Concentration & Complexity: Four Historic California Vineyards

I find being in and around vineyards uniquely soothing and nurturing. Maybe it's because they are usually part of a pastoral landscape. I may be triggered too by knowing they are devoted to producing a special product -- one that brings pleasure and conviviality.
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Old vines at Whitton Ranch Old Patch

I find being in and around vineyards uniquely soothing and nurturing. Maybe it's because they are usually part of a pastoral landscape. I may be triggered too by knowing they are devoted to producing a special product -- one that brings pleasure and conviviality.

I find it especially delightful to visit a very old vineyard. The gnarly vines in these vineyards, which can live to be well over 100 years old, often develop large weathered holes in the middle of the trunk that make you wonder how the vine still produces fruit given that it appears to be hollow. These kinds of vineyards have special stories to tell. They also produce incredible wine.

In advanced age, a vine's vigor is greatly reduced and it produces relatively small amounts of fruit. That fruit usually has significantly greater flavor concentration than fruit from younger vines. Unlike other very concentrated types of wine, however, concentration resulting from advanced vine age tends to produce very balanced wines -- with plenty of acidity and good tannin structure to support the sugars and richly concentrated fruit.

hollow old vine at 101 Vineyard

These are the reasons I jumped at the opportunity to join the Historic Vineyard Society tour again this year visiting some of California's oldest vineyards. The non-profit Society was founded by several prominent California winemakers to catalog California's heritage vineyards and to identify and preserve the diversity present in their field blend plantings. The annual tour -- this was its third year -- is the organization's primary fundraiser as well as a great way of raising awareness regarding these special vineyards.

In my report on last year's tour here, I summarized the history of wine grape plantings in California and the state's heritage of vineyards composed of a mix of black grapes.

One of the vineyards we visited this year -- the Whitton Ranch Old Patch, source of much of the fruit that makes up Ridge's famous Geyserville Zins -- dates back to the 1880s. The others on our tour were the Seghesio Family Chianti Station, planted in 1910; Henderlong Ranch, 1927; and Turley's 101 Vineyard whose exact age is unknown but which contains vines pre-dating Prohibition.

Our tour guides were Ridge winemaker David Gates, Seghesio family member Ned Neumiller, Turley winemaker Tegan Passalacqua, and Nalle winemaker and proprietor Doug Nalle.

The original vines at Whitton Ranch were planted in what is now Sonoma's Alexander Valley appellation by A. Boutin, an orchardist who was a colleague of Luther Burbank. Boutin called his estate "Heart's Desire." The highly unusual spacing here -- 8.5 feet between rows and 4.5 feet between vines -- is attributed to the dimensions of the wide tiller Boutin used to prepare the ground. It was the same tiller he used, attached to his team of horses, for planting fruit trees.

Old Patch is a traditional field blend of Zinfandel (60 percent), Carignane (25 percent), and lesser quantities of other black grapes such as Alicante Bouschet, Grenache, Mourvedre, Petite Sirah and Syrah.

David Gates explained that you can easily identify the old vines both from the very wide diameter of the trunks and because they tend to lie lower to the ground, typically below knee level, than more recent plantings.

David Gates at Whitton Ranch

The Chianti Station Vineyard was originally planted on the western bench of what is now the Alexander Valley appellation by the founder of the Seghesio Family Winery, Edoardo Seghesio, in 1910.

Ned Neumiller at Chianti Station

Edoardo's descendant, Ned Neumiller, the fifth generation of the family to be involved in making wine in California, told us that Edoardo, who had arrived here from Piedmont, Italy, in the 1880s, had planned to return home to marry his sweetheart who was waiting for him there. His supervisor at Italian Swiss Colony, where he worked from 1886 to 1902, convinced him, however, to await the arrival of the supervisor's niece, Angela Vasconi, who was on her way by boat from Italy. Edoardo and Angela married in 1893, and became a formidable team, with Edoardo focused on the vineyards and making the wine while Angela took care of marketing and sales.

The couple purchased a modest house on 56 acres of prime vineyard land in 1895, and Edoardo first planted Zinfandel. In 1910, Edoardo and Angela purchased additional land surrounding the railroad station in what was then known as the village of Chianti. That same year Edoardo planted a 10-acre vineyard on this property to a field blend of Sangiovese. Ned told us this was the oldest remaining planting of Sangiovese in the U.S.

Following our afternoon in the vineyards, we ended with dinner and a tasting of 14 wines from these and other older vineyards at Seghesio Family Vineyards. The standout wines of the evening were the truly fabulous old vine Zinfandel that Nalle makes from the Henderlong Vineyard -- one of the greatest and most complex Zins I've ever tasted; Turley's 101 Zin; the Seghesio Sangiovese from the Chianti Station old vines; and the latest edition of the Ridge Geyserville, from the 2011 vintage.

standout wines at Historic Vineyard Society 2013 dinner

For my notes on these wines, see the complete report on my blog here. If you have not yet tried a wine based on one of California's heritage, old vine vineyards, one or more of these would be an excellent place to start.

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