Tasting Presqu’ile Wines
entrance to Presqu’ile, Jan 2014
The wind blows red dust from the empty strawberry field over the valley, obscuring my view as I drive. It’s mid-January and most of California has received no rain. Santa Maria Valley already a desert, the valley floor proves pale.
I pull into Presqu’ile winery eager to see the building complete after visiting exactly a year ago. The infrastructure and rock siding were in place but the building was then still open to the elements. By summer it was completed. The view from the spot is beautiful, looking West towards the water, the length of Santa Maria Valley that pulls its breeze from open exposure to the ocean. The vineyards receive a cooling blast daily.
Matt Murphy, owner of Presqu’ile along with his family, and Dieter Cronje, Presqu’ile winemaker, meet me inside.
view facing West from beside Presqu’ile Winery, Jan 2013
I ask the duo about the weather from 2013 rolling into the New Year. The lack of rain is a worry. December gave a deep blast of cold that damaged avocado orchards the Valley is also famous for. Murphy explains he’s grateful for it though in relation to the vines. The cold snap put the vineyards into an appropriate sleep. With warmer temperatures, and lack of rain, the region masquerades as spring. He thinks without the freeze they’d have been entertaining bud break already.
The fruit in this spot grows in marine sediment. The wines all carrying a mineral crunch verging, but not quite, into saline. The whites spin on the palate turning flavor over flavor in an easy dance. While the reds offer the almost-tricky tannin common to sand — quite present and yet easy through the mouth.
Murphy and Cronje also like the perfume and spice arising from whole cluster fermentation. Whole cluster tends to increase tannin level in wines but Presqu’ile’s come in graceful. Tasting through their reds, it’s clear the whole cluster works well alongside the almost-jalapeno-Mexican-food spice common to fruit from Santa Maria Valley.
Dieter Cronje, Presqu’ile Winemaker, Jan 2014
We’re tasting through the current portfolio, Matt Murphy, Dieter Cronje and I. When we reach the Pinots I comment on the tannin, asking Dieter to discuss his technique. He explains, “When it comes to reds we keep the focus on temperature and alcohol for tannin management.” By keeping the fermentation a little cooler, the fermentation is more likely to stroll than race.
He continues, “Sluggish [fermentation] can be okay, just as long as it doesn’t start oxidizing. As long as it’s still producing CO2 it’s protecting the fruit and not extracting as much tannin.” Thanks to the slower fermentation, the wine is less extracted in the end, keeping the tannin, in Cronje’s view, more balanced in the final wine.
Cronje also commits to ambient yeast, not inoculating the Presqu’ile wines, as he believes it’s the best means to express the vineyard, rather than the flavors of a produced strain. In the winery, the team experiments a little with fermentation and aging vessel. Their focus remains primarily in neutral barrel and cement, but they also put a bit of fruit in other vessels to see how their site expresses itself.
Matt Murphy guiding us through the Presqu’ile Winery as its being built, Jan 2013
Presqu’ile’s first vintage comes from 2008. Murphy and Cronje had worked harvest together for another winery in Santa Barbara County and hit it off, discovering similar commitments in wine quality. They decided to try their hand at making wine together, before then launching into the full portfolio project of Presqu’ile in 2009.
We’re able to taste their first wine — a Sauvignon Blanc from 100% White Hills Vineyard fruit that gives nutty aromatics accented by dried lemon peel. Murphy is excited to pour it. “This wine was about us working with whatever we had at the time — one square stainless steel tank, and a kiwi in the winery,” referring to Cronje. They both nod and smile.
The Presqu’ile project is finally old enough that the team is able to see how the wines are aging. Age worthiness is a primary goal. They see the 2008 as encouraging. The 2009s also show the character of the Presqu’ile site, as 10 acres near the front of the property were planted in 1999.
Anna Murphy’s Santa Maria Valley bug collection, Jan 2014
For the Murphy family, the choice to make wine originates with Matt but the project has become a family commitment. After falling in love with wine, Matt traveled to Santa Barbara County to work harvest, also meeting Cronje as a result.
When the family realized it wanted to invest in vineyards, and build a winery they considered sites in Oregon and throughout California but Matt’s heart found itself in Santa Maria Valley Pinot. So the family stayed.
Asking Matt what about Santa Maria Valley speaks to him, he describes the floral-to-fruit expression coupled with the Valley spice, and the “light on its feet” tannin given by the sand. Cronje shares his view. The Valley also likes to offer tension that keep finesse through the wines. The pair’s portfolio shows this.
Today, Jonathan Murphy, brother to Matt, works as assistant winemaker of Presqu’ile, coming into the project in its first full portfolio year of 2009. Sister Anna Murphy works in the cellar, and runs the winery lab, collecting Santa Maria Valley bugs that find their way into the winery on a small cork board to the side of her desk (it’s a charming collection. I had to take a picture.).
As of 2013, Presqu’ile primarily uses estate-only fruit from its Santa Maria Valley property. In previous years, their whites also used Riverbench Vineyard, and White Hills Vineyard fruit. The Santa Maria Valley Pinot also draws from Bien Nacido, and Solomon Hills Vineyards. From outside Santa Maria Valley, Presqu’ile makes one Pinot Noir from the Rim Rock Vineyard, a unique site North of the Valley growing only 2 acres of Pinot Noir that goes entirely to Murphy and Cronje. The Presqu’ile Vineyard, and Rim Rock Vineyard Pinot Noirs are my favorite.
Presqu’ile Wines made what will be 7000 cases for 2013. They are available through their website and as of 2012 have national distribution.
Thank you to Matt Murphy and Dieter Cronje for making time to see me. Have a great trip!
Thank you to Sao Anash.
Happy 2014, Everyone! I hope you have started a smooth and rewarding New Year!
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