THREE: The dirt, the micro-climate, andsustainable wine-growing from vineyard to bottle
Three Wine Company
The term “old vines” on a wine label strikes an important note although not a precise one. Are these the vines that covered the castle when Sleeping Beauty checked out for a hundred years? Probably not. Although old vines can thrive for a century or more and produce delicious fruit, the term suggests not only the age of vines but also perhaps a particular grape varietal like Zinfandel or some other more unusual grape. But most important, the term is a unique statement of quality.
Matt Cline (pictured above) has thought more about old vines than probably any other winemaker in California. They have captured his imagination and respect to the extent that he has devoted his entire winery to their advancement. Matt’s career began with his brother Fred’s at Cline Cellars in Sonoma, where Matt was the winemaker for 16 years. In 2001, Matt started Trinitas Cellars in Napa and sold five years later. Since then he has devoted himself to a third winery, Three for “small, sweet, sips,” which has morphed into a hardier definition, “dirt, micro-climate, and sustainable wine-growing,” all descriptors of the heritage grapes and old vineyards that Matt chases. The winery is located in Clarksburg in Yolo County, not far from where it all began for Matt on his grandfather’s farm in Oakley, Contra Costa County. Matt and his eight siblings grew up in Los Angeles but spent summers on the farm where his mother grew up. The area, including neighboring Lodi, happened to be a repository of wine history with more old vineyards than anywhere else in California.
Two events destroyed California vineyards, Prohibition in the 1920s and the root louse phylloxera in the late 1980s and 1990s. Oakley and Lodi vineyards escaped both plagues. People could legally make wine for their own consumption during Prohibition. While most California vineyards were rotting away without markets, Oakley and Lodi vineyard owners were shipping most of their grapes to home winemakers in Vancouver, Chicago, and New York. Their fruit ripened faster than cooler California regions and arrived by Labor Day, the first long weekend in late summer when families could marshal their numbers and make wine together. So most Oakley and Lodi vineyards continued to be viable during the 13 destructive years of Prohibition.
Later, the phylloxera root louse would devastate California vineyards, but once again Oakley and Lodi would be spared. In Oakley, the meandering Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers deposited high concentrations of sand in the soil, and phylloxera is unable to survive in sandy soils. The same was true of Lodi, where the Sacramento, Mokelumne, and San Joaquin rivers dumped sand in deep deposits.
The other important component that contributed to the survival of these old vineyards is that in Oakley and Lodi, they were economically viable whereas in Napa and most of Sonoma they were not. In Sonoma, a few old vineyards remain in Dry Creek Valley and Alexander Valley. Old vines produce less fruit, so in expensive wine growing areas like Napa, where both the land and the finished wine are more expensive, newer vigorous vines that produce more fruit also produce more revenue. In Oakley and Lodi, old vine fruit produces more income than newer vineyards since the area has a more modest reputation than Napa and Sonoma and both fruit and wine sell for less.
But Matt emphasizes that not all old vineyards are equal. “It’s not just a date although there’s got to be a minimum age. It’s a growing situation.” He points out that there are 90 year-old vineyards planted in rich soils and irrigated that are producing as many as 12 tons an acre when the best vineyards, old or new, usually don’t produce more than four and a half tons. The numbers are debatable, he says, but vines need to be stressed in order to produce premium grapes. Age, soil conditions, and farming methods stress the vines naturally, and in newer vineyards soil conditions, rootstock, trellising, and pruning control vine vigor. But the best old vines produce “bolder” wines, Matt says.
In addition to grape quality, old vineyards offer a window into the past. Wine growing has changed dramatically since the second half of the 1960s when single grape varietals became popular. “We decided to plant the “finest” grape varietals in the world, and back then it was Bordeaux and Burgundy, according to the oenophiles in Great Britain, because they built the Bordeaux trade,” Matt says. So consumers were educated with Cabernet, Chardonnay, Merlot, and later Syrah and Pinot Noir. The heritage varietals and blends of old California were forgotten, except for Zinfandel and to a lesser extent Petite Sirah. But Matt Cline hasn’t forgotten. He champions Mataro, Carignane, Alicante Bouschet, and Black Malvoisie along with Zinfandel and Petite Sirah, which he prefers to blend like the early wines of California. “We’ve handcuffed ourselves, I think, with this marketing of single varietal wines. It may have gotten more people to drink wine. I don’t know. But I think blended wines are better wines. I haven’t met a perfect grape yet, but I’ve tasted some near perfect blends.”
Matt points out that fifty years ago and earlier, all grapes were priced alike, and the emphasis was on quality, not particular varietals. Wine growers and makers planted whatever they felt did the best in their vineyards and blended their wines in whatever quantities produced the best results. “Each varietal brings something to the blend,” he says. Petite Sirah brings pepper, structure, color, spice elements. Carignane brings acidity, Alicante color.” He goes on to say that these sturdier grapes blend beautifully with Grenache and Zinfandel, which are less complex varietals but have vivacious fruit flavors. But while Matt thrives on California heritage grapes, what used to be called Mixed Black, he’s clear that the wines that we now drink, made from these same grapes, “definitely taste infinitely better than those wines did then. The vines weren’t necessarily old, and they weren’t using cold fermentation and modern techniques. They didn’t have the benefit of the experimentation that’s been done over the years. We have advanced.”
What does the future portend for old vines? Are today’s new vines tomorrow’s old ones? Maybe not. When a particular varietal goes out of favor, farmers are quick to graft over their vineyards to new market stars. Many fine Merlot vineyards were grafted over to Pinot Noir when consumers clamored for more of it. Zinfandel vineyards comprise most of the oldest ones in California only because when the grape went out of favor in the 1970s, Sutter Home disguised it as White Zinfandel, and a new market was born. The vineyards remained economically viable. Otherwise Zinfandel might have been a memory along with the other heritage grapes that are Matt’s focus, Zinfandel may never have reemerged as the premium wine that it has become had the vineyards not been in place.
Matt is a champion of not only heritage grapes but also a structured style that has been eclipsed in the market place by smooth, high-alcohol wines. What happens with high alcohol wines, he explains, is that they don’t allow yeasts to fully ferment the sugars to dryness so that a certain amount of residual sugar remains. “Residual sugar masks alcohol, masks the heat, but it also masks acidity and length. It also masks tannin. So these wines taste rich, not structure. There’s no question that it’s a successful style. But we don’t believe in residual sugar, so our wines are structured. But there’s room for all of us.” And there’s certainly room for boldly flavored wines that are balanced and textured and taste like the grapes from which they were made and the fields from which they grew. In fact, many young winemakers are moving in Matt’s direction, which is now referred to as natural winemaking. As the adage goes, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
California Wines of the Month
Three Wine Company – 2007 Old Vines California Cases produced: 1,534
Winemaker Matt Cline’s Notes
The fruit for our Old Vines is sourced from ancient vineyards around Oakley in Contra Costa County and neighboring Lodi in San Joaquin County. Contra Costa County is situated only 50 minutes from San Francisco by car, and Lodi is 30 miles from Oakley as the crow flies. Grapes have been planted and have been growing in these areas for over 150 years. The average age of vines in our Old Vines blend is over 90 years with most dry farmed. This wine is a blend of 40% Zinfandel, 33% Carignane, 12% Mataro, 11% Petite Sirah, 2% Alicante Bouschet, and 2% Black Malvoisie. All the grapes in this blend come from vineyard blocks with sandy-loam soils with a very low percentage of organic material and high sand content, which diminish vine vigor that, in turn, creates intensely flavored fruit. With extremely low fruit yields, always less than 3 tons to the acre, the grapes used in this wine exhibit concentrated flavors of raspberries (Zinfandel, Black Malvoisie), dark cherries and coffee (Carignane), blueberries and pepper (Petite Sirah), violets and Provencal herbs (Mataro), and a meaty spice element (Alicante Bouschet), the hallmarks of this wine (alcohol 14.8%, brix at harvest 24.5, total acidity 0.63 g/100 ml, pH 3.64).
Anna Maria’s Notes
This wine is a taste of history, a mouthful that includes the most planted grapes in California a hundred years ago. While Old Vines celebrates the old vineyards from which it was made, it also honors modern winemaking equipment and techniques that render delicious flavors and texture, much more than anyone would have even dreamed a century ago. Decant and serve at cool room temperature.
Three Wine Company – 2008 Riesling River East Cases produced: 704
Winemaker Matt Cline’s Notes
The River East Vineyard is located right along the Russian River and is situated southwest and down-river from the northern California town of Healdsburg. These vines are growing in a deep gravelly loam soil and are shrouded in fog and cool weather during most of the growing season. These conditions allow for full maturity at lower sugar levels, enhancing the full expression of this noble grape variety. Aromas of pears, apricots, and peaches dominate with hints of orange blossoms. The mouth feel is full and balanced with its acidity level. Zesty flavors of pears and apricots dominate with a slight lingering aftertaste of minerals. The relative ripeness of this wine would enhance richly sauced chicken or fish entrees (alcohol 13.5%, brix at harvest 22.8-23.4, titratable acidity 0.65 g/100 ml, pH 2.90).
Anna Maria’s Notes
At lease some of you may remember when Riesling ruled in the 1970s. This delicious wine sparkles on the tongue. With a little residual sugar and high in acid, it would be a perfect wine for your Thanksgiving table, perfectly paired with turkey and cranberry sauce, stuffing and sweet potatoes. Not many wines hold up to the combination, so keep it in mind for the Thanksgiving feast. In the meantime, the Three 2008 Riesling would be great with spicy Asian or Mexican food, and dinner salads with chicken or shrimp.
Three Wine Company – 2007 Carignane Lucchesi Cases produced: 336
Winemaker Matt Cline’s Notes
This Carignane is sourced from ancient vines in Contra Costa County, farmed by Alan Lucchesi, whose family has grown grapes in this county for three generations. His grandfather Dionisio, named after the Greek god of wine, homesteaded here with his son Guido in 1934. Even though Alan was born in Northern California, he has maintained a lot of his Italian heritage. He is by far the hardest working person I know. The 2007 Lucchesi Carignane is a blend of 90% Carignane, 7% Petite Sirah, and 3% Zinfandel. Established over 100 years prior to this vintage, the Lucchesi vineyard has extreme sandy-loam soil, which restrains the vigor of the vine that then bears more flavorful fruit. Sand is also resistant to the phylloxera root louse, so the vines grow on their own roots rather than phylloxera-resistant rootstock. There is a concentration of ripe black cherries and spice with a dusty berry minerality sneaking through. The Petite Sirah adds structure, color, and blue-fruit character, and the Zinfandel adds a trace of raspberry flavor. With such a low pH and big fruit flavor, don’t hesitate to age this wine for 5 to 7 years (alcohol 14.8%, brix at harvest 25.5, titratable acidity 0.76 g/100 ml, pH 3.76).
Anna Maria’s Notes
As Matt Cline says, “get out your wine toys for this one.” The wine should be decanted for an hour or two before serving, and it will reward your effort with a mouthful of flavor and texture that you won’t forget. While Matt describes himself as a certified carnivore and recommends the Carignane Lucchesi with red meat, he also admits that this wine would be delicious with ratatouille, refined bean or lentil entrees, and leafy greens braised in garlic and olive oil. One of the most remarkable wine dinners that he’s ever participated in occurred at Millennium, a high end vegan restaurant in San Francisco. So the operative principal here is to serve the Carignane Lucchesi with highly flavorful dishes, cooked with olive oil or butter. But certainly if you’re a carnivore, go for it. Roasted or grilled deer, buffalo, or ostrich would be amazing as would beef or lamb.
Three Wine Company – 2007 Zinfandel Evangelho Cases produced: 369
Winemaker Matt Cline’s Notes
This Zinfandel is sourced from ancient vines in Contra Costa County, which have been in the hands of the same family for three generations over 70 years. In 1964, Frank Evangelho took over farming this vineyard from is dad Manuel. I consider Frank one of the most meticulous and passionate growers I know. The 2007 Evangelho is a blend of 86% Zinfandel, 7% Petite Sirah, and 7% Alicante Bouschet. The Evangelho vineyard has extreme sandy-loam soil, which restrains the vigor of the vine that then bears more intense fruit. The vineyard is dry-farmed and growing on its own roots rather than phylloxera-resistant rootstock. There is a concentration of ripe blackberries and spice with a dusty berry minerality. Both the Petite Sirah and Alicante Bouschet add structure, color, black fruit, and a spicy white pepper character. With such a low pH and big fruit flavors, don’t hesitate to age this wine for 5 to 7 years ((alcohol 14.8%, brix at harvest 24.8, total acidity 0.65 g/100 ml, pH 3.46).
Anna Maria’s Notes
This wine may be mostly Zinfandel, but its one of the most intense ones that you’ve probably ever tasted. Matt recommends that you decant the wine for an hour before serving to let the flavors bounce and the tannins mellow. Most high-end Zins of your acquaintance are probably jammy in style. The Zinfandel Evangelho has all of the Zinfandel flavor that you could ever want, but it also has structure and texture. It’s way more than jam.
Menu of the Month
Flavors of a new season
Prosciutto and figs with Castelvetrano olives, served with fresh, crusty country bread
Dense minestrone with stewed vegetables: Roma tomatoes, eggplant,
red and green bell peppers, red onions, zucchini, and cannellini
beans with pesto of basil, garlic, and olive oil added at the end of the cooking time.
Served with grated parmegian cheese
Garden salad with finely sliced red onions and cucumbers,
dressed with olive oil-balsamic vinaigrette
Stone fruit crisp
Recipe of the Month
Stone Fruit Crisp
This is an amazingly delicious, rustic dessert that you can make with any seasonal fruit, including mixed berries, thinly sliced apples, pears, or stone fruit as the recipe below features. I like to serve it in glass goblets with a dollop of freshly whipped cream, which is optional. Enjoy!
2 to 3 fresh peaches, plums, and nectarines
1 cup blueberries
2 teaspoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup flour
½ cup flour
½ teaspoon kosher salt
¾ cup rolled oats
½ cup chopped almonds
6 tablespoons cold butter cut into small cubes
1) Slice fruit, without peeling it, into small sections, add lemon juice, and toss ingredients together in large bowl. Set aside to macerate for a few minutes.
2) Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
3) Mix dry topping ingredients together in another bowl. Use a fork to mix the butter into the dry ingredients until they blend together into the size of tiny peas.
4) Spread the fruit filling across the bottom of an 8-inch by 11-inch baking dish. Evenly distribute the topping over the fruit.
5) Bake for 40 to 50 minutes, until the filling is thick and bubbly and the topping is golden. Let the crisp cool to room temperature and (optional) garnish with freshly whipped cream.