Stressed-out Vines Make Award-Winning Wine
By Sergio Cuadra, Director of Winemaking
We are thrilled to learn that our 2015 Fall Creek Vineyards Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre (GSM), Salt Lick Vineyards was awarded Texas Monthly’s Top Texas Wine of 2018. It is a fantastic honor to be named for this prestigious recognition among so many outstanding Texas wines at the annual Toast of Texas event held by The Wine and Food Foundation of Texas. The Texas wine industry is truly producing some of the best wines in the world at this moment.
I’ve been asked what it takes to make an award-winning wine. The truth is that some of it is up to the winemaker, but much of the quality of the fruit is dependent on the growing conditions that are completely out of our hands.
It is a cliché, but it is true that every great wine is made in the vineyard. The time we spend in the vineyard is incredibly important and deeply impacts the final wine. There are elements in the vineyard that we can control, and there are elements that we can’t.
We take our queues in the vineyard from natural principals to get optimal production and quality. For example, wild grapevines typically only have fruit at the edge of the canopy, where it has exposure to sunlight. We apply that concept to proper canopy management to thin the number of leaves and arrange shoots so that they grow up to expose the flowers and fruit to sunlight.
The most important aspect in winemaking, is to a degree, out of our control. Having just the right amount water to the plant during the entire growing season is absolutely essential in making high quality red wine.
This is evident when we evaluate the great vintages in France and compare them. It turns out that in great years, there are similar rainfall patterns. In good years, you can have almost any type of rainfall before veraison. Veraison, which is when the grapes start to ripen, typically starts in mid-June and lasts into early July for many varieties in Texas vineyards. If it continues to be dry after veraison through harvest, the result is usually a high-quality vintage. In seasons with wet conditions after veraison, the result is typically a challenging year, or average year for wine quality.
The reason is simple: Self Preservation. When grape vines have plenty of water, they are happy, and they follow their own sort of Manifest Destiny for growth with shoots and leaves expanding everywhere. When they are happy, they don’t care much about the grape clusters. With thicker canopies, the grapes are protected from sunlight and retain thin, delicate skins. The grapes grow large and diluted with all of that water.
Conversely, when they feel a lack of resources, like water, the plants concentrate their efforts in the grape clusters rather than in growing the shoots. If it thinks that it is barely going to survive, it turns all their efforts into producing the tastiest, darkest berries to attract birds which will eat them and spread the seeds. Less rain means reduced canopy, resulting in exposure of grapes to wind and sunlight. The plant naturally protects its seeds with thicker skins, deeper color, and richer polyphenols which gives us more aromatics, and more tannins for a more complex wine.
Knowing that the proper water amounts are essential to quality grapes, vineyard site selection and management are very important. At Fall Creek Vineyards, we plant our vineyards on great sites that allow excessive water to drain quickly. Without irrigation, like in Europe, we wouldn’t have any grape production in Texas. It is just too dry in most years. With irrigation we can control how much water the plants get in the dry months of June, July and August. In Salt Lick Vineyards, where we grow the grapes for our award-winning 2015 GSM, we use light irrigation after veraison so that the vines stop growing leaves and shoots at the right moment, concentrating production in the clusters.
In 2015 the long draught in Texas ended. May 2015 was the wettest May on record. It rained 10.8 inches in that month alone. However, it only rained thee inches in June, and 0 in July. This was perfect timing with the onset of ripening. We had a nice, dry ripening period, leading to prime grapes to work with in the winery.
The results were impressive. We had dark, concentrated juice right from the beginning in each of the three grapes in this Rhône-style blend. To make the wine with the intense Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvèdre fruit, we used traditional, centuries-old winemaking approaches with minimal intervention. We use pump over regimes for full extraction of colors and flavor. We did not use fining, instead we let the juice settle and racked to separate it from the lees. We closely monitored the oxygen contact as more concentrated wines require longer aging in oak. We wanted slow, quiet evolution of the wine in barrel. For this wine we used primarily American Oak barrels. The final blend is a concentrated, complex and elegant wine that retains a sense of place.
We invite you to taste our Top Texas Wine, the 2015 Fall Creek Vineyards GSM, Salt Lick Vineyards. We have the 2015 vintage available at our tasting rooms in Tow and Driftwood, TX. The 2016 vintage, which scored a stellar 90 points in a James Suckling review, is also available online: https://fcv.com/product/fall-creek-vineyards-brgrenache-syrah-mourvdre-brsalt-lick-vineyards-2016.