The Highway 246 Corridor, Sta Rita Hills
The Highway 246 corridor of Sta Rita Hills acts as a funnel pulling fog and cool air from the open mouth of the ocean into the length of the Santa Ynez Valley. It’s a unique spot for California. A place where the continent turns, creating uplifts of rock, and also the only East-West running valleys on the Western coast. The relevance of that occurs in differing diurnal and weather shift than the rest of the country, where fog must curl over the peaks of a mountain range to reach the inner valleys. Sta Rita Hills sits exposed.
The pivoted orientation coincides with geological variation as well, not just in the sideways valleys and mountain ranges, but in the rock and soil formations throughout. Sta Rita Hills itself stands unique for US AVAs, distinctly differing bands of soil side-by-side within a coherent climactic zone. While the Southern portion of the appellation brings together marine shale and diatomaceous earth, the Northern part, along the Highway corridor, couples ocean sands with clay, blending in tumbled rocks, and dashes of white calcium.
The Melville Vineyards and Winery
Chad Melville recounting his family’s vineyard history
Melville Vineyards and Winery grows along the Highway corridor producing wine through an entirely Estate fruit program of 120 planted acres. The property unites three vineyards that together represent the variations of the corridor — vines reaching through gritty ocean sands in portions, then rising from more nutrient rich and water holding sections mixed with clay and pebble, finally too growing along the lift to, and top of a mesa.
The Melville project operates as a family enterprise. The family had been farming in Knight’s Valley near Calistoga when they found the opportunity to move to an about-to-be established Sta Rita Hills. The possibility afforded them the chance to create a fresh project, bringing with them the knowledge gained from previous experience, and access to a newer range of clonal material for California. In establishing what would become an Estate-only program, the family decided to plant a range of vines, bringing together California’s heritage selections with the new-for-then Dijon clones, establishing 16 clonal types across the property. The blend would afford greater range in the eventual winery.
From the Melville Vineyard and Wineries inception, Greg Brewer has served as winemaker for the project, working alongside the family to develop the Estate wines. Chad Melville, who along with his brother Brent planted large swaths of the vineyards by hand, and Greg Brewer met with me to tour through portions of the vineyard property, and then taste through the Estate Pinot Noir.
Stems and Oak: Talking with Greg Brewer and Chad Melville
Greg Brewer discussing his work with a cohesive vineyard and winery team
In working with Melville fruit, the team focuses on micro-fermentations designated by clone and block, allowing for greater awareness of site particularities, and a fine-tuned sense of blending potential. They also integrate stem inclusion throughout developing ferments with a range of percentages from no stems to all stems in order to secure a pleasing textural, structural balance in the final wine. As Brewer explains, stems give architectural security for a region that offers clear fruit. Melville tends to hover around a 1/3 stem percentage in their Estate Pinot, and over time has removed use of any new oak.
Asking Brewer about these choices in winemaking, he explains it in terms of priorities. “When we really commit to an Estate program, that brings the attention to how we make wine in the vineyard.” Brewer tells me. With all the fruit coming from its own vines, an Estate program has to rely on its own vineyard practices. There is no opportunity to supplement their fruit. Brewer continues, “To do that, it’s important to not commit to our own prejudices on how the wine is treated in the winery. Instead, the fruit should all be treated through an equal lens, to get an equal interpretation, to really show what the fruit is.”
Brewer explains that over time, they realized that use of new oak, even in small percentages, was covering over the fruit expression. So, they switched to only neutral oak. He is careful to point out, however, that their decision is not a dogmatic or political claim. “The question of oak is not a priority in our scheme,” he explains. “The Estate is a priority. The vineyard is a priority. Our decision about oak just comes from those.”
At the time Melville began, ideas of stem inclusion were less overtly discussed than they are today. With that in mind, I asked Brewer and Melville to discuss what led them to taking the approach, something that could have seemed a bold move in the mid-1990s. Brewer had worked with mentors already at the time that relied on stem inclusion in their Pinot Noir. In meeting with the family to develop the house winemaking approach he brought samples of wines ranging in stem use. It turned out that tasting blind they all preferred about one-third stem inclusion.
Melville nods then elaborates. “In this area we have more opportunity to get stems ripe because we have a longer growing season, more exposure to the elements, and well-draining soils. Our house philosophy really is ‘use what you have.'” He explains. In thinking through a wine, one can consider the idea of flavor, on the one hand, and its architecture on the other. Between flow expressions of tension, texture, and mouthfeel. Use of oak offers one possible way to create an architecture-flavoral link in a wine, generating oak-tannin structure but also oak flavor. If your goal, however, is to use what you have, apparent oak would show as something imported from the outside. Stems become a different way to generate a similar linkage but offering a different sense of structure, mouthfeel, texture, and flavor often more integrated into the fruit than oak.
Tasting with Greg Brewer and Chad Melville: Melville Estate Pinot
After touring portions of the vineyard, getting dirty digging in sand, then clay loam (god, I love dirt), we return to the winery and begin a tasting focused first on six components of the 2013 Melville Estate Pinot Noir, then on three vintages of the Estate Pinot — 2012, 2008, 2004.
The first flight separates wine by clonal material, and vineyard location. The stem percentage stays the same across at one-third. The soil and clone changes. The common factor turns out to be a sense of bright redness, the wines hum at a higher register, hitting the soft palate with lifted red fruit. As we move from more clay (in Logan’s block) to more sand (in Anna’s and Sandy’s), however, the wines also become more structural, more taut.
The second flight keeps the vineyard site — atop the mesa in a sandy-clay loam with rocks — and clonal material — clone 114 — constant, while the stem inclusion changes moving from de-stemmed, to one-third, to 100% percent. The wines each contain clear architecture, but where the destemmed fruit carries a lightly syrup belly, the wines with stems offer more movement, filling the mouth with flavor while simultaneously cleansing the palate. Unexpectedly, the destemmed fruit feels darkest in the mouth, with the wine becoming progressively brighter the greater the stem percentage. The final wine, with all stems included, integrates flavors, architecture, and tension so thoroughly my mouth feels simultaneously desirous and confused. I want to drink it. I have little ability to describe it.
Finally, we taste through three vintages of the Estate, each separated by four years of age — the 2012, 2008, and 2004. The exercise has worked. Unsurprisingly, the components can be recognized as echos through the Estate bottles, along with other elements not tasted through the samples. The contrast shows off the skill of wise blending, while also the necessity of developing a balanced Estate. Where the components offered focused moments of energy and interest, the Estate pours as expressive, dynamic, complete.
The 2012 comes in sea fresh, with clean and lifted aromatics of red cherry and pure fruit, followed by black tea, and a nip of dry (not sweet) caramel in the mouth. It rolls through with a calm, comfortable tone carrying notes of roasted rice tea, and pepper integrated through cherry and berry followed by orange peel and darker fruit accents.
The 2008 drinks almost trembling on the palate, a kind of expressive delicacy with persistence to the wine. The flavors are clean, aromatic, there are accents of fermented cherry through the fruit, and accents of mandarin peel with a long savory, and black tea line.
The wines age easily, the 2004 still so vibrant and young in its energy it could readily age for years. It is my favorite of the three showing the most obvious mineral edge, along with dried plum blossom, dried lemon peel, and a blend of colored fruits–plum, blue, purple, and red berry–centered around a red cherry core that hums savory throughout.
Thank you to Greg Brewer and Chad Melville.
Thank you to Sao Anash.
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