Fall Creek Journal

If you are curious what is happening behind the scenes at Fall Creek, check in for our winemakers' and sommelier's notes on harvest, wine production and new releases.

Texas Terroir, Part Three

13th Jun 2017 @ 11:26 by ame@fcv.com

July 2014

Continuing our series about Texas Terroir, I am now addressing what might be the most important factor of all, the soils. First, consider the large size of Texas. If Texas were superimposed over Europe, it would cover France entirely, which is the largest European country, excluding Russia. This size suggests that we should expect a wide array of soil types due to this vast territory and hence, at least double digit the number of soil varieties that can apply here.

From the soil origin stand point we learn that the state was more than once a shallow ocean floor that accumulated sediments during several million years, and eventually got elevated by tectonic forces until it reached its current height. Meanwhile, erosion and other surface elements soon started to sculpture the landscape on the top. The soil composition becomes evident wherever we see a cut on the side of a highway and are able to see the horizontal layers of varying light browns and beige colors.

Interesting enough, right in the middle of Texas there is the Llano Uplift, the edge of which is where Fall Creek Vineyards is located, an outcrop from the Texas Craton (the nuclear mass of a continent), and we can see rocks which are the oldest rocks. Everywhere else, the Craton is buried under younger deposits from the Paleozoic, the Mesozoic and the Cenozoic.

This Geology Map of Texas below indicates where the various origins of the rocks are seen today on the surface. Note that the younger rocks of the South East reflect the regression of the ocean that once covered the State. The deposits at the bottom of the former oceans were rich in microorganisms, now fossils, which are Rich in Calcium Carbonate, or Limestone. We also see outcrops of Marl, Shale and Granite all over the place.

While plants don’t necessarily feed right from this parental material, the material has a strong influence on the farming soil, and vines definitely respond to the nature of the strata on which they are planted. The parental material, combined with the weather, grape variety and the human input is what we understand as Terroir.

The exciting fact is that the soil descriptions we find in Texas are very similar to those found in the highly regarded wine regions of Europe. Limestone for example, is found in Burgundy, Loire, Champagne and Alsace, to name a few. These soils were developed coincidentally during the same periods. Regarding Europe, Marl is found in the Piedmont in Italy and Shale in Tuscany, both found in Texas as well. Even though this good soil is not a guarantee in itself, it certainly gives us a good platform to further develop our regions in Texas, in addition to the combinations of place and grape variety. Terroir is on our side!

Sergio Cuadra, Director of Winemaking

Texas Terroir, Part Two

13th Jun 2017 @ 11:26 by ame@fcv.com

June, 2014

Last month we talked about the adaptive capacity that grapes have to hot weather by means of triggering Heat Shock Genes which generate certain proteins which make the plants able to not only withstand the heat but to succeed under it.

Now, we will compare the Hill Country weather with what might have been the sort of weather pattern back when those first civilizations of the Middle East decided to curb their nomadic ways and started cultivating a local fruit vine, the grape vine.

The oldest winery that has been discovered is located close to Areni, a small village on the Arpa River Valley in the Province of Vayots Dzor in Armenia, which shares the latitude of Kansas City. It’s a remote mountainous area that bears a rather extreme weather pattern as shown below (right) compared to a Marble Falls, TX weather station (left).

The red and blue lines show the long term maximum and minimum temperatures, respectively for both sites. The sizes are different so the horizontal lines are comparable to each other. The grey lines show temperatures for one particular year. As we observe, winters in the Armenian area can be freezing cold with minimum temperatures falling in the teens in January, and then they go up fast to reach a 93ºF average for maximum temps for the months of July and August. As a whole, the Hill Country enjoys a bit warmer temperature all year round.

Another area known to have developed the grape vine as a crop was further south in today’s Iran. Actually, there were more than 300 wineries in that country until they were banned for political/religious reasons in 1979. Below, there is another comparison of weathers, this time Marble Falls (left) with Shiraz in Iran (right), which is at the same latitude of San Antonio, TX.

In this comparison, we can tell that both places show a closer look of temperature patterns. Though Shiraz can have hotter maximum temperatures during summer, it seems to cool down more at night. However, plants growing in these environments can succeed if, and only if, they are fully adapted to their weather conditions. Incidentally, University of Pennsylvania Professor Patrick McGovern, author of Ancient Wines and Uncorking the Past, told me that those weather patterns have not essentially changed since those early times.

To focus on our Hill Country weather and to show where we are located weather wise, the chart below shows Marble Falls (left) again, but compared to Napa Valley (right).

It is interesting to note that our winter gets a bit colder, but the cold period is shorter than in Napa, and then, of course, the Marble Falls summer temperature (maximum heat above 70, as an arbitrary number) starts in March and ends in November. The Napa chart shows 2010 temperatures (in grey) when there was a rather cool spring and summer and then, in late August they got a sudden heat wave that caused a lot of damage to the plant canopy and fruit which resulted in significant loses throughout a vast area. This is what happens when the plant is not prepared for those kinds of temperatures and they get hit by the heat. Instead, within an area of usual high temperatures, like Central Texas, plants get used to it and don’t have any effect from the heat, just like they used to do some 6,000 years ago where they were born.

Have vines changed over the centuries? Maybe, but not at the rate one would imagine, as it is much slower. In fact, even though we cannot trace some of the oldest varieties back more than 1,000 years, it is well established that ancient grape growing techniques were a result of what those people knew about varieties and their characteristics. This information suggests those early grape growers were aware of the benefits of vegetative propagation (asexual way of reproduction), leaving little room for genetic change. This information, combined with the fact that the adaptation to heat looks more like part of a structural gene complex than a small mutation, allows one to conclude that what we see today as a behavior in the Texas weather really is rooted long ago, back in time.

Sergio Cuadra, Director of Winemaking

Texas Terroir, Part One

13th Jun 2017 @ 10:16 by ame@fcv.com

As a winemaker for 20 years in moderate-climate Chile, I was on my way last August to become the Director of Winemaking for Fall Creek Vineyards. The minute I got off the plane in Austin, I immediately thought Texas weather was just too hot for growing high quality wine grapes; it was something like 100ºF. But, my scientific proclivities prevented me from making a hasty decision, and I had to ask: is this a transitory heat wave? The answer was, “No, it has been, and it will be like this for several weeks.” Paradoxically, that answer seemed like ice water over the head as I grew concerned for my future winemaking career in Texas Hill Country and wondered what was allowing the Texas wine industry to prosper so.

I knew I needed to see the proof in the vineyards and the research data to explain the phenomena. I headed straight to the vineyards, expecting to find shriveled berries, raisined and sun-burned grapes, as well. I looked closely for these hot weather symptoms, signifying vines under duress. Instead, the vines were just fine with good color, healthy canopies, and turgid berries that were ripping nicely. I was positively surprised.

Heading to the cellar to further my exploration, I found that the wines from previous vintages (even hotter than 2013!) also did not show any sign of the effects of a hot year, such as unbalanced alcohol, diminished color on the red wines, and jammy flavors, to name a few. At this point, I was completely baffled. In my training and experience, in cooler climates, where the average minimum and maximum temperatures fluctuate between, let’s say, 64 and 92ºF in the hottest month of the summer, a 1-to-3 days heat wave of, say, over 100ºF would affect plants so much that growers would face a significant loss of production), and the wines would be unbalanced and underwhelming.

I was determined to find an explanation for what was happening in Texas vineyards that allowed the vitis vinifera vines to thrive and produce quality grapes despite the extreme heat of Texas summers. Given that the vineyards were not being managed in a different manner, I anticipated that the vines themselves were responsible for their own success. I asked Benjamin Lewin MW (former founder Editor of the life sciences journal, Cell) about the chance of some kind of adaptation of plants to heat, and he said that, in fact, that there is a set of genes, called “heat shock” genes, that are triggered precisely by continual exposure to heat. The ‘a-ha’ moment! Vines have evolved with an adaptation strategy to encourage survival under such extreme conditions. And if we think about it further, this makes sense if we consider that vines were originally cultivated and domesticated in an area between the Black Sea and Iran, where they experience even more torrid summers in some of these regions.

Apparently, it is a good thing that our summer temperatures go up in a slow but steady way, so plants can prepare themselves for what is to come. Then, in the middle of the July-August period they are fitted with their own sun screen, allowing those wonderful grapes to ripen, so we can make world class wines. More on this fascinating discovery in the next post.

Sergio Cuadra, Director of Winemaking

Black Spanish or Lenoir, A Grape Study

13th Jun 2017 @ 09:51 by ame@fcv.com

March 2014

Black Spanish, also known as Lenoir, is a red grape variety that is the result of a cross between an American Vitis aestivalis and an unknown Vitis vinifera variety, of European origin. It is a grape that has planned an interesting role in Texas wine-making and is worth a second look.

As is the case with fellow native plants, Black Spanish inherited a significant capacity to adapt and tolerate the local environment, including usual threats like the strong winds and some pests and diseases like Phylloxera and Pierce’s disease, for example. The grape’s adaptability even goes to the extent of possessing inherent self-protection against grape-eating animals by means of producing its own repellent. Grapes, like other fruits, are sweet and inviting to predators, such as birds and other animals, as a method of survival as this encourages seed dispersion. Winemakers and vineyard owners are forever struggling to deter these fellow grape lovers from consuming the fruit before harvest. However, it seems that in the case of native American varieties, this natural repellent, a noticeable odor, discourages the local predators from consuming the Black Spanish grapes before harvest time. The grapes only become attractive right at peak ripeness, and a timely harvest prevents significant crop loss.

At Fall Creek Vineyards in Tow, we grow this viticulturist’s best friend variety among some other non-native varieties, and we have witnessed the above over the years. Interestingly enough, we might want to watch wild animal’s behavior to set a new harvest index, instead of brix (or sugar content) we may run and pick the grapes right after they start eating them! Only then, the Black Spanish grapes may have reached the so called “physiological ripeness”, making them appealing to both wild animals and winos alike. Now, making wine out of this grape is an altogether different story, so stay tuned! Further comprehensive and well documented research about its history can be found in Fairheaven Vineyards website.

Sergio Cuadra, Director of Winemaking

Surprising Sauvignon Blanc

13th Jun 2017 @ 09:29 by ame@fcv.com

March 2014

Texas has been producing good wine for quite some time now, with good paradigms established. Now, we are stepping up to the next level, making great and memorable wines. And our recently release 2013 Sauvignon Blanc is an example that enlightens the way. However, let me ask you, if you were to buy a Sauvignon Blanc from anywhere in the world, would Texas be on the top 5 list? Sincerely, I would not have put it on my top 10 list 6 months ago, but now, I most definitely would! I have new perspective and excitement for Sauvignon Blanc in Texas.

It seems that the soils of Pecos County in West Texas, which have been formed from thousands of years of erosion of an ancient shallow ocean floor, a process that left behind majestic mesas as mute witnesses, have gathered a rich cocktail of minerals, with calcium being the main ingredient. It is clear that Sauvignon Blanc, in particular, is able to translate this geological history into a profound taste that is more than an expression of balanced acidity.

Our newly released 2013 Sauvignon Blanc presents zesty, juicy fruit, sea water, and chalk, balanced with refreshing citrus which peaks with a finish that goes on and on. I even dare to use the word “round” (typically reserved as a red wine descriptor) here, because the vibrant acidity and flavors flow softly and easily over the palate, in a way one would not expect.

In a way, this wine makes you revisit what you think about Sauvignon Blanc. I just discovered a dimension I thought this variety didn’t have...a rich mouth-feel and body. Hugh Johnson, the renowned British wine writer, once said: “Sauvignon Blanc is a weed that should be eradicated”. Obviously, I think he is totally wrong, as do Sauvignon Blanc lovers around the world! How I would love to present the 2013, Fall Creek Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc, Texas, to him!

Sergio Cuadra, Director of Winemaking