Monday, June 2, 2014

Cerro Prieto Vineyard... Grapes & Leaves ...all you ever wanted to know, and what it means

Ok, already in June and it looks from the vines, leaves and grapes that it is mid July. The effect of the unending summer of 2013 extending all the way thru and into March of 2014, still is being discussed , measured and quantified. What we have at the moment is a drastically moved up schedule from the norm, with huge canopies already and leaves and grapes looking like it is mid July. Below is a picture much like that taken 6 weeks ago, except now we are looking at the "million dollar" Syrah bloc (la Terraza) to wine club members, that has produced such huge wines year in and yr out.
 La Terraza(Syrah bloc)
La Terraza (Syrah bloc) is a striking thing of beauty, winding from due south, all the way around to SSW , giving you the feeling of being surrounded by a sea of  constantly moving magnificent vines. At top you can also see the La Teresa Cab bloc, angling off toward the SE. A look at the clusters of all the blocs will be shown just to let you know not just what the vineyard, but what the vines, leaves and clusters have to tell.  Recall that this bloc, La Terraza, produced our SD Intl 94 pt Platinum Syrah this year, plus was the main varietal in our Syrah el Bordo (with 7% '09 Cab) in it. The Syrah el Bordo won both the SF Chronicle Gold Medal and the San Diego Intl Gold Medal for Syrah. I love both, which came from the above.
Below are both clusters and leaves from this bloc and they are far from normal.
Cluster 7.5 inches long, leaf 7"x 8"
When fully mature, this cluster, huge for this time of year, will be some 10-11" in length, and could easily go 3/4 - 1 lb in cluster weight. Last year at this time, clusters were only half this well developed and way fewer in number. I misspoke in last blog when I mentioned we would have fewer and smaller clusters this year. We now are waist deep into our 3rd year of severe drought, with 6", 7", and now 6" of rain, three years running. To say we are in drought status would be a gross understatement. Just like oak trees (and others), when into a multiple year drought situation, the acorns are much bigger and  more plentiful, a genetic trait seen in virtually all plants when threatened with repeated droughts. In a way, the vine is making more and bigger seeds and grape to provide for survival of the species. Same is happening here in not just Syrah blocs, but others too.
Next in cluster size if Cabernet Sauvignon, which again has elongated clusters, but nowhere near as large as the Syrah. Cab is elongate, nicely tapered, and of smaller berry size. Below: clusters & leaves
The brite shiny leaf of Cab is forest green and the cluster, 6" long will end up 7.5 inches when mature. First all red varietals have to go thru veraison, when green grapes turn to red. Leaf size is 5"x 6" and will stay the same from here on out. Not shown, but the canopies of both Syrah and Cab are thick, massive and full...not what I expected with the drought, but we did have all our rain come in March with 4" in 2 hours and then another 2" in 2 hours. Both were deluges, preceded by 2 days of heavy misting, which set the ground up to soak up any and all rain that fell. 
To round out the Big Reds, is our Merlot, always last to go thru bud break, bloom, veraison and harvest. Leaves here are bigger than Cab, but not quite as large as Syrah. Clusters are typically elongated, and have "shoulders", which are mini-clusters extending out from the top of each cluster.
Keep in mind this cluster is what the others should have looked like right now, but our Merlot is about 10 feet below our Cab and is in an entirely different (cooler) microclimate. The leaves are a touch smaller than Syrah but a bit larger than Cab. Size here is 6"x 6.5", and cluster length is right at 6.5 inches. Note the two tiny "shoulders" sticking out at right angles to the main elongated cluster, a common finding in the Merlot rachus (stem and array). Last year the drought and no late rains resulted in the clusters all being about 4" and typically we had 3 or 4 "shoulder" clusters with no dominant elongated cluster as shown here. That is what late rains will do, even tho only 6" in total.
Dropping down to our mountain valley vineyard are the Pinot Noir and the Sauv Blanc. Both varietals are well below the Big Reds in altitude, and both lie in a narrow valley that is subjected to 30 degree lows thruout the summer and fall, with daytime temps 75-85 degrees, some 18-20 degrees lower than the big Red's highs.. We'll stay in keeping with the huge leaf grapes, so below are cluster and leaf samples of our Sauvignon Blanc.
 Note huge 7"x 7" leaf
First thing you note in the Sauv Blanc cluster is how tiny it is compared to the Big Reds. Cluster length here is only 4" and that is just an inch shorter than cluster size at harvest. Since whites don't go thru red green/ veraison, you have to watch for a slight yellowish brown color, first seen on the grapes most exposed to sunlight in the cluster. These are harvested typically shortly after the Sept 15th Pinot Noir harvest(virtually the same day every year, in that on the 16th, it typically freezes hard in the Pinot mountain valley vineyard. Just exactly how the grapes know that is an amazement to me, but they do. Without a calendar in Sept,  I could always tell you when Sept 15th was , in that the full flavor and bouquets(yes, cherry bouquets of grapes, but for one day only) comes in. The Sauv Blanc, while in the mountain valley is a bit uphill from the Pinot and comes in shortly thereafter, due to being  in an entirely different thermocline. In all, we have 13 different major thermoclines, and our Cab in La Teresa bloc has 3 separate minor thermoclines, all based on relative altitudes. You know you are in the mountains when a bloc ripens in thirds.
Last but not least, is our mountain valley Pinot Noir, whose grapes produced the Gold Medal winning San Francisco Chronicle Cerro Prieto Pinot Noir 2009 vintage.  This is the vintage that when the SF Gold Medal was awarded, sold out all 127 cases the very next morning.
The leaf is easily identifiable, being tiny comparatively, at 4"x 4" and almost round. The average clusters are the two on the right hand side, both abut 3" in length, and when fully grown, at about 4", will nicely fit into your open hand and look just like a tiny hand grenade. Also note the leaf doesn't show the segmentation shown in the previous larger leaves. Since this is a smaller leaf, there was room to show what cluster variation many of the other varietals had. They were not all perfect as noted above, but on the far left there is a double cluster, one of which we take off. If not, at harvest, the two sister clusters will be kissing one another, and that part not exposed to sun and air will not ripen with the remainder of the cluster.
The middle cluster came from the same vine as the two on the right, but note how far behind it is. These clusters we remove also, in that they will always be just that far behind, even though they have turned to red during veraison.  In fact, going thru the entire vineyard, we have multiple examples of vastly different rachi than normal...a testament I believe to the incredible stress of a prolonged summer thru Nov until end of March, that usually had highs in the low 90s and lows in the 40s. Never have we had heat like that all through winter and  spring, nor have we ever had three consecutive years with only 6" of rain, another awkward stress for the setting of the fruit in the rachus. Does this means anything with respect to quality of grapes at harvest? My guess is not, in that with low yields that we have, the quality of grapes will be determined by one rachus not touching another, and thinning to 2-2.5 tons/acre.
Since a good part of the grapes we harvest for your wines comes from the periphery of the blocs, which have yet another stress....competition from the nearby Live Oaks for nutrients (N,P,K) and water...we generally get only 1 ton/acre off those vines, even tho they are pruned to 2.0 tons/acre.
Hence, I don't see any appreciable signs of lesser quality grapes this year, assuming the vineyard is pruned, thinned, and cropped to our usual low crop yields. Adequate light, air, and keeping on  mildew sprays as needed, plus checking for a myriad of other bugs, varmints, etc, will determine how the crop does. Again, we don't measure a great crop on the massive number of tons we produce, but rather on the low tonnage, exquisite individual clusters hanging free of any clusters around them, ripening through and through come harvest time. This is where our fabulous bouquets and flavors come from. You know, the ones you all have enjoyed the last 5 yrs,
You want to bet on 2014? If betting on Cerro Prieto, bet once again on a spectacular (flavor-wise) crop, with plenty of stresses... and then some, to produce yet again, a world class harvest with  mouth watering blackberry, cherry, plum, raspberry, strawberry, blueberry and gooseberry flavors...amongst others.    


  1. As always, a fascinating education on viticulture. Nature is amazing at adapting to extended drought in measurable ways. Your writing drew me to my first visit, the fantastic wines keep me coming back. Have a good Summer.

  2. Tim, were you to work in the vineyard beside me, you would get the thrill I get, each and every time I go into the vineyard. There is not a day that goes by where the vines, leaves, or grapes teach me something...and usually it is awesome and awe inspiring. This is a bit like my former career in medicine, when I am amazed people pay me to do something I love so much. As for nature and its surroundings, how could anything ever be half as lovely?