison on the earlier side, Grenache Blanc and Picpoul in the middle, and Roussanne bringing up the rear, as usual. It's an exciting time, and the view changes daily. We'll be posting regular photos of veraison's progress on our Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram pages. In the cellar, we're finishing up the last of the year's bottling, and starting the process of pulling out and cleaning all the tanks, barrels, and equipment we'll be using once harvest begins.

I'm not sure whether veraison really marks the beginning of the end of the growing season. But it does at least seem to mark the end of the beginning. The countdown clock is ticking, and we now know -- roughly -- how much time is on it.

Veraison 2019 Syrah 2

Footnotes:

  1. OK, we picked our first Viognier on August 31st. But we didn't bring in any estate reds off the property until September 10th, so I'm going with that date.

A massive honey harvest from our new Langstroth hives means... a great vintage?

By Jordan Lonborg. Photos by Nathan Stuart.

Could a prolific honey bee year be indicative of a stellar wine grape vintage? I think so!!

Keeping bees in Paso Robles is no easy task. Years of drought, cold winters, and extreme heat are a just a few of the many factors as to why this is true. Nationwide, beekeepers are losing colonies due to pesticide use, Varroa Destructor (a parasitic mite that attaches itself to the thorax of a honeybee and grows large enough so that the bee can no longer fly), and ever changing weather patterns. All that said, if one was to decide to start beekeeping in 2019, on the west side of Paso Robles, it would have seemed easy.

Jordy Lonborg  Suited Up

The rainfall this year was prolific. Not so much the amount of rain received (roughly 35” here at Tablas Creek, which is excellent but was not a record by any means) but the consistent wet weather pattern we were in. As opposed to sporadic, large storms that would dump 3” at a time (there were definitely a few of those) leaving stretches of sunshine in its wake, the weather was regularly wet, with 69 days producing measurable precipitation, the most in the 23 years we've had our weather station. This was great for many reasons. First, the ground was able to become fully saturated before the rain started to run off. This allowed for deep percolation helping to recharge all of our deep aquifers in the area. This fully wetted soil profile in combination with the cold weather (30 days reached below freezing temperature on the property) ensured that any dormant wildflower seeds within the soil profile stayed dormant until soil temps started to rise. It also ensured that the cover crop would have all the water it needed to thrive into early summer. Lastly, it all the moisture meant lots of grass, and we were able to successfully graze our 200+ sheep through the vineyard at least two times, some blocks seeing a third pass. The nutrients provided by the animals broke down in all the wet weather and moved through the soil profile more efficiently.

When the days started to lengthen and the soil temp started to rise, we were rewarded with a cover crop that grew to be seven feet tall in places. The Cayuse Oats in that cover crop mix provided some of the strongest scaffolding for our Purple and Common Vetch I’d ever seen. Our beneficial insectary/nectary plantings throughout the vineyard were an explosion of purples, reds, yellows, oranges, and white flowers. On the banks of Las Tablas Creek were blankets of miner's lettuce. On every hill in the Adelaida you’d see brilliant patches of phacelia, mustard, fiddleneck, lupine, sage, and poppy. In the forests were elderberry trees, madrone and oaks bursting with pollen. In other words, the nectar flow was on!!!

As soon as we posted the swarm catchers throughout the vineyard in mid-April, they started getting hits. In total, we caught six swarms this season. Then came the tricky part, putting them in a hive and getting them to stay. Normally, this process isn’t that hard due to the fact that we had been using Langstroth Hives (the square hive body we are all familiar with). The native swarms seem to establish themselves more easily in these hive bodies. It’s hard to pin-point why, but I’ve always had good success. But this year, we decided to try something different: Top Bar hives. For more, check out this short video:

Tablas Creek Beekeeping with Jordy Lonborg from Shepherd's Films on Vimeo.

Top Bar beekeeping is one of the oldest and most commonly used forms of beekeeping on the planet. There is only one long horizontal box in which bars are laid across the top. The bees build their comb off the bottom of these bars, filling the void below. You do not need frames, foundation, or wire for the comb to be built. You do not need an extractor for the honey and there is no heavy lifting of boxes or supers. The bees are less agitated when you work the hive because when inspecting you are only moving one bar at a time as opposed to pulling entire frames or moving entire sections of the box altogether.  Having been the first time I’d ever worked with this style of beekeeping, it took a few tries before I could get a swarm to stay put. Through trial and error, I realized a few things. Always hive a swarm in the evening (just before dark), make sure there is food in the hive (50/50 sugar water mix), and make sure there are large enough entrance/exit holes for the bees to allow for heavy traffic. Of the six swarms we caught, only one took. But it is thriving. Of the 31 top bars, 24 of the have full comb drawn out. Knowing what I know now, we should be able to fill the rest of the hives next year (if we are lucky enough to have similar conditions).

Queen BeeCheck out the queen bee (surrounded by worker bees in the corner of the hive)!

Honey production has been amazing thus far in our Langstroth hives. To date, we have harvested around 72 pounds of honey off of just one hive and it is still coming. Obviously this has been due to the prolific bloom we experienced early in the year. There is another factor at play as well. It wasn’t just the size of the bloom, but the length of the bloom that has been so astounding. In years past we’d start experiencing pretty high temps earlier in the season which causes the bloom to end a bit more abruptly as the ground dries out faster and the sun beats on the flowers. This was one of the coolest springs and early summers I’ve experienced in the Adelaida. We've only seen 3 days reach 100°F, and another 23 reach 90°F. That may sound like a lot, but it's not. The average summer high here is 93°F. And even when our days were warm, it was only for a few hours, as our evenings have been chilly. We received more than an inch of rain in May, which also prolonged that top layer of soil from drying out. There simply was no stress on the plants, allowing them to go through their entire life cycle at their own pace, which in turn allowed the honey bees to continuously harvest pollen and nectar at their own pace. This lack of stress is why I am also predicting an amazing wine grape vintage for Tablas Creek Vineyard. 

Being an older vineyard for the west side of Paso comes with its challenges. Like humans, the longer a vine is alive the more exposure it has to disease and virus. Many of our older blocks at Tablas Creek have some level of trunk disease or virus within them.  When we experience prolonged periods of heat in the vineyard, vines will experience some level of stress. Vines that have trunk disease or virus are stressed even more so. The symptoms and signs of the disease and virus express themselves sooner, thus restricting that vine's ability to set fruit, grow leaves, sustain the crop, and ripen the crop. And even with our last warm 10-day stretch (average high temp: 95°F) the growing season has been a mild one. The vineyard has not been truly stressed, and you can tell. Typically, in our most infected blocks, the signs and symptoms of virus and disease are obvious at this point. That is just simply not the case this year.

To date, I’ve not seen this property so vibrant and green at this point in the season. It is August and we’ve yet turn the water on in any of our irrigated blocks. In most years past, our irrigated blocks had been watered at least once already. This lack of stress is why I am predicting an amazing vintage. All of our vines both healthy and unhealthy have been allowed to go through their natural growth cycle with no hiccups or speed bumps in the road. Obviously, only time will tell what this harvest holds in store for us. But if we continue on this path, it could be a vintage unlike any other.

Farmers use nature’s cues to predict many things on their property. In Paso, we always say that when the Almonds start to bloom, the grapes are two to three weeks behind. I think I may have gained another this year. “If I am pulling 75 lbs. of honey out of one box, we are gonna be making some killer wine this year!”

Fingers crossed….


A Mid-Summer Vineyard Check-In Suggests 2019 Harvest Will Be Latest Since 2011

On Friday, I joined more than a hundred other members of the Paso Robles wine community at the California Mid-State Fair's wine awards. It's always a fun celebration, and I thought that this year's honorees -- Justin Smith of Saxum Vineyards for Winemaker of the Year, Paul Hoover of Still Waters Vineyards for Grape Grower of the Year, and (posthumously) Scott Welcher of Wild Horse and Opolo as Wine Industry Person of the Year -- were all highly deserving. The awards were presented by some of the icons of the local industry (Gary Eberle, Ken Volk, and Austin Hope) and the great turnout was a testament to both how well liked all the honorees are and to the work that the Mid-State Fair has done to involve the wine community in recent years.

After the awards, we stuck around with our kids and wandered the fair's Midway, ate our annual allotment of funnel cake, and called it a relatively early night because we were all freezing as soon as the sun set and the wind kicked up, particularly Sebastian, our 11-year-old who decided it would be a good idea to go on a water ride at sundown.

OK, pause for a record scratch here, to appreciate how weird it is to type freezing and fair in the same sentence. Typically, the Mid-State Fair week is scorching here in Paso Robles, and you call it a day after a few hours because you can only stand so much 100+ heat. It is, after all, the second half of July, when the average high temperature in Paso Robles is 93°F. Last July (admittedly, a hot one) saw 14 different days top 100°F and another four miss by less than a degree. But at 8:30pm on Friday, as we drove home, it was 60°F, and downright chilly with the wind even inside our newly-purchased fair sweatshirts.

We've had that experience a lot this spring and summer, and the vineyard has been thriving in the comparatively cool weather. With only one day having topped 100 so far this year, and good water in the ground from last winter's generous rainfall, you would hope that the grapevines would be looking green and healthy. And they are. I posted this video over the weekend taking a look at one of our Grenache blocks:

Zooming in, the clusters are resolutely green, at a time of year when in most years this decade I've been posting pictures of veraison. On the property here, we would expect to see veraison first in Syrah. But it doesn't feel like it's close, with some berries still showing the oval shape they do as they are growing. The clusters, though, are beautiful and relatively plentiful, which will be a nice change from most recent years where Syrah was scarce:

Syrah mid-July

White grapes do go through veraison, although it's subtle and harder to photograph. That said, even Viognier (below) shows none of the hints of yellow that it gets as it nears ripeness:

Viognier mid-July

Mourvedre isn't even full-sized yet, with the uneven look that many clusters have at this time of year, with some berries twice the size of others:

Mourvedre mid-July

Grenache is still green, but the story there isn't that as much as it is the shatter that we're seeing. Shatter happens when cold, wet, or windy weather during flowering prevents full fertilization of the flowers, and you end up with missing berries. Some grapes are more prone to it than others, and Grenache is notoriously susceptible. But it's not necessarily a bad thing, as in years when there isn't any shatter we have to thin this heavy producer more rigorously. A little shatter, like we're seeing this year, actually makes our job easier:

Grenache mid-July

What does all this mean for harvest? Well, we're behind where we were last year, when we didn't really get going until the second week of September, and three or more weeks behind warmer years like 2013, 2014, and 2016. Is it possible that we're looking at a vintage more like 2010 and 2011, when we didn't get going until late September and were still picking in mid-November? I doubt it. We're forecast for a week of very warm weather starting today. That will help things catch up a bit. And after all, while it's been cool, it's still been warmer than either of those unusual years. The temperature chart below has a line for each year this decade, with 2019 in red to make it easily visible. The 2010 and 2011 lines show consistently colder growing seasons:

Average Temps by Month 2010- July 2019

So, while I'm not expecting a late-September start, I think we're likely to be waiting until mid-September to see anything significant off the estate, and I think it's a better than 50/50 proposition that we're still harvesting into November. But that's not a bad thing. The climate here in Paso Robles is pretty reliable until mid-November, and I tend to prefer the balance and character of vintages with longer hang times. Meanwhile, we'll keep our eyes out for veraison, which kicks off the roughly 6-week sprint to harvest. So far, so good.


Grapes of the Rhone Valley: Muscardin

We have some big news. With last week's grafting of some 250 Muscardin buds into the vineyard at Tablas Creek, we've achieved our goal of having all the Chateauneuf-du-Pape grapes in the ground here at Tablas Creek. This is the culmination of a 30-year project, and meaningful for me in part because it's the realization of one of my dad's dreams.

But what, you ask, is Muscardin like? That's a difficult question. I've been answering it by saying, "well, it's red, but not very" and making a joke that that's all I know. But it's only sort of a joke, because there is so much we don't know yet. Muscardin is barely planted even in its Rhone Valley homeland, and there has been none that I've been able to find that ever made its way outside of the Rhone. But still, I've done what I can to pull together everything we know about it here.

MuscardinHistory
Muscardin is rare nowadays, and it appears never to have been very common, or found anywhere outside the Rhone. Its first mention in the historical record from 1895 talks about it being one of the "old southern grape varieties", along with Grenache, Piquepoul, Tinto, Terret noir, gris and blanc, Counoise, Vaccarese, Clairette, and Picardan.1  Its combination of relatively low vigor, pale color, and sprawling growth appears to have been three strikes against it in the period after Phylloxera2, and in 2009 there were just 11 hectares (27 acres) in Chateauneuf du Pape, and less than that in the rest of France.3 Nevertheless, it is recognized in the official Chateauneuf-du-Pape regulations as a distinct grape, and the Perrins have been one of its advocates, valuing the wine for its freshness and floral lift. When we decided that we wanted the complete collection of Chateauneuf-du-Pape varieties in 2003, our Muscardin cutting came from the Beaucastel estate.

The origin of Muscardin's name is obscure, but the one thing that practically everyone agrees with is that it has nothing to do with Muscat or Muscadet. And the grape's scarcity (it doesn't even appear in Viala & Vermorel's seminal 1905 Ampelographie) means that there is just not that much literature out there on this rare grape.  So, we really are breaking new ground here.

The grape did not have an easy time getting into California either. We took cuttings from Beaucastel in 2003 along with Picardan, Terret Noir, Cinsaut, Vaccarese, Bourboulenc, and Clairette Blanche, and all entered quarantine at U.C. Davis at the same time. But while the other grapes were released to us after one, two, or three rounds of virus cleanup, Muscardin took four separate rounds and wasn't released to NovaVine until last year. They have been working on producing buds ever since.

Muscardin in the Vineyard and Cellar
In order to speed up our production of this last grape, we made the decision to graft the 250 buds we were able to secure onto existing vine stock. About 50 of those buds were grafted onto rootstocks that we planted last year, with the other 200 grafted onto a few surplus rows of 20-year-old Grenache Blanc. We expect to get production off of this block perhaps as soon as 2020.

We don't know that much about how Muscardin will do in our vineyard, but we do have some reports from Chateauneuf-du-Pape. There is a great quote from Baron Le Roi of Chateau Fortia that John Livingstone-Learmonth recounts in his 1992 book The Wines of the Rhone: "You know, we would be better off here if we replaced the Cinsault with the Muscardin. The Muscardin doesn't produce a lot, makes wine of low degree and spreads out over the soil, preventing tractors from passing freely between the vines, all of which combine to put people off it. But I believe that it gives a freshness on the palate and helps the wine to achieve elegance."4

As with any new grape, our initial picking decisions are educated guesses, but Muscardin is supposed to both emerge from dormancy and ripen early, more or less in sync with Syrah. This suggests we will need to be ready to protect it from frost. It is known for ripening at low alcohols and relatively high acids. The freshness and floral character it is supposed to bring to the table suggest that ultimately it will become a part of our blends, and serve perhaps a similar role to Counoise. That said, we plan to bottle the first few vintages on their own, so that we can wrap our heads around them and so we can show them to other people and get their feedback.

Flavors and Aromas
At Beaucastel, because it is so scarce, Muscardin is rarely vinified on its own and I was not able to taste it on either of my last two visits. I did taste a tank where they co-fermented it with two other pale, floral grapes, Vaccarese and Terret Noir. It was delicious, rose petals and fresh acids, spicy with yellow plum and strawberry fruit. I suspect from our own experiences here that the tannic bite I remember came from the Terret; neither Vaccarese nor Muscardin are supposed to be particularly tannic. But we will know more soon. As for aging, Muscardin is reputed to be prone to oxidation, like Counoise, so it may well be something best drunk young, and I suspect we will choose to bottle it under screwcap. We look forward to finding out, and sharing our discoveries with you!

Footnotes

  1. Jancis Robinson, Wine Grapes, HarperCollins 2012, p 678.
  2. John Livingstone-Learmonth, The Wines of the Rhone, Faber & Faber 1992, p 326.
  3. Harry Karis, The Chateauneuf-du-Pape Wine Book, Kavino, 2009, p 78.
  4. Livingstone-Learmonth, p 326.

Why flowering 2019 indicates a later-than-normal but robust, high quality harvest

There are five viticultural markers that we use each year as markers: notable reference points that indicate where we are compared to other years.  These are, in order:

  • Budbreak (typically late March or early April)
  • Flowering (typically May sometime)
  • Veraison (typically late July or early August)
  • First Harvest (typically late August or early September)
  • Last Harvest (typically late October)

Budbreak gave us the first sign that we were on at least a somewhat later track.  Flowering, which we began mid-May but which is still widespread as we get into mid-June, is confirmation that we're looking at a growing season more like last year's than what we got used to the rest of the decade. An example, from one of our Grenache blocks on June 3rd:

Flowering 2019 grenache

If you haven't seen grapevines flowering before, you can be excused for finding it underwhelming.  It's not a showy process.  Still, the tiny white fuzz-like flowers that appear on the clusters are the first stage of development of the berries.  From this point on, if the berries are fertilized successfully, they'll grow in size and mass until veraison, at which point they stop growing but accumulate sugar and ripen the seeds within. As with all parts of the vineyard annual cycle, there are grapes that enter (and exit) flowering earlier and later, with the early grapes being Viognier, Grenache, Grenache Blanc, and Vermentino. They are followed shortly by Marsanne and Syrah, and finally, as much as a month after the early grapes, Roussanne, Counoise, and Mourvedre bring up the rear.

During flowering, you hope for consistent, sunny weather, with only limited wind and no rain.  Cold or wet weather at this stage can produce incomplete fertilization, or shatter, where a cluster has a high proportion of unfertilized berries, looking snaggle-toothed and (often dramatically) reducing yields.  Some varieties, most notably Grenache, are prone to shatter, while others are less so.  This year, the cool spring conditions seem to have delayed flowering long enough that even our late rain in mid-May seems to have rolled through before the flowers were open enough to be susceptible to much damage, and conditions have been ideal ever since. We are cautiously optimistic that shatter won't be a major issue. (It's also worth remembering that overall, conditions in Paso Robles are pretty benign compared to what grapevines face in most parts of the world.)

I always think it's interesting to compare our current year to a range of recent ones. A quick line graph may help give you a sense. I've put the line for 2019 in red, to help it stand out:

Average Temps by Month 2010-2019

You'll likely notice a couple of things. First, May was actually cooler than April, for the first time this decade. And it felt like that too. April felt benign, with less than 0.1" of rain, no frosts, and an average high temperature of 73.4F. May was another story. The Paso Robles Wine Festival, which often coincides with our first hot weekend of the year, took place under conditions that felt more like February: low 60s, with rain threatening. We got seven days with measurable precipitation, totaling 1.44" (triple the 0.44" we average in a normal May). The average high temperature was 70.7F, and eighteen days failed to make it into the 70s. Five days failed to make it even into the 60s.

Second, you'll likely notice the rapid recovery of average temperatures in June. This trend actually began the last week of May, which was (fortunately) right when we first saw flowering. But even that warm-up has been modest, as we've yet to have the temperature here break 100. The next week looks like it's supposed to be in the 80s every day. That's pretty much ideal.

Looking for a comp is premature, as so much depends on what comes next, but it's starting off like 2015, where we ricocheted between significantly warmer-than-normal months and significantly cooler-than-normal months.  But it's also not that different from 2018, when a cool early season built to a scorching July before settling back down to a cooler harvest. But whatever the future holds, we do have a not-insignificant portion of the growing season behind us, and at this point we're 6.3% below our average number of degree days through June 16th, and 25.8% below our maximum to date (2014).  That cool weather, combined with a fairly late budbreak, suggests we're a couple of weeks behind most of our recent years, and unlikely to begin harvest before September.  I'll keep updating you throughout the summer, as there's a long way to go.

At this point, we're happy to be most of the way through flowering in good shape, with the vines healthy from the winter rain we received and the lack (so far) of heat spikes, at the roughly one-third point of the growing season.  It's not just the grapevines that are flowering away. We've got blooms all over our olive trees:

Olive flowering 2019

And the California poppies are still putting on a show, at a time of year when they're often past their primes:

CA poppies June 2019

But the main event is, as always, the grapevines. We're thrilled with what we've seen so far. Fingers crossed for more of the same. And if you visit a vineyard in the next few weeks, take a sniff... the scent can be intoxicating.

Flowering Grenache 2019


An Ideal Beginning to the 2019 Growing Season

In an ideal vineyard world, we get cold, wet weather, with regularly frosty nights, until mid-March, and then it turns warm and dries out after. A pattern like this means that we've banked enough water to give us good confidence in the vineyard's ability to weather the dry season, that we've extended dormancy until late enough in the spring that we reduce our risk of frost, and that once things sprout we can move forward smoothly getting the vineyard cleaned up and the vines thinned and flowering.

Enter the 2019 growing season, which has unfolded exactly as we'd like to see. Our last frosty night was March 14th; it's been mostly dry and benign since then; and the combination of wet winter and warm spring has produced excellent growth in the grapevines, the cover crops, and the flock. The vines are out several inches, and we're even starting to see flower clusters form:

Spring 2019 Flower Clusters 2

We're still a couple of weeks away from actual flowering, but look like we're on a similar path to what we saw last year (when our first flowering happened mid-May). All this is just what we'd like to see, and it gives us the chance to focus on making the most of the explosive cover crop growth we saw last winter. Sure, much of it will be turned under to decompose in the soil, but we've also invested in a new baler which will allow us to dry and store the nutrient rich feed to nourish our flock in the late summer and early fall months when forage is scarce.  These round bales are dotting the vineyard landscape right now:

Spring 2019 Bales of Cover Crop

The eventual goal is to turn even these mowed rows under, accelerating the breakdown of the plant matter and eliminating any potential competition with the grapevines for the soil's water. If we time this right, and avoid any late-season rainstorms, this should be a one-shot effort, and within another month, every row in the vineyard should look like the Pinot Noir at my mom's place (though there's still obviously work to do to get the weeds out from among the vine rows):

Spring 2019 Spaded Vineyard

In all these efforts, the weather pattern that we've seen the last few weeks (a warm-up into the upper 80s, then a cool down into the 60s, then the pattern restarts) is just perfect. Fingers crossed that the rest of spring unfolds as ideally. 


Taking One Last Look at the Winter of 2018-19

Yesterday, as we were setting up for the filming of a video to celebrate our 30th Anniversary, we were interrupted by a brief but noisy downpour. The rain went as quickly as it came, but it's a sign of the season that my first thought was not about the vines, but instead that the rain (which totaled less than 1/10th of an inch) would be great for keeping the dust down at the baseball field for the youth team I'm coaching.

The rain really did feel like a last gasp of winter, and the warm sun that followed was in keeping with what we've seen most of the last three weeks. I wouldn't be at all surprised if this is the last rain we see until November. Nearly the entire vineyard has sprouted into budbreak, and we're doing our best to tame the incredible growth of the cover crop:

New Growth April 2019

As we enter this transitional season, it seems a good time to look back at the winter of 2018-19 and try to put it into context. First, rainfall. The bulk of what we received this winter came (as usual) in January and February, but early March was quite wet too, and we saw greater-than-normal rainfall four of the five main rainy months:

Winter Rainfall Graph 2018-19

In total, we have accumulated 30.79" of rain since last July. That's roughly 123% of what we would expect as an average annual total, and given that we still have more than two months (albeit not normally rainy months) before the rain year concludes, we're at about 131% of what we'd expect by this time. We're thrilled. Our wells are full, the soil was fully saturated but is drying out enough that we can begin to get into it, and the cover crops are as tall, dense, and healthy as we've ever seen. The photo below, of our winemaker Neil in a head-trained Counoise block, shows a block that was already grazed down by our flock once this winter. All the growth you see has come in the last 10 weeks, and the vines themselves are totally obscured:

Neil lost in the cover crop April 2019

As for temperature, we've seen the ideal transition from winter chill to spring warmth. Freezing temperatures are fine (even desirable) when the vines are dormant, but will kill any new growth once it has sprouted. So, in an ideal year, we'd love to see regular frosty nights through mid-March, and then once it warms up, to not see it drop below freezing again until after harvest. That's what has happened so far this spring. We saw the last of our 29 below freezing nights on March 14th. The next day saw our first above-70 day in more than a month. Since that, we've had lots of sun, an average high temperature of 69, and an average low of 40, without a single frost. That's perfect. We've still got another three weeks before we stop worrying about frost, but given that the long-term forecast is for a warming trend, at least the first half of that period looks good. Fingers crossed, please.

Now, our job is to incorporate all the organic matter that the cover crop has provided into the soil, so it can break down and provide nutrients for the vines. We've been mowing to start this process and allow for good drainage of air, which has produced a pretty striped look to the vineyard landscape:

Striated Vineyard April 2019

It's a big task to mow then disk 120-plus acres. But barring an unexpected storm, the work should go quickly, and in another month, this scene will be gone, with the warm brown earth newly visible, the vines' competition for water eliminated, and the stage set for the growing season. Meanwhile, we'll be enjoying our own local super bloom:

CA Poppies April 2019

I've said it before, but I'll say it again. If you're coming for a visit in the next month or so, you're in for a treat.