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Uncorked: Drought hasn’t affect quality of Melville wines

Published: Saturday, Jan. 25, 2014 5:30 a.m. CDT

The soil looked like charcoal. 

With an extreme drought in place, the Melville Vineyard, surrounding hills and every parcel of land that wasn’t irrigated by a sprinkler system looked like the lunar surface. This wasn’t the winter time Santa Rita Hills that I’d come to know.

The sun blazed down brightly, there was no fog in the morning, the temperatures rose into the mid 70s and everywhere I went the same question was asked.

When is it going to rain?

Everyone wants water in the Santa Rita Hills. The state has experienced three years of drought – the most extreme being in the stretch from Santa Barbara to Paso Robles. This 125-mile span is where spectacular vineyards produce world-class wines. 

The drought hasn’t affected quality, though. The wines are still great.

Winemaker spotlight

Even the trees lean to the right at Melville.

The winds blow west to east off the frigid Pacific Ocean and rush up against their white bark and leafless branches. They cast a shadow across the tasting room and an adjacent block of densely planted pinot noir. Sixteen different pinot noir clones grow on the 120-acre estate where the vines are planted in north and south direction. The wind helps moderate temperature, yet the north and south rows help insulate the vineyard from getting too cold. 

But, the real story is the lack of water. A normal growing season has 15 inches of rain. The last two years combined to produce 14 inches of rain. This year trace amounts have fallen. The marine based, sandy loam soil at Melville could use a good soaking, for the growing season and just to get their cover crop started.

“The big story is the lack of water,” Melville tasting room assistant Jules Reuter said. “We are all concerned. All of California is in drought; from here to Paso Robles is extreme drought.”

Everyone in the area is hoping February, traditionally the rainiest month on the calendar, has several rain events that ease the drought’s impact.

Planted in 1997, the vines at Melville run deep and a drip system helps ensure their well-being.

“The drought has caused all kinds of problems. This is an agricultural area not just for vines but for row crops,” Reuter said. “What that means is there will be a tremendous amount of pressure put on the area’s water table. All the water required will be sucked out of the ground unless the water table is replenished. There are potentially a lot of big-time economic problems. Everything is tinder dry here. The vines are pretty sturdy though – we can always drip water them to make sure they are OK. We’re farmers. We don’t buy the grapes, we grow them.”

Despite the weather conditions, 2013 turned out to be a solid harvest.

“In 2013, despite the lack of rain, we got a great crop,” Reuter said. “There was perfect weather and we had large clusters and berries. It was an above-average crop last year. We had very even weather with high-quality fruit.”

What to buy

Melville, Estate Chardonnay, Santa Rita Hills, 2012 ($26): Honeydew melon, Meyer lemon and a zesty, crisp freshness and a stone-like minerality make this a star. An absolute bargain at the price.

Melville, Estate Pinot Noir, Santa Rita Hills, 2011 ($34): A soft texture and pleasant mouthful, the star here is the herbal notes as lavender and rosemary stand out. There’s tea leaf and dark fruit notes. This is stand-out Pinot Noir that defines what is great about the Santa Rita Hills.

Wine 101

Melville winemaker Greg Brewer is a minimalist.

The vineyard gets a full representation at Melville as stems are included in the winemaking process.

“We are growers, not makers, of wine,” Reuter said. “There is no new oak at all. Our barrels are at least 5 years old. All the flavor comes from the vineyard. We use the vines’ brown stems for the tannin, which is one of our signatures. Because we get good air flow in the vineyard it helps stems get brown and woody. It makes for great, ageable food wines with great acidity.”

• James Nokes writes a bi-weekly wine column for the Daily Chronicle. He’s been tasting, touring and collecting in the wine world for several years. Contact him at news@daily-chronicle.com.

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