Friday, March 17, 2017

MACDONALD: Site and practices combine for an excellent representation of the To-Kalon legacy

A 43-acre plot of the historic To-Kalon Vineyard was purchased in 1954 from the Stelling estate by Mrs. Hedwig Detert, Greatgrandmother to the generation currently growing grapes on that selfsame property. Shortly after the purchase, Mrs. Detert apportioned the property between her two children and those plots are currently farmed by her GreatGrandchildren under the names Detert Family Vineyards (25 acres) and MACDONALD (21 acres, inclusive of a subsequent purchase of 3 acres from Robert Mondavi for property construction). The Detert and MACDONALD plots are shown in the map below.

Map of the historic To-Kalon Vineyard and
 "Stelling Extension" (Drawn by Sarah MacDonald)

MACDONALD is currently operated by siblings Alex and Graeme MacDonald. I recently visited and walked the vineyard with Graeme and have split reporting on that encounter into a post on the history and this one on the vineyard and wine.

I got to the MACDONALD offices a little early (plus I had missed the turn) and came onto the premises from the rear. I asked a man who was mowing the lawn for directions to Graeme and he pointed me to a walkway and a cottage at its termination point. I walked up to the door and knocked and it was opened by Sarah (Graeme's wife) who was quickly shuffled out of the way by a toy-toting tot and a similarly equipped dog. Graeme was on his way from St Helena so Sarah invited me in and provided a folder of To-Kalon artifacts for me to feast my eyes on while I waited.

Graeme showed up soon after and apologized profusely for the delay. He had a nice easy smile and conversational tone. I knew right away that it was going to be a good day. He suggested that we go outside and walk the vineyards so I said goodbye to the toy-toters and struck out into the vines. We circumnavigated the vineyard in a counter-clockwise direction.

As shown in the map above, the MACDONALD plot is just outside the foothills of the Mayacamas Mountains, on an alluvial fan that has been created by Tokalon Creek bringing gravel, stones, volcanic rock, and sand down from the mountain and depositing it in a fan-like shape onto the valley floor. The fan forms deep gravelly soils with excellent drainage and forces the vine roots to go deep underground in search of water. This action places stress on the vine, resulting in small berries (according to Graeme, they are the smallest berries in the Mondavi stable) and optimal ripening.

Towards the bottom end of the alluvial fan the soil is shallower, has a higher percentage of clay, and is more fertile. This latter fact was demonstrated by the size of the trees lining the path separating the MACDONALD and Mondavi vineyards. At the upper reaches of the path, the trees were about 8-feet tall while towards the bottom they are twice that height. A sample of the various soil types present  on the MACDONALD plot is shown in the pictures below.

Tokalon Creek
Graeme is responsible for vineyard management and winemaking at MACDONALD. He subscribes to what he calls natural farming, a requirement, he says, for getting natural flavors out of the grapes:
  • Integration of plants into the environment
  • Minimal tractor use to minimize compaction
  • No fertilizers -- planting of Fava beans between rows
  • No roundup
  • Minimal canopy management (only one trellised block in the vineyard)
  • Creation of their own compost on site.
The vineyard is oriented NE - SW which allows fuller access to the morning sun and limited access to the searing afternoon sun. Vines are 20-, 40-, and 60-years old with the youngest vines California-sprawl-trained and the oldest head-trained. Graeme is able to get away with minimal canopy management because, he says, the California sprawl creates its own balance. The trellised vines are planted at 1089 vines/acre while the rest of the vineyard is planted to 565 vines/acre.

The vines are all Cabernet Sauvignon: Clone 4 on 110R rootstocks for the younger vines and St. George for the older vines. The trellised vines are irrigated once or twice per growing season while the older vines are dry-farmed. Yields on the vineyard are between 1.5 and 2 tons per acre. Damaged vines are replaced using massal selection of the To-Kalon clone.

The grapes are sold exclusively to Robert Mondavi with a small amount held back for production of their MACDONALD label. The grapes that they provide to Mondavi comprise 50% of the raw material for a label called Tokalon and 10 - 15% of the Mondavi Reserve. Mondavi's only involvement with the vineyard is turning up to pick the grapes at harvest time.

The MacDonalds can use grapes from any part of the vineyard for their wine. They tend to pick earlier than most. For example, there is a 1-month gap between the start of harvest at MACDONALD and the start of harvest at Beckstoffer To-Kalon. Graeme picks on taste and seeks out a certain nuttiness in the seed as his trigger.

After harvest, the grapes are transferred to Kongsgaard for creation of the wine. The grapes are destemmed and then placed into a tank for a 5-day cold soak. The grapes are fermented by natural yeasts in stainless steel tanks with pump-over for cap management. After a 35-day maceration, the wines are racked into 100% new, medium/medium-plus-toast French oak (Taransaud, Sylvain) barrels for malolactic fermentation and aging. The barrels are employed primarily for their micro-oxygenation function. The wines are racked once or twice a year to minimize oxidation opportunities.

After the vineyard walk, we went into the offices to taste the 2014 vintage of the MACDONALD wine. The wine tasted was a 2014 vintage. It had been opened two hours prior to the tasting.

Graeme MacDonald, grower/winemaker
According to Graeme, 2014 was the earthquake vintage and the wines had started to shut down to conserve energy. The wine had a perfumed nose along with dark fruit and spice. Light on its feet and perfectly balanced. This was a beautiful wine. I have tasted many To-Kalon wines; and this is competitive. I have tasted many Napa wines; and this is competitive. I kept asking Graeme for seconds. I did not spit.

Production levels for the wine is as follows: 227 cases in 2013; 350 cases in 2014; and 425 cases in 2015.

In summarizing, Graeme said that, from his perspective, under Mondavi, To-Kalon was going towards the Bordeaux model. That is, one Chateau owning many acres and with newly purchased land incorporated into the existing estate with full accreditation. In the current environment, To-Kalon is moving more towards the Burgundian model -- many different owners. In his estimation, the latter approach will help to improve the vineyard overall.

I joined the winery's mailing list.

Graeme is an avid student of Hamilton Crabb and the historic To-Kalon and, to a large extent, he seeks to model the Vineyard according to his perception of the relevant precepts. He farms assiduously and with an eye to the future. He collects and studies artifacts of the To-Kalon historic age and steeps himself in them. He maintains an experimental vineyard on the property, a shoutout to Hamilton Crabb but also as a knowledge and resource bank for future generations.

Hamilton Crabb would recognize the spirit that exists here.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

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