Happy New Year! To kick off 2023, I am launching a series of periodic updates to you as a Calluna Vineyards mailing list subscriber. I aim to share a note at least once per month on what is going on in the vineyard and winery to give insight on how our wines are made. And I will touch on happenings in the greater wine world, including some interesting bottles and producers we have enjoyed along the way.
I would welcome any feedback you have to share with me!
So, without further ado… here’s Volume 1 of our Winemaker’s Journal:
Some Winemaking Tasks Over the Holidays
Over the holidays, with the whole family in town, we addressed one important question that we have been exploring for the past few years. To give you some background, on the top of our property sits a 1.3 acre Cabernet Sauvignon vineyard that has always produced some of our very highest quality fruit. This fruit has gone into our Calluna Estate bottlings and has been so special for us that we gave the vineyard its own name: Skyward. As we’ve conducted blending trials over the past few years, we’ve been so impressed by this block that we’ve decided to explore a single vineyard bottling. With the kids home for the Christmas holiday, I decided to run a blending trial to ask the question: do we want to create another cabernet sauvignon?
As many of you know, we already have The Colonel’s Vineyard Cabernet bottling. And since the 2017 vintage, Calluna Estate has been named Calluna Estate Cabernet Sauvignon to reflect the fact that it is above 75% Cabernet. With this in mind, we sought to determine if the Skyward Vineyard cabernet is different enough to warrant its own bottling.
To conduct this blending trial, we lined up the barrel samples of the 2021 Colonel’s Vineyard, Skyward, and Calluna Estate bottlings. Since we have not finalized the blend of Calluna Estate yet, I had to make each of the 3 possible final blends of Calluna Estate for this tasting. After trying each of the wines, we were very excited about the distinct flavor profiles brought by each of these bottlings. Whereas our Colonel’s Vineyard cabernet is broader shouldered with more oak showing as a by product of its barrel fermentation, the Skyward was quite different, leaning towards a more delicate wine that showcases the great depth and purity of the cabernet flavors with beautiful tones of red fruit. It’s a wine of elegance. The Calluna Estate continues to provide the complex nuances due to the other Bordeaux varietals, cabernet franc, merlot, petit verdot, and malbec, that have been key characteristics of our wines since inception.
Our conclusion was that the Skyward Cabernet Sauvignon is an excellent wine and different enough from the others to warrant a small bottling of its own. I look forward to sharing more details with all of you as we finalize our plans with Skyward and look forward to you trying it soon.
Rain in California
I suppose this topic needs to be addressed because the national press portrays California as drowning in rain, and indeed we are having above average rainfall. If you live near a flooding river or in lowlands, or a tree falls on your house, the rains are a real problem, and that is what is shown in the news. For the vast majority of California, the rain is a blessing. At Calluna, our risk is erosion and falling trees, but we have been lucky so far. And we hope the rain keeps going into the Spring, although a more moderate pace would be preferred by all.
Here is a short primer on California rain from the vineyard owner’s perspective: It generally does not rain here from April to October. Then, historically, we get torrential rain in December, January and February which replenishes groundwater and reservoirs. That cycle is generally a good thing, as the grapevine does not like getting wet during the growing season, and irrigation water is available when needed. (One major downside of this cycle is that California is always a tinder box in late summer and Fall and our “fire season” is getting worse.)
When we don’t get adequate rain in the winter, as in the last 3 years, we go into drought. And just because it is raining hard now, it does not mean we will have above average rain for this season. We need the rain to keep going into the Spring. Many owners of valley floor vineyards don’t want their vines wet in the Spring due to vigor issues, but on our hillsides, I like seeing the ground fully charged in the Spring – there is no standing water to cause a problem and the vine will be happy (not over-vigorous) as it starts the long dry season. And while I can and do irrigate during the growing season, I can never replicate a rain – so a very dry Spring at Calluna is hard on the vines, which doesn’t bode well for quality.
So we all need to wait until the Spring to really make a judgment on how this rain season went and how much dent was made in the drought.
…And a Really Fun Blind Tasting Over Dinner
All three kids were home with me and Marla over the holiday week. One Christmas gift we received from the children were 3 wrapped up bottles of wine, a verbal instruction not to open them, and a note that the kids would put on dinner and a blind tasting of these wines right after Christmas. The wines were disclosed to be newly released 2019 Cabernets and they asked me to contribute a bottle of the 2019 Calluna Estate Cabernet. That wine will not be released for several more months, but I was happy to put it into the mix. They wrapped up the Calluna too. My brother-in-law Dave and his wife Barbey joined us at the dinner where we poured all 4 wines blind.
I was assuming the kids probably got some decent wines, but did not know what to really expect. I tasted through the wines. The first was very oaky, and not very pleasant oak. The second was very good but I thought the fruit was a bit disjointed still. The third one was excellent. The fourth one was clearly my wine (and you would be surprised how many times winemakers do not identify their own wine in a blind tasting – it has happened to me). I had to say that the third wine was best: light in body but powerful, nicely developed Cabernet fruit. But the Calluna was showing really well – the consensus at the table was that the Calluna was second best in the group; the group was admittedly partisan but most did not know which wine was actually the Calluna.
We unveiled the wines in order of preference, starting with the first choice. I was shocked to see it was the 2019 Phillip Togni Napa Cabernet – I had no idea the kids were going to be buying wine of that quality. Togni is a small volume but long time producer of classic Cabernet – he is a British guy who trained at Chateau Lascombes in Bordeaux. A beautiful wine, his 2019.
The second choice was the 2019 Calluna Estate Cabernet. Perhaps showing as the most youthful of the four but not tannic, just dense fruit.
The third choice was the ’19 Cathy Corison Napa Cabernet. Corison is also an icon of Napa Valley, especially for those who favor the older style of balanced Napa Cab vs the large scale cabs which many critics are enamored with. Again, a great selection and an excellent wine.
At this point, I started getting worried. With all of these wines among the finest quality of wines that the kids know I admire, I started to wonder if they included one of my favorite wines–the Ridge Monte Bello. With the oak tones including traces of dill (a classic marker of American oak), I started to conclude that it must be Monte Bello and sure enough it was. I have always said that Ridge Monte Bello may be the greatest wine made in this country, so I was embarrassed that I ranked it so low. However, given the youth of the bottling I had to imagine that much of this oakiness would integrate over time. To make my conscience right over the Ridge, I went to my cellar and pulled out a bottle of 1990 Ridge Monte Bello (Marla and my wedding year). Ridge is one of the very few top wineries that uses American oak on its best wine, but they are very good at it. That dill tone is not too pronounced, and it integrates over time. The 1990 was a spectacular wine, with plenty of life left in it.
In the end, this was one of the most exciting tastings I have done. These wines are all benchmarks for great traditionally balanced Cabernet Sauvignon. And of course I was super happy that Calluna Estate held its own in this field. I look forward to seeing how all of these wines evolve overtime and our kids were generous enough to get two bottles of each so we can revisit each wine in a few years.
Wishing you and yours a very happy and healthy 2023.
Founder & Winemaker