Fall Creek Journal

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


James Suckling Reviews Fall Creek Vineyards New ExTERRA Wines as “Outstanding American Wine”

31st Oct 2018 @ 14:32 by wylie@penandtellus.com


We are incredibly excited to share that our three newly released ExTERRA wines have all received a score of 91 from renowned wine critic James Suckling in the tasting report, “American Wine Revolution”, a review excluding West Coast wineries. The new ExTERRA label was created as confirmation of the star quality of three single vineyard varieties deemed exceptional by the winemaking team. Fall Creek Vineyards wines were included in a tasting of more than 800 wines from some of the best wineries in 14 states that were evaluated by Suckling and contributing editors Nick Stock, William McIlhenny, and Stuart Pigott. In addition, Fall Creek Vineyards new ExTERRA Tempranillo, Salt Lick Vineyards, Texas Hill Country, 2016 received an “Outstanding American Wine,” evaluation from Suckling in an Instagram post.

Ed Auler, who is the co-owner of Fall Creek Vineyards along with his wife, Susan, had this to say, “We have always ignored the naysayers who purport that wine grapes such as Chardonnay and other noble varieties cannot grow in Texas because of the heat. Year after year we have won prestigious awards in international competitions which have fostered an ever-increasing strong following for our wines, and this has slowly fallen into the hands of people in the know. Now, James Suckling has brought the world’s attention to what we have known for more than forty years, that FALL CREEK crafts world-class wines grown in Texas.”



The five top-scoring Fall Creek Vineyards wines reviewed for American Wine Revolution on JamesSuckling.com include three new ExTERRA wines and two Terroir Reflection wines, Chardonnay and GSM:


Fall Creek Vineyards ExTERRA Mourvèdre Texas Hill Country, Salt Lick Vineyards 2016

Winemaker Notes: The Mourvèdre is quite elegant this vintage with lively fruit character reminiscent of red and black plum, and ripe tannins supporting the terrestrial flavors of farmland soil, sarsaparilla and morel mushroom.

Score 91


Fall Creek Vineyards ExTERRA Syrah Texas Hill Country Salt Lick Vineyards 2016

Winemaker Notes: This Syrah has haunting aromatics that recall violets, smoked rosemary, bacon and black cherry. This is a lively wine with a ripe mid-palate and elegant tannins. The finish is savory and juicy with a hint of black peppercorn and Gaeta olive.

Score 91


Fall Creek Vineyards ExTERRA Tempranillo Texas Hill Country Salt Lick Vineyards 2016

Winemaker Notes: This is a full-bodied wine with a muscular structure, firm tannin and ample fruit. It expresses punchy aromatics that suggest a rain-drenched fire pit, dark roast coffee and roasted black plum. The finish is complex and lingering with hints of red currant and sweet tobacco smoke.

Score 91


Fall Creek Vineyards Chardonnay Texas Hill Country Certenberg Vineyards 2015

Winemaker Notes: Aromas of peach skin, smoked pineapple and lemon Danish with flavors of yellow peach, pineapple pith, Meyer lemon, and a hint of brioche, finishing with a lively, stony minerality that lingers. A perfect balance of intensity and restraint are present in this charming wine. Score 91


Fall Creek Vineyards Grenache Syrah Mourvèdre Texas Hill Country GSM Salt Lick Vineyards 2016

Winemaker Notes: This GSM is perhaps the richest and most velvety expression we have experienced yet. With notes of clove cigarette, Chinese 5-spice, and black cherry cordial and hints of chocolate-covered purple olives and pepper dust, we are carried away by this wine's eternal finish. Score 90

We hope you will try these amazing wines and share your impressions with us.



2018 Mid-Harvest Report - Fall Creek Vineyards

17th Aug 2018 @ 13:28 by ame@fcv.com


2018 Harvest Report: All About the Viticulture and Less About the Winemaking

August 16, 2018

We all know that expression, “if you don’t like the weather, wait a minute”. As a winemaker in the Texas Hill Country, I have aggressively studied historic weather charts, recorded high/low temperatures and dates, had sleepless nights with my eyes glued to ominous cloud patterns sweeping over the west Hill Country radar maps, and tried in vain to see a pattern in the chaos. Once again, nature has left us in awe…a season unlike any we have seen or expected and a spectacular harvest in return.

What started as a surprisingly cold winter with a few shocking snowfalls transitioned into a cooler than average spring. Bud break occurred at an expected time and we luckily avoided late spring freezes and devastating hail storms. At this stage, we anticipated a long, slow ripening season and perhaps a later than average harvest.

Quite the contrary, as nature caught us off guard yet again delivering the hottest summer since I began working at Fall Creek in 2014 with a hot smack in late May and numerous record-breaking high temperatures during a late July heat wave. Veraison set on quickly, and thus began one of the speediest ripening periods I have ever witnessed. Crisscrossing the state, in a mad dash to gather grape ripeness (brix) data from the many vineyards sources, I realized that harvest was coming like a freight train. The vineyard and winery crews rapidly harvested and received two-thirds of the harvest haul in less than two weeks with barely a moment to catch a breath or some sleep!

  Growing Degree Days to date    Cumulative Growing Degree Days    Cumulative Precipitation to date


The weather broke this past week, with some sweet, gentle rain, and a “cold front” that slowed down the process for our later ripening varieties, such as Cabernet Sauvignon. We will have a little extra hang time for these varieties, and perhaps harvest them even later than last year. Thanks to this relief, our winery crew had a little break before the final harvest haul.

And the grapes? We have amazing quality, albeit smaller yields, with the exception of Mourvèdre which is clearly a heat-loving variety well suited for this part of Texas. Impressed, Phil Price, Winemaker, noted that the chemistry of the grapes this season reminds him of what he looked for in top vintages in Napa Valley. His assessment is, “great sugar to acid ratio…high brix, best acids in years”. The quality of the grapes this vintage makes it easy on the winemaker because everything we want is naturally present in the grapes. The 2018 vintage is all about the viticulture and less about the winemaking.

   Tempranillo Salt Lick Vineyard       Merlot Certenberg Vineyard         Lenoir Fall Creek Vineyard


This year we will get to see a wider range of vineyard and varietal expression, as we have expanded our wines to include some new vineyard sources and new wine styles. We have been overwhelmed by the enthusiastic response to our Grenache Rosé the past two years and have dedicated a significant portion of our Sangiovese from Salt Lick Vineyards to be made into a dry Rosé that will be super fresh and savory. We are also making our first Rosé from our Fall Creek Estate Lenoir grapes which have a brilliant color and punchy aromatics. We also harvested the first Cabernet Sauvignon lot from Salt Lick Vineyards, which was planted in 2014, and Cabernet Sauvignon from our first estate harvest from the Oxbow Vineyard at Fall Creek in Driftwood. It will be exciting to see the range of terroir expression in Cabernet Sauvignon from three different vineyards in the Texas Hill Country as we compare the quality to our longstanding Cabernet source, Certenberg Vineyard. We also found a new source of Sauvignon Blanc in the Cerro Santo Vineyard near Lubbock in the High Plains AVA, a region we have not sourced from in many years. Highly aromatic and showing great freshness, this Sauvignon Blanc will be a perfect complement to our 30-year old Sauvignon Blanc source in Escondido Valley, Texas.

Pear Tree Block in Salt Lick Vineyards

In the winery, we are still experimenting with different techniques to bring out the intrinsic quality of the grapes. We allowed all the 2018 red grapes and some of the white grapes to proceed into natural fermentation with ambient yeast. We conducted several small batch fermentations in a range of bins and totes to isolate the distinct personality of the grapes and vineyard source. We further diversified our cooperage collection this year, bringing in more French oak barrels, and we continue to prioritize the marriage of high quality grapes with elite barrel quality. It has become increasingly clear that our single vineyard and select block ferments are worthy of special handling and distinctive labeling.

A rainbow of mid-ferment wines (left to right): Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay, Grenache Rosé, Sangiovese Rosé, Grenache Noir, Merlot (bin), Merlot (tank), Tempranillo, Syrah

While we are excited about the vintage as a whole, a few harvest lots stand out as notable: the Salt Lick Vineyard Pump House Tempranillo is stunning with fine structure, the Salt Lick Vineyard Pear Tree Block Cabernet Sauvignon has almost perfect chemistry, small berries and deep color, and always a favorite, the Salt Lick Vineyard Mourvèdre, has especially rich aromatics this vintage. Across the vintage, we are finding that the red grape skins are firmer which will lead to more structured wines with firmer tannins and will perhaps require lengthier barrel ageing regimes. While patience is a virtue in winemaking, we know you are thirsty, so we are releasing some mind-blowing wine from our 2016 harvest in a month or so that will keep your cellars stocked and your wine glass full until the 2018’s are ready for release.

Cheers,
Sergio Cuadra, Director of Winemaking Fall Creek Vineyards

Contributing author:
Phil Price, Wine Maker Fall Creek Vineyards



2018 Pre-Harvest Report - Fall Creek Vineyards

5th Jul 2018 @ 14:50 by ame@fcv.com


A quick look into the 2018 grape growing season in Texas Hill Country for Fall Creek Vineyards.

The harvest will soon be upon us before we know it, because our red grape varieties are changing the color of their berries in the vineyard, which is called Veraison. This is a good time to review the weather thus far for the 2018 growing season.

Coming out of winter, the vines started bud breaking at a normal time this year, which is mid to late March, and these dates are similar to the past several years with the exception of 2017 when it was about a month earlier.

This year the vineyards had a rather cool April. In fact, Growing Degree Days (GDD) in the Dripping Springs area were just 440 which compares to 520 GDD in 2014, which is the next lowest of the last five years, compared to nearly 580 in 2015 and 2017, as seen in the chart below.
Then, as if to play catch-up in a race, May brought enough heat to level the averages up, to the point of making 2018 the second warmest season over the same period. June set a solid record of heat accumulation, the highest in the current quinquennial.

So, if these temperatures stay within reasonable ranges, we may expect harvest dates to be a bit earlier than those from 2014 to 2016. Just a reminder, 2017 had a full month advantage due to an unprecedented early budbreak, which moved harvest dates several days earlier than usual.
Rainfall, on the other hand, has shown a 35% deficit compared to a normal year which has led us to compensate with the correspondent irrigation scheme.

As stated above, we’re in the middle of veraison (pictures below) in the vineyards, which is officially the beginning of the ripening time of grapes. The weather, particularly precipitation, cannot be more crucial over the coming weeks. Whether we might have had a drought or a period of pouring rain up until today, it matters not, because the weather from veraison forward defines what the season is going to be like. This is the time for vines to “think” about their descendants. Yes, they need to “feel” like it´s more important to produce good seeds and prized fruit for the harvest and winemakers than to grow and expand their perimeter, in effect, foliage, which is exactly what they would do if they were to receive an endless supply of water, days on end.
I know we need rain in the area, but for the record, hopefully, the downpours will not be coming our way until we have finished harvesting!


Sergio Cuadra, Director of Winemaking, Fall Creek Vineyards



2016 Harvest Report

20th Jul 2017 @ 09:53 by ame@fcv.com


October 2016

Since the 2013 vintage, this is my 4th harvest as Director of Winemaking at FALL CREEK Vineyards, and now that we have the 2016 vintage in the winery, it is the proper time to look back over the past several months. While some fermentations are still lingering, our memories of the various stages of the season are very fresh. My harvest report will review the season in the context of the last three years in order to get a more in-depth perspective.


Weather/precipitation
During most of last spring and early summer, we constantly were consulting with the weather man to be aware and prepared for the changes in the weather. Watching vineyards get soaked by rain and lightning dance through the skies was all too familiar. Similar to the 2015 harvest, this year’s first part of the season was very wet.

On the figure below, the rain events are shown in inches every day from Jan 1st to Aug 31st., during 2014 to 2015 seasons, as recorded in the Dripping Springs weather station which covers the Driftwood area, where we harvest grapes. It is clear that 2014 marked the ending of the long drought central Texas has experienced for the past seven years.

Interestingly and fortunately, the last two wet seasons lasted only until June, and the period that followed was pretty dry, which coincides with the grape’s ripening phase. It is good to have a steady warm dry period for quality, as it will be explained below.

The second part of August 2016, however, looks totally unusual, and it might have forecast not the best scenario for the grapes which were still hanging. Fortunately for us, the period that preceded that week long storm was dry, and the weather condition was good enough to allow us to wrap up harvesting all the grapes in the area. In fact, the rain started on the 14th of August, and we picked the last load of grapes on the 13th.

In terms of total rainfall these last two years, we have had more rain than normal for the first eight months of the year as can be seen in the figure below where the cumulative monthly inches of rainfall up to August is reported. As I mentioned, in this last month of August alone, we had 12 inches of rain in the area, which left a big question mark for those grapes which had not yet been picked.
It is good to point out, though, that there is no such thing as a normal year, since normal refers to an average of long term data. If there was such a thing as normal daily weather, the case would be such that it would rain a little bit every single day of the year, and we all know that’s impossible. Nevertheless, it is still a good indicator of the bulk volume of rainfall for a given region.

So, what is the effect of these rains on grapevines? Well, there are stages during the season when plants need to grow and develop and times when they just need to concentrate their efforts on the clusters. Below is a scheme of the phonological stages of vines.

(Adapted from Eichhorn and Lorenz (1977) and Lorenz (1994)).


From stage 1 to 33 they need to expand their shoots and develop. After that which is marked by veraison (the change of color of the grapes), vines simply need to stop growing and divert photosynthesis production from new tissue to grapes. This simple change in behavior is one of the most important elements which predicts the quality that follows.

The onset of such a phenomenon, also considered the onset of ripening, is very well aligned with temperature and the availability of water and nutrients. If the vines experience too much water and nutrients, then, the more difficult it is to accomplish a good ripening period. This is why it was very important to have that dry period starting just before veraison this and previous years. The plants had more than enough water to grow when it was needed the most and scarcity of water when it was not needed. In fact, it became so dry we had to irrigate the vineyards, in order for them to survive and do well, which is a standard summer practice.

On the other hand, although we were not affected by them, the late August rains could have meant a delayed ripening and the threat of fungus diseases. So we can consider ourselves very lucky.

Weather/temperature

As shown in previous posts, the table below shows the Growing Degree Days (GDD) accumulation zones as described by the two authors. The numbers indicate the summation of daily average temperatures minus 50ºF for a period of 7 months. I showed this scale the last two years, but I think it is good to refresh the context. This year, counting from April to August, there were 4,240.5 GDD accumulated in Dripping Springs, which is enough to fall into Zone V in the table.

The fact that the scale includes a longer period (April to October) addresses the authors’ opinion about how correct GDD are in predicting plant growth. Because, at the end of the day, we see varieties being harvested at an equivalent heat accumulation index in the Texas Hill Country as compared to other cooler regions where this system was established. So, more important than the growing season length is the actual number of Growing Degree Days accumulated.


All in all, this season was a mere 2.2% cooler and 1.9% warmer than last year and the long term average, respectively, (again, this is up to August). This is why most of the varieties kept their usual harvest dates within a reasonable range.

Over the last three years we can see that give or take the seasons, we have been pretty much stable in terms of GDD, as it can be concluded from the two charts below, where at the end of August all seasons reach a very similar number.

One down side of the season was a frost period we had before it all started. March 20th and 21st were just cold enough to affect early bud breaking varieties, like Tempranillo and others. Then, on March 25th we had another hit of low temperatures. These low temperatures may have varied in different sub-valleys within the Hill Country, but overall the temperature contributed to a low yielding year.

Varieties


Tempranillo, Salt Lick Vineyards – We are extremely excited about the 2016 Tempranillo from Salt Lick Vineyards. Like in 2015, this was the first red variety harvested this year. We harvested two separate blocks of the vineyard on August 4th and combined them in the winery due to small yields. Near-perfect ripeness was achieved at 25.1 brix and 4.11 pH. During the 19-day fermentation, special care was given to this highly tannic variety to encourage supple and delicate tannin extraction. The resulting full-bodied wine has complex flavors of mocha, chocolate, earthy spices, and dark fruits, and it has the potential to be our best version of this Spanish variety to-date.

Syrah, Salt Lick Vineyards. Our second red variety to bring into the winery was the 2016 Syrah from Salt Lick Vineyards. This at times fickle variety came in impeccably ripened at 25.0 brix and 4.08 pH. The must was fermented in one of our stainless steel tanks, where it remained for 28 days. The combination of high quality and long maceration time resulted in a big wine loaded with crushed violet, jammy plum, and velvety tannin. The wine is intricate and balanced on its own, but it will also be an excellent component to our 2016 FALL CREEK Vineyards GSM blend.
Sauvignon Blanc, Mesa Vineyards.- I would find it difficult to find another Sauvignon Blanc vineyard with 23 days on or above 100ºF under its belt during the growing season and yet be able to produce such a lovely wine. To add to the context described above, this vineyard was harvested right at 3,120 GDD, which was reached on July 26th, falling right in-between regions II and III on the Winkler scale. At print time this wine is kept cold over its fine lees, and we are sure it will make another astonishing wine this year.
Chenin blanc, Mesa Vineyards. Just like the Sauvignon blanc, Chenin Blanc finds Pecos County its perfect home. Over the years it has shown great consistency. Chenin Blanc reaches such high quality that we decided this last season to introduce a 2nd vinification: FALL CREEK Vineyards dry Headwaters Chenin Blanc as a tribute to its potential. This year is no different. Lovely fruit character, lots of concentration and elegance. I can’t wait for you to taste this new vintage!

Mourvedre, Salt Lick Vineyards. Another component of the future 2016 FALL CREEK Vineyards GSM, the 2016 Mourvedre from Salt Lick was the third red variety harvested. This is a Spanish grape, like the Tempranillo, that seems to tolerate the Texas heat remarkably well. The grapes were fully ripened at 26.3 brix and 4.03 pH. They were brought to Fall Creek on August 12th, just before the heavy August rains began. The wine has developed everything you would want from a Mourvedre throughout its 25 days in tank. Meat, earth, and subtle hints of guava and passion fruit are a few characteristics that mark this medium-bodied wine as a must-try from the 2016 vintage.

Grenache, Salt Lick Vineyards. The Grenache from Salt Lick Vineyards was the last red variety that we harvested for the 2016 vintage (August 13th). Last year, we used this fruit to make an internationally awarded GOLD medal FALL CREEK Grenache Rosé, but this year we felt that it had enough color and fortitude to be made in a red wine style. The sugar accumulated to 24.2 brix, while the pH reached to 4.20 at harvest time. After 24 days in tank, the resulting wine is a light-medium bodied wine with notes of graham crackers, maraschino cherries, and strawberries. Look for this wine to make an appearance as the third variety in our 2016 GSM.
Finally, as described, we just finished another tricky year. This 2016 season kept our hopes up for a higher crop yield, until the grapes were finally harvested and suddenly we realized shorter than usual days in the field. Anyway, Mother Nature takes and gives, I guess, and we need to be thankful of the good quality which in the end is what contributes to the prestige of FALL CREEK Vineyards Texas wines.

Sergio Cuadra, Director of Winemaking



PS. More about Growing Degree Days (GDD).
For example, if the average temperature in May is 74ºF the accumulation of GDD for would be:
74ºF – 50ºF = 24ºF, and then,
24ºF x 31 days in May = 774 GDD for that month.

The same is done on the whole Apr-Oct period in order to get the total GDD of a particular area.

It is assumed that below 50ºF plants stop growing metabolism, that’s why GDD is considered an accumulation of plants active heat and helps quickly describing an area in terms of temperature. It is not meant to be final as there are other more complex models that take a number of variables like latitude, humidity, winds and more, but it’s a simple and easy tool to use.



Literature cited

Eichhorn,K.W., D.H. Lorenz. 1977. Phänologische Entwicklungsstadien der Rebe. Nachrichtenbl. Deut. Pflanzenschutz. 29, 119-120
Winkler, A.J., J.A. Cook, W.M. Kliewer, and L.A. Lider. 1974. General Viticulture. 4th ed. University of California Press, Berkeley.



Texas Wine and Climate Change

20th Jul 2017 @ 09:21 by ame@fcv.com

March 2016

Each year is filled with important milestones and 2015 was not the exception. One of these recaps was the Cop21 or United Nations Conference on Climate Change held in Paris, not long after those infamous attacks at the French Capital.

Countries gathered at the Parc des Expositions Paris le Bourget have pledged to stop the Earth’s temperature from increasing more than 2ºC (3.6ºF) and plan to achieve this goal by the end of the century (as their models suggest that earth’s temperature would reach this increase). Furthermore, they agreed to try to keep it below 1.5ºC (2.7ºF) to protect island states which are more exposed to the rise in sea level. All of the above is based on predictions of life threatening consequences in some areas of the globe they say would happen if the temperature were to rise above that of 2ºC from what it is today.

Being a humble winemaker in Texas I cannot do much other than accept what 195 countries have adopted as the truth: the planet is getting warmer and if we do nothing about it, it is going to get worse.

Since my plan (God willing) is to stay in the wine business over the next four decades it concerns me as to what the situation will be, say in 2050. Am I still going to have a job, should I consider a career change?

So, I ask Mr. Google about “climate change” and I read a paper called “Climate change, wine, and conservation,” by Lee Hannah and eight other scientists, published by PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America) in 2013.

I’m shocked right from the first paragraph of the abstract writing, because they have both optimistic and pessimistic scenarios for the coming decades that forecast substantial decreases of suitable area for viticulture from 19% to 73%! I stopped reading right there and went for a glass of our Fall Creek Vineyards Vintner’s Selection Cabernet Sauvignon/Sangiovese/Merlot blend, just to make this mind blowing fact more palatable.


Then, they suggest that since the air is going to be so hot, sprinkling water over grapes will be necessary to cool grapes down to a reasonable temperature. As a result, this brings up new water conservation issues. Of course, I also, said, “WHAT?! For those of you not familiar with viticulture should know that any free water over grapes during the summer is literally a hotbed for fungus deceases.

Digging a bit into the paper regarding the suggestion to cool grapes down, I find only one reference from an engineer that was measuring stream flow variations during hot days in the summer and cold days in the spring, but no explanation of the need to create a “cooling down system”. Apparently they confused a standard irrigation procedure (focused on the roots) during high atmospheric water demand periods with some novel cooling system, which, by the way, works fine for frost control during cold spring days. Maybe that is what confused them?

After a few sips of wine I keep reading. They published striking maps showing soon-to-be-gone viticulture areas and new ones to come around the world. For example, Italy (and all red colored areas on the map) would no longer be able to produce wine and France would be completely redrawn…start thinking about something to replace those beautiful Brunellos! More wine!

Further down the article I had to say, “Wait a minute”! On one hand they point out that the most prominent new wine region in the US would be the Northwest especially in the Rocky Mountains near the Canada/US border (shown in blue and light blue on the map). On the other hand, they say expansion of new vineyards in the area, including all its related developments (houses, roads, wineries, etc) might threaten protected habitats, of perhaps Yellowstone and Yukon. So here is the prediction: a climate change with the capacity to eliminate vineyards in vast areas, relocating them to new zones, is not strong enough to affect current ecosystems where large mammals and other species are protected. How could that possibly work? They even suggest timely land acquisitions to prevent the potential ecological threat that the wine industry represents.


The article simply gets worse. These scientists claim that tropical mountain terrain have the potential to become relevant viticulture areas, threatening, again, those high biodiversity areas.

Well, maybe I don’t know enough to criticize a scientific paper like this, even though I still think it should be cross checked with people belonging to the disciplines they are talking about and who work with viticulture. But, the one thing that irritates me is how tunnel visioned they are when they boldly affirm that certain areas will be too hot and/or too dry to grow grapes. And I have two reasons to be outraged at them:

1. Grape growing started, at least, some 7,400 years ago in the desert regions of the Middle East where one of the most torrid summers on earth can be felt and yet vines where able to thrive there even before they were domesticated. Professor Patrick E. McGovern (www.penn.museum/sites/biomoleculararchaeology/) can tell you all about it.

This is the reason why we can grow wine grapes successfully here in Texas. Grapes are fully adapted to the hot weather just like they were when they were first discovered by early civilizations, so I think there is also a need for cross checking, so they can really back up their conclusions.

2. The kind of environment which these writers are claiming to be impossible for viticulture in the future already exist on our planet, actually, within the very USA. It is like these people have a “window to the future” where grapes are thriving in places that today are as warm as the places which they are predicting are going to be in the future. In other words, they have the perfect “test site” right here, right now. Why not use these areas to check and eventually correct the models?


If they don’t pay attention to this and Texas goes beyond 10,000 acres of vines these scientists are really going to have to come up with a good explanation about how their models are wrong.

As I said at the beginning, I can’t contradict what has been agreed by all the countries on the planet but, honestly, if they are airing their concerns in publications like these I’m not so sure anymore.

Sergio Cuadra, Director of Winemaking



2015 Harvest Report

9th Jul 2017 @ 13:00 by ame@fcv.com


October 2015

Another growing season has come and gone in the Texas Hill Country. It is time to review what the grape vines endured this year, and I am sure more than a few of you will be intrigued to know how that wet spring affected the vineyards.

Weather/precipitation

The following graph shows this year’s cumulative precipitation from the Dripping Springs Weather Station which we use to cover the Salt Lick Vineyards, which accounts for a significant amount of our grapes. As can be seen right from the beginning, it rained more than the long term average. In fact, on May 29th the accumulation of rain was almost twice that of the average. Moreover, that month was the wettest month on record with an outstanding 10.82 in (275mm) of rain, which, also, was the case state wide. It actually rained 2 out every 3 a days in May. Then, June came and added a more humble 3.04 in (77mm) amount of water and unexpectedly, it stopped. There was no rain in July and August, except for the 0.02 in (0.5mm) on August 16th to be exact. It was like someone had closed a valve, going from a very wet season to a very dry one.


One hundred miles Northwest of Driftwood the case was a bit different. At the Brady Weather Station, which we use to cover Certenberg vineyards, another very important source of grapes for us, an above normal rain pattern occurred only from May on, although of a moderate magnitude. As it can be seen, it rained two thirds of the volume in Dripping Springs.


Now, what is the effect of these rains on grapevines? Well, there are stages during the season when plants need to grow and develop and times when they just need to concentrate their efforts on the clusters. Below is a scheme of the phonological stages of vines (Adapted from Eichhorn and Lorenz (1977) and Lorenz (1994)). From stage 1 to 33 they need to expand their shoots and develop. After that, which is marked by veraison (the change of color of the grapes), vines simply need to stop growing and divert photosynthesis production from new tissue to grapes. This simple change in behavior is one of the most important elements which predicts the quality that follows.



The onset of such a phenomenon, also considered the onset of ripening, is very well aligned with temperature and the availability of water and nutrients. If the vines experience too much water and nutrients, then, the more difficult it is to accomplish a good ripening period. This is why it was very important to have that dry period starting just before veraison this year. The plants had more than enough water to grow when it was needed the most and scarcity when it was not needed. In fact, it became so dry we had to irrigate the vineyards, in order for them to survive and do well, which is a standard summer practice.

Having said that, this season was a good opportunity to see how different vineyards or even small patches within vineyards responded to such a volume of rain. The following picture shows a vineyard that pretty much enjoyed the excess of water. The light green color at the top of the canopy and how dense it is give away the fact that they were using the excess water and nutrients for canopy growth (which doesn’t participate in the actual grape development/winemaking). Some leaves inside are so shaded they turn yellow due to the lack of light.


At the same time, there are other sites where the excess water was removed through drainage or superficial run off, and the plant got to “taste” just a bit of it, showing a better balanced looking canopy like the picture below. In this case, the plant shows a more transparent canopy, no growing shoots, even though this photo was taken the same day as the picture above. Both are of the same variety, Tempranillo, and are not located very far from each other. So, under the same weather conditions, which includes temperature, rain, radiation, wind and relative moisture (again to be exact), one variety can show diferent performance depending on the characteristics of the soil where they are planted.

Weather/temperature

The table below shows the Growing Degree Days (GDD) accumulation zones as described by the two authors. The numbers indicate the summation of daily average temperatures minus 50ºF for a period of 7 months. I showed this scale last year, but I think it is good to refresh the context. This year, counting from April to August, there were 4,388 GDD accumulated in Dripping Springs, which is enough to fall into Zone V in the table, which is usual, by the way. The fact that the scale includes a longer period (October included) addresses the authors’ opinion about how correct GDD are in predicting plant growth. Because, at the end of the day, we see varieties being harvested at an equivalent heat accumulation index in the Texas Hill Country as compared to other cooler regions where this system was once established. So, more important than the growing season length is the actual number of Degree Days accumulated.


All in all, this season was a mere 2.1% and 4.3% warmer than last year and the long term average, respectively, (again, this is until August). This is why most of the varieties kept their usual harvest dates within a reasonable range. The one that escaped our forecasts was Tempranillo. It was somehow sufficiently efficient enough to be ready to be harvested some 11 days before last year. So, August temperatures do not even count in this case. Since it was harvested on July 31st , we can say that it needed 3.268 GDD to reach ripeness, which is obtained after taking August out of the sum.

Varieties

Notwithstanding rains stopping at just the right time, it rained so often during the growing season, that it was a challenge to keep up with the scheduled sprayings. This affected some canopies in general during that rainy period, but they recovered a healthier growth later in the season. Other than this minor blip, the grapes made their way to the winery in very good condition.


Tempranillo, Salt Lick Vineyards – As described above, Tempranillo beat even Chardonnay as the first grape variety within our portfolio to be ready for picking. The practice this year was to segregate the field so that the first-picked fruit would come from the most evenly-ripened plants as possible at one time. This allowed for clusters of similar ripeness being fermented at the same time. All is looking great so far; bright color and nice concentration is what we see at these early stages. Also, after a year of no fruit (in 2013) and a recovery year last season (in 2014), we finally had enough crop to make up for this much sought after wine.


Chardonnay, Certenberg Vineyards - We had a nice crop, harvested at a similar time in the past, and good flavors is what best describes this year for this variety. We separated the best area of the vineyard for our Barrel Fermented program, and the aging wine will stay on its lees for a long while until next summer, at least. The other portion of the Chardonnay was tank fermented on its lees, un-oaked and is a delicious wine.


Sauvignon Blanc, Mesa Vineyards.- Lovely fruit this year. We got it at a very right ripening time with just about 22º brix in the tank. You would have loved to taste it when fermenting, it was fantastic!, but the wine is even better. Great aromas and an even better mouth feeling. We’re hurrying to get it out quickly because I know there are several people just waiting to get this one by the case and let me tell you, they won’t be disappointed.


Syrah, Salt Lick Vineyards. This year the Syrah was fermented on its own, because it was ready just a bit before the Grenache. Very dark, velvety and concentrated is the wine, and it will be the main part of the future GSM from this year, for sure.


Mourvèdre and Grenache, Salt Lick Vineyards. This season the Mourvèdre and Grenache ripened at the same time and a bit earlier than last year. Maybe, the Grenache was the one most affected by the rains in May, because there were clusters that had visible lower color content when compared with others. So, we decided that it was a good opportunity to make a Rosé out of it. Hence, we reserved a bit to this purpose and left the rest to ferment with the always consistent Mourvèdre. The Rosé is looking very promising, and we are working against the clock to have it ready as soon as possible.


Sangiovese, Salt Lick Vineyards and Tahzii Springs Vineyards.- These two vineyards had a low crop this year, and, so, we fermented them together, since they are only 14 miles away from each other. Interesting notes on the nose and a silky mouth feel make this wine a good blending option for our recently released blend of this variety Sangiovese with Cabernet and Merlot for a “Super Tuscan” expression.


Merlot, Certenberg Vineyards. Merlot was harvested only 2 days before last year’s harvest. This grape pleased us again with an outstanding performance. Very balanced juice and deep color reflects its great ability to adapt to the climate and an even better site, which is completely rain proof, sort of speaking, because of the soil’s great drainage condition.


Cabernet Sauvignon, Certenberg Vineyards. So, we now look to Cabernet Sauvignon the king of all grape varieties. No wonder this is the most famous variety of all. This year Cabernet came in an incredibly balanced condition/with a book-like description: Brix was just above 24, pH right on 3.79 and a TA of 6.15 (g/l tartaric, for those of you for whom these numbers don’t mean a thing, sorry, but, you’ll have to believe me).. Again, we’re witnessing the effect of a very good site here that allow plants to glide through different kinds of vintages and still get the best results from these varieties. In the tank the just-made wine shows an attractive color and beautiful aromas. It is almost ready to go into barrels for ageing for over a year, but it looks just wonderful now.

Finally, this vintage is going to record in history as being the one when our 7 year long drought came to an end and two of our major Colorado River reservoirs, Travis and Buchanan lakes, finally came up from historic lows. The wet spring made us anticipate a challenging year, but the rain stopped right when it needed to stop, and nature gave us splendid weather during the ripening period. So, this extraordinary potential portends another great year for the Hill Country.

Sergio Cuadra, Director of Winemaking



P.S. More about Growing Degree Days (GDD).
For example, if the average temperature in May is 74ºF the accumulation of GDD for would be: 74ºF – 50ºF = 24ºF, and then, 24ºF x 31 days in May = 774 GDD for that month. The same is done on the whole Apr-Oct period in order to get the total GDD of a particular area.

It is assumed that below 50ºF plants stop growing metabolism, that’s why GDD is considered an accumulation of plants active heat and helps quickly describing an area in terms of temperature. It is not meant to be final as there are other more complex models that take a number of variables like latitude, humidity, winds and more, but it’s a simple and easy tool to use.



Literature cited

Eichhorn,K.W., D.H. Lorenz. 1977. Phänologische Entwicklungsstadien der Rebe. Nachrichtenbl. Deut. Pflanzenschutz. 29, 119-120
Winkler, A.J., J.A. Cook, W.M. Kliewer, and L.A. Lider. 1974. General Viticulture. 4th ed. University of California Press, Berkeley.
Jones et al. 2010. Spatial Analysis of Climate in Winegrape Growing Regions in the Western United States. Am. J. Enol. Vitic. 61: 313-326



Killing the messenger or the message?

9th Jul 2017 @ 12:39 by ame@fcv.com


September 2015

In a recent, interesting New York Times article, Bruce Schoenfeld confronts two sides that appear to be in the antipodes of wine profile or taste and how it should be made as a result.

Schoenfeld points out that for the last three decades some wine consumers and, thus winemaking, have been too influenced by just one person, Robert Parker JR. Parker’s opinions about any wine have been enough to make the difference between success and failure. Through the invention of his 100 points score system, he has established the most influential wine publication, The Wine Advocate, in the world. If a wine gets 95 points or higher on one of his reviews, it surely sells out quickly and becomes a sought- after item at the same time.

His detractors argue that he likes only one style of wine, usually wine above 14.5º of alcohol, so called fruit bombs, of inky color and almost a sweet mouth feeling. These characteristics can be obtained when the grapes from good vineyard sites are harvested fully ripe or even a bit over ripe, because it is then that the wines develop these descriptions and are rid of any green flavor. In fact, in search of ripeness, extending the hanging time has been widely practiced by the vast majority of wineries all around the world thus increasing the sugar in grapes and hence the alcohol of the resulting wines. This is easily confirmed by looking at wine labels on any retail store, where one observes that alcohol levels are above 14º on the higher end wines, as opposed to around 12.5º level where they were in the past.

Despite the success of mainstream wineries which have searched for high scores and recognition, there is a sort of a protest movement that proposes that wines harvested and made with lower alcohol levels, as a result, are better representatives of the place, as they put it. Wine aromas and flavors, according to their mind-set, are things you would never think to connect to wine, like the leaf-¬strewn ground in a forest—Schoenfeld remarks.

These complaints (which I have authoritatively curtailed to save you time) are not new and as a winemaker I have heard them all for such a long time that I think it is time to try to pose the question: what are they trying to kill, the messenger or the message? As a result of the unstable weather pattern of the European summers, each year’s wine quality, and quantity, is unknown until the last part of the season where temperature and rainfall play a crucial role. By looking back in time, before Parker, we can find information about how each harvest has been perceived and rated by critics and consumers who have paid a premium for the so called outstanding vintages.

On the figure below, two axes have been combined and vintages/years have been located according to the weather they had in August and September in Bordeaux. The horizontal line goes from cold temperatures on the left to warmer ones to the right; and the vertical line goes from wetter conditions on the bottom to dryer times to the top. Dark shaded dots are above average priced wine and light shaded dots are below average priced wine, and the time range goes from 1952 to 1980.
Figure 1 Vintage distribution 1952-1980
(Adapted from Ashenfelter, Ashmore, Lalonde “Bordeaux Wine Vintage Quality and the Weather”)


It’s clear that dryer/warmer weather (particularly warmer) helped in making wines that reached higher prices as compared to cooler/wetter years. We can assume without too much risk that those warmer years produced riper, higher alcohol wines, as compared to the colder ones, and as a result they were considered better and more expensive.

Therefore, it seems as though Parker’s sin was to prefer and prize those better wines that everybody else had liked. Prior to this protest movement, riper, higher alcohol wines were already appreciated by people willing to pay more for this style of wine. And even before Parker there was The Judgment of Paris in 1976 when California wines beat French famous counterparts in a blind tasting that has inspired books and movies. Why did this happen? Think about what California weather is like during the summer. Is it cold and wet or warm and dry? There you have it.

So, I think that after Parker created his 100 point scale, understanding wine quality became extremely (maybe too much) easier for eager consumers who were trying to interpret subjective wine descriptions until then. The phenomenon that resulted is now known history. In fact, it wasn’t long before he was not alone in giving scores to wines from all over the world.

Though the one thing they (Parker and other publications) didn’t do was to impose a new wine taste profile among consumers, because that taste profile was already in place long before they began rating wines.

So, if you don’t like Parker’s high score wines don’t blame him because he is a mere (though successful) messenger. As the figure above shows, the wines he likes have been appreciated by people for decades.

Now, I welcome all new initiatives, though I cannot hide my skepticism when I hear someone is going to harvest early just because that would produce a wine with no “Parker” tag attached to it, or, when they are searching for the most remote cold place to grow grapes just to go against mainstream thought. Remember that monks in Champagne used to make awful wines (it is too cold there) until they discovered they could make the bubbly stuff. I prefer more focus on facts than emotions.

Nevertheless, at Fall Creek Vineyards, our winemaking efforts are to please people with wines that combine four attributes: Elegancy, Concentration, Complexity and Uniqueness. This subject is to the topic for another post, to develop all four of these qualities, because we are in the position to say is that here in Texas we have the ability to get all these qualities in one glass. I know that this statement would be better to taste than to read, so check us out on-line or at your closest retail store in Texas.

Sergio Cuadra, Director of Winemaking



2015 Growing Season

9th Jul 2017 @ 12:19 by ame@fcv.com


May 2015

The intrinsic quality of any given wine is explained by interacting factors which include, among a long list, the weather of that particular vintage. So, it’s good to keep an eye on the charts and how they compare to previous years or long term averages to sort of staying in touch with what plants are going through.

It’s been a convention to start keeping track of the season on April each year, even though plants may “wake up” a bit earlier. Anyhow, April is history and it’s time to auscultate what was behind this kick off month.

Thank to the Southern Regional Climate Center (http://www.srcc.lsu.edu/) we can have an easy access to several weather stations across the State, including two that we follow, Dripping Springs, TX, and Brady, TX.

If you are around Austin, especially to its South West outskirts and have felt like this is a wetter year, you are right. By April 30th we had an 81% above average rainfall, counting 13.77 inches of rain compared to 9.8 in a normal year (*).


Curiously enough, this much more water has been accompanied by higher than usual temperatures. April long term average is 66.95ºF and this year it was 70.08ºF. This means that plants have had 18% more of “useful” (**) temperature to grow.

As expected, they responded accordingly with a rapid shoot growth as seen on the pictures from one single plant. They were taken on March 27th, April 20th and April 28th (left to right, obviously). Over that period some of the shoots grew more than ½ an inch per day.

Also, they made it to flower within April, as can be seen on the picture to the right (taken on April 28th). This is almost a month before a cooler region, which is totally normal because they basically work in alignment with the surrounding temperatures.

Brady

From a water surplus in Dripping Springs we turn into a deficit Brady, TX (some 160 miles to the North West). In fact, instead of 7.17 inches from January to April, it has rained 6.27 only, or 13% lower than a normal year. Not bad if we consider that last year it was only 1.31 inches up to April.

About temperature, it has shown a similar pattern compared to Dripping Springs, with a 21% above average, taken from 67.55ºF average during the month over an historical 64.45ºF.

Overall, it’s been a good kick off month. Plants are showing a healthy and steady growth and are getting used to the warm temperatures. It’s too soon to speak about this year’s quality potential, because that is defined later in the season, though so far so good. Stay tuned!

Sergio Cuadra, Director of Winemaking



Thoughts on Vine Metabolism in Texas

21st Jun 2017 @ 09:33 by ame@fcv.com


February 2015
In one of Stephen Hawking’s books, the renowned scientist, warns the reader about his disregarding the advice of the editor who said he would lose half of the potential readers for every mathematical equation he put in the book. He said he had to include Einstein’s famous relation between energy, mass and the speed of light if he wanted to explain the fundamentals of the universe in simple words. I just remember this because in a more human scale matter I’m going to take the risk of losing half of the readers by going a bit deeper in trying to explain why is it that we are able to make such high quality wines at FALL CREEK Vineyards in Texas. So, here we go!

Vitis vinifera (which includes practically all European varieties, though originally from the Middle East), or just vines for our purpose, has two kinds of metabolisms as most of other plants do, the primary and the secondary. The first includes, but is not limited to, the production of metabolites that are essential to plant growth and development, like rich fuel molecules such as starch or glucose, structural molecules such as cellulose and other important molecules found in all plants. On the other hand, secondary metabolites are often colored or fragrant or flavorful compounds and they mediate the interaction of the plant and the environment, including other organisms and abiotic factors like temperature or light.

Among secondary metabolites are polyphenols which include anthocyanin, flavonols and tannins, three of the most important contributors to wine organoleptic properties. Their function within the plant is more or less studied, but the one thing that has been proven is vines growing in ideal conditions of water, nutrients, temperature, light and absence of other pathogens tend to accumulate less concentrations of polyphenols, so, their synthesis is encouraged by the influence of one or more “stress conditions”, in fact, vines show a different response if they are exposed to one stress or to two of them, as it normally happens in nature, heat and drought being the typical example.

The response to stress, particularly heat, not only includes polyphenols but also certain proteins called Heat Shock Proteins (HSP) of several size and functions. Amazingly enough, inside the cells they are able to chaperone (they are actually called molecular chaperones!) other proteins and prevent them from getting affected by high temperature. They act by responding, maintaining and repairing the effects of a heat period, which we know in Texas can be quite extended, and their effectiveness can be seen on this fine looking plant growing under the Texas Hill Country weather.

Where am I going with all this? Well, these molecules are costly for the vine. That’s why they save the effort if they are not needed. They consume significant amounts of energy and resources, so, if put under extreme stress plants may have a different compound composition when compared to plants under normal conditions.

In Texas we have the kind of summer temperatures than can fall into the extreme category, to say the least. Several weeks in a row with maximum temperatures above 95ºF (35ºC), some periods above 100ºF (38ºC) and even a few times above 105ºF (41ºC) would definitely count for the typical condition in central Texas. Also, not to mention, minimum temperatures averaging 75ºF (24ºC) over the same period, though less scarce, contribute to what is usually considered normal.

These summer temperatures do trigger the synthesis of secondary metabolites, like polyphenols and HSPs in particular, all of them, as pointed above, to the expense of energy or, in other words, sugars. The result is a lower sugar/secondary metabolites ratio. Translated into English, this means more ripeness at a particular level of sugar content. For those of you patient enough, an example: imagine two Cabernet Sauvignon plants, one grown in Texas and one in any other cooler region, both with the same sugar content. What this means is that the Texas plant is going to have a more advanced ripeness because it has been spending energy doing things the cooler region plant has not had the need to do.

This did not occur to me immediately. I have been observing this phenomenon the past two vintages since becoming Director of Winemaking at Fall Creek Vineyards in Texas. During the last harvest, I found these fully matured seeds whose grapes were only some 22.6º brix. Consequently, all of our grapes were harvested between 23 and 24º brix with great results. Usually, at that sugar level, grapes are unripe in cooler regions.

I know I must have scared half of you off at the second or third paragraph, and maybe the other half before this last paragraph, but I have this problem of experience telling incontinency, and I had to share these thoughts with y’all!

Sergio Cuadra, Director of Winemaking




References: Al-Whaibi, M.H. 2011. Plant heat-shock proteins: a mini review. J. King Saud Univ. Science 23:139-150.
Downey, M.O, N.K. Dokoozlian, and M.P. Krstic. 2006. Cultural Practice and Environmental Impacts on the Flavonoids Composition of Grapes and Wine: A Review of Recent Research. Am. J. Enol. Vitic. 57:3 257-268.
Morrel, A, M., R.L. Wample, G.I. Mink, and M.S.B. Ku. 1997. Heat Shock Protein Expression in Leaves of Cabernet Sauvignon. Am. J. Enol. Vitic. 48:4 459-464



A Look Back in Time

21st Jun 2017 @ 09:23 by ame@fcv.com


December 2014
In previous posts I have highlighted the high quality potential of the Texas Hill Country as a wine growing region. The more I taste local wines the more I realize that fundamentals for high quality grape production, that is, weather, varieties, soil and knowledge, are finally getting in symphony.

So, the question arises: why has this tremendous quality potential gone unrecognized by the world’s agri-business sector for the most part of the last century with only this best kept secret just beginning to make noise in recent years? We all know about the devastating effects that prohibition had over the entire United States wine business and, all things considered, that might be THE reason why.

So, what about before prohibition? The Bob Bullock Texas History Museum at Austin shows the Spanish flag at the front gate to remind us all that those people were the first Europeans to ever claim possession of what we now call Texas. Some were conquerors that came to stay for good so they brought their knowledge and culture, which included religion and the need of wine for the Catholic mass, which is a good excuse to plant vines, indeed. I recently got the chance to read more about wine production in Texas in those early days.

Sarah Jane English wrote The Wines of Texas,
and on the first chapter she covers those founding times. Thanks to her great historical work, it is fascinating to realize that the vines they planted some 350 years ago not only did thrive in El Paso but also made outstanding wines for centuries to come. As Lt. Zebulon M. Pike wrote in 1806, “numerous vineyards from which were produced the finest wine ever drank”. A few years later Stephen F. Austin himself wrote “nature seems to have intended Texas for a vineyard to supply America with wines”, a quote also highlighted by Russ Kane in his book The Wineslinger Chronicles of 2012 (vintagetexas.com). More officially, in 1837 on a message to Congress, the President of the Republic of Texas, San Houston stated: “Her cotton, sugar, indigo, wines, peltries, live stock and the precious minerals will become objects of mercantile activity”, regarding the trade of the young Republic.

The book keeps on mentioning a number of scripts where we can learn about comments and references regarding producing wines in Texas. One of those is from J.D.B. De Bow who edited a monthly publication in which he reports “…We are confident that the vine can be cultivated to a far greater advantage in the undulating region of Texas [the Hill Country?] than in any other part of the Union. The climate and soil resemble those of the best wine growing sections of Europe and Asia.”

It’s also interesting to read about the eagerness of the French chargé d`affaires, a sort of delegate from the French government, to abolish any taxation to the French wines imported to Texas in February 1840, so they would compete side by side with the locals.

By the end of the XIX century there already were prohibitionists that eventually prevailed until 1918 when the State finally adopted the federal government’s amendment which lasted for seventeen years. As the author puts it: “prohibition caused an immense gap”. An aftertaste of this can be seen today in some localities that are still “dry”.

So there we have it. Very early in Texas’ formative years they found this land as more than suitable for producing fine wines. I guess right after 1935 there was a race for filling the gap, and California with its easier weather (basically lack of hail, strong winds, and freezes) made the first and fastest move soon after prohibition was lifted. Whatever the reason, we are following the first settlers’ paths today, and we are getting to the same conclusions, maybe this land was intended to supply America with wines after all!

Sergio Cuadra, Director of Winemaking