Big Basin Vineyards – Harvest Festival

Last weekend, Kristen and I headed to Big Basin Vineyards in Boulder Creek, California to tour their estate vineyards, taste their wines, and learn about what goes into making their award winning Syrahs. This was Big Basin’s Harvest Festival weekend with wine tasting, food pairings, and a live jazz band. Big Basin also offered the opportunity to take a self-guided vineyard tour.
 The vineyards and winery are located off of Highway 236, just east of Big Basin Redwoods State Park in the heart of the Santa Cruz Mountains (SCMs). I have biked up China Grade past the winery many times, and know first-hand how rugged and steeply sloped this area is. I was interested to see a vineyard cut right into the mountains and forest.
(photo by Richard Hanke)
As you can see, the Redwoods in the nearby park are huge.
We arrived at the timber barn winery in the mid-afternoon and immediately got to tasting their wines, which were arranged in three flights of four wines each.  

(photo by Richard Hanke)
The first flight included a 2009 Estate Roussanne, a 2010 Grenache/Syrah/Mourvedre (GSM) Rose, a 2009 SCM Pinot Noir and a Gabilan Mountains Pinot Noir (Monterey County AVA). After enjoying these, particularly the Gabilan Mountain 2009 Coastview Vineyard Pinot, we revived our palates by sampling the food and checking out the live band and artist in action.

(photo by Richard Hanke)
The second and third flights included Big Basin’s Syrah and Syrah blends. The Syrah blends typically contain estate fruit as well as fruit from other Santa Cruz Mountain vineyards at varying proportions. Big Basin has also released a Syrah from the Gabilan Mountains as well as a GSM from Paso Robles. As for the wines with a significant estate fruit component, the 2009 Homestead (Genache/Syrah/Cabernet Sauvignon), 2008 Mandala (Syrah/Grenache/Cabernet Sauvignon), 2008 Odeon (Cabernet Sauvignon/Syrah), 2007 Rattlesnake Rock Syrah (Estate Syrah), and 2007 Frenchies Ranch Syrah (Estate Syrah) all are exceptional wines made in much the same style.
These wines are full of mouth watering dark ripe fruit and smooth, beautifully integrated tannins. They are in a word…opulent. The alcohol is high at over 15%, but the wines do not come across as harsh, and have spent, according to Bradley Brown the proprietor and Winemaker, anywhere from 24 to 30 months in very tight grained (Troncais) French oak barrels. This extended time in French oak creates a smooth luxurious mouth feel and integrates flavors. 

Bradley Brown – Winemaker   (photo by Richard Hanke)
The 2007 Rattlesnake Rock Syrah, my favorite of the tasting, used 85% new oak barrels, with the remaining 15% neutral oak. The end result is wines with very prominent oak influence, but the oak is so well integrated that the wines are a pleasure to drink. As for food pairings, in general, I feel these wines are enjoyed best as the main course, and may over power most meals.
The estate vineyards were beautifully maintained and featured stunning views of the mountains at many points along the self-guided tour.  The vineyard is divided into a lower Homestead Block with 3.25 acres split between Roussanne, Grenache, and Syrah, an upper Rattlesnake Block with about 5 acres of several different Syrah clones, and an Old Corral Block with 1.25 acres of Syrah.  All blocks are southeast or southwest facing at an elevation of between 1,200 and 1,400 feet. 

Kristen realized early on that she might not have selected the right style footwear for the hilly dirt paths, however, we carried on and it was well worth the effort.

Cooler temperatures in the Santa Cruz Mountains this summer have delayed ripening of the fruit. Some strategies to achieve full ripening may be to water a bit more so that the vines don’t go into high stress, or drop fruit, so that carbohydrate stores are sufficient to ripen the remaining fruit. Big Basin’s vines have a very light fruit load, but are considerably stressed. Berry size is also small, an indicator of concentrated flavors as well as a high skin to juice ratio. Provided that the fruit ripens, this year’s crop should be full of intense flavors.

(photo by Richard Hanke)
Above is a Roussanne bunch with full sun exposure.

The Syrah above is in the upper Rattlesnake Block. Large sections showed consistent ripening of fully exposed fruit while in other sections, green bunches prevailed, as shown below.

In other areas, fruit was sparse.

With such uneven ripening and light fruit load, I can’t imagine yield being more than 1 to 2 tons per acre. But, regardless of the tonnage, the quality comes through strongly in the wines and the beauty of the setting is undeniable.

As a final note, I was happy to learn that Big Basin uses only organic sprays to control powdery mildew, and natural fertilizers, such as compost. Weeds are controlled by cutting, which is a lower impact approach, as compared to herbicides or aggressive tilling. Based on my experience in my backyard vineyard, these low-impact farming methods provide healthy vines and high quality fruit.