The Drought Situation

We are in the midst of a historic drought in California, and many people have been asking us how this will affect the wines for the 2014 vintage. As with everything in the winemaking process, this is a complicated question with many variables influencing the answer, but we’ll do our best to break it down.

Drought years can be good for high-end wine production. When the vines are stressed and have to dig deeper into the earth to search for water, the result is more complex, higher quality wines. 2013 was a drought year and we’re very optimistic about the wines from this exciting vintage.

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The biggest effect that drought has on wine production is in vineyard yield. The largest wineries making mass quantities of wine in dry areas like the Central Valley may struggle to meet their budgeted production numbers, but for us, lower yield equals higher quality. Our approach in the vineyard is always to keep yield down so that the vines can focus their efforts on fewer grapes leading to greater concentration and flavor intensity. In a year like this, nature does much of this work for us.

There are of course risks associated with drought, especially when combined with the unseasonably warm temperatures we’ve been experiencing throughout the winter months. The vines were tricked by this weather into coming out of their winter dormancy earlier than usual – sap has been flowing and buds have been breaking for several weeks now whereas normally this process would just barely be starting.

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Early bud break leaves the vines particularly susceptible to spring frosts (which are sometimes combated with water, something that is in very short supply…). Luckily we’ve had some rain in the past few weeks with more on the horizon - this helps to alleviate our frost worries and ease the drought stress just a bit. While this growing season is certain to prevent many challenges, we’re confident that we can continue to produce exceptional wines as always in 2014.

But of course there’s still so much of the story to be told for the vintage. As the French say, “Septembre fait le vin” - "September makes the wine” - meaning that the ultimate quality of the wine from a particular vintage has much more to do with the weather during harvest than the rest of the year. So as usual we’ll be taking a wait and see approach and hoping for a dry autumn with no heat spikes. In the meantime you can help us (and the entire populace of California) by saying a little prayer or doing your best rain dance!

White Wine, Red Wine…Orange Wine?

Everyone knows the difference between white wine and red wine, and most have a pretty good understanding of what pink wine (rosé) is - a “white” wine made from red grapes.

But orange wine? What is that?

The answer to that question is all in the skins. The pulp in almost all grapes - white, red, grey or black - is colorless; red wines pick up their color from contact with the skins during fermentation. Rosés become pink because the juice has a very short period of contact with the skins, while most white wines are colorless because the juice is pressed away from the skins as soon as the grapes enter the winery.

Orange wine is kind of the opposite of a rosé - a “red” wine made from white grapes - because it is fermented in contact with the grape skins. But since white wine skins do not contain anthocyanins, the resulting wines pick up just a slight orange, golden or amber hue depending on the variety of grape and the duration of the skin exposure.

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What the wine does gain from this process however is a fuller body, richer texture, and even a little bit of mouthfeel grip from the tannins that are present in the skins and pips (grape seeds). These qualities make orange wine more complex than your average white wine and a better match with a wider variety of rich foods, especially cheese.

Although not common, orange wine has been made for centuries in old world regions such as Italy, Slovenia, and the Republic of Georgia, where monks at the Alaverdi monastery have been fermenting the Rkatsiteli grape on its skins since the year 1011. For most wineries the extra time and labor involved in making orange wines just doesn’t make financial sense, but for the few that do it’s a labor of love to produce something truly unique.

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At Adobe Road we made two orange wines for the first time in the 2012 vintage - the 2012 Semillon Knights Valley Bavarian Lion Vineyard and the 2012 Viognier Dry Creek Valley Kemp Vineyard. In addition to the extended skin contact (10 days for the Semillon and 14 days for the Viognier), we implemented every possible winemaking technique to add texture and depth to the wines. We fermented with native yeast, including a wild malolactic fermentation in barrel, aged the wines on their lees for 11 months, and bottled them unfined and unfiltered. The last step is especially unusual for white wines - most are sterile filtered to give the wine a crystal clear appearance, but we believe this can strip the wine of some of its essential character.

We are so pleased with the results - though funky and eccentric both wines are remarkably complex and unlike anything we’ve ever tasted before (in a good way). Try some for yourself and let us know what you think!

What is Malolactic Fermentation?

If you’ve had a glass of Chardonnay in a tasting room or wine bar lately, you’ve probably heard one of the following phrases:

"no malo"

"partial malolactic fermentation"

"full MLF"

But what does any of this mean and how does it affect the wine you’re drinking?

All wines go through what is known as primary fermentation - the process that converts sugar to alcohol and turns grape juice into wine. But there is another reaction that happens in all red wines and many whites known as malolactic fermentation (MLF). In this secondary process, a yeast called oenococcus consumes malic acid and converts it to lactic acid.

But again, what does that mean?

Malic acid is very tart tasting and can be a bit harsh - like biting into a green apple - while lactic acid, as the name implies, is creamier and softer. For certain wines and winemakers that tart acid is desirable, but for others a smooth, round mouthfeel is the ultimate goal. Some want a balance between the two. Think about the difference between a crisp Sauvignon Blanc and a buttery Chardonnay and you’ve grasped the difference between a wine that hasn’t gone through MLF and one that has.

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At Adobe Road, all of our wines go through malolactic fermentation. While it has become trendy among some winemakers to partially or fully suppress MLF, we believe in keeping it old school and letting the wines naturally do what they’ve been doing for centuries. Plus, we believe it results in more complex wines with richer texture that are more expressive of their vineyard, vintage and varietal. The nasty secret with suppressed MLF wines is that they must be sterile-filtered in order to prevent the reaction from occurring naturally. We believe that sterile filtering results in wines that taste, well, sterile - stripped of some of their essential character.

For a wine that truly shows off the benefits of malolactic fermentation, try our newly released 2012 Rosé Sonoma Coast. You’ll immediately notice its finesse and the slightly creamy texture. It lacks the tart crispness of many rosés, but that doesn’t make it any less refreshing or mouth-watering. We’ve already changed the minds of many rosé skeptics with this wine in the tasting room, so give it a try - from now until Valentine’s Day, a dozen rosés is 10% off!

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A Look Back at Harvest 2013

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As the year winds to a close, and our last few ferments tick down towards dryness, we thought it’d be a good time to report on the 2013 harvest and crush at Adobe Road Winery.

2013 was a bountiful yet hectic vintage, with many of the grapes ripening simultaneously, as opposed to the usual gradual trickle from Sauvignon Blanc the first week of September to Cabernet Sauvignon the last week of October. We scrambled for tank space and yearned for a few more hours of sleep as all of our red grapes arrived during a three week onslaught from late September to mid-October.

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Yields were mostly strong, although not quite as robust as 2012; the warm wild winds of April had only a minor impact on fruit set, while weather through the summer months was near perfect. A small dose of rain in early October was not catastrophic as many had feared; it came after much of the fruit had been picked and provided a bit of coolness and moisture that the Cabernet Sauvignon badly needed to slow down ripening and allow for another week or two of hang time.

Quality varied from lot to lot but was very good across the board. 2013 will produce riper wines for the most part than 2010 or 2011, though not as fruity as 2012. As the wines evolve we hope they will prove to be a happy medium, showing the complexity of a cool vintage with the flavor intensity of a warmer one. It is probably a bit premature to talk about individual wines at this point - we would only be making an educated guess as always - but we will provide an update in the near future as they evolve in barrel. As one of our growers Alson Kemp put it, “The 2013 vintage is certainly very good; we’ll know in a couple of years if it is great.”

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We’ll look back at the 2013 vintage with fond memories - despite crush being frantic and frustrating, testing our nerves and trying our patience, it was incredibly fulfilling in the end. And isn’t that about all you can ask for from a year?