Vintage 2021 is in full swing as budburst began to ripple over the vineyard on April 1, reaching the Barbera by April 10 and the Primitivo and Touriga by April 20. We once again had miserly–well, zero–early fall rain, with the first autumn rain in 2020 not falling until just about Thanksgiving. There was some encouraging follow-through in December, and some solid intermittent rain in January and February, but only a single 1-week period that brought any real volume. Just as it appeared we’d salvage an okay rain year after a solid March for rainfall, April arrived, with its reputation for “showers” making the absence of same all the more painful: we logged 0.2 inches of rain for the entire month! We saw no snow (once again…) but seasonably cold temperatures through the winter. Temperatures have gradually warmed, but not to the uncomfortable level yet; it’s actually remained relatively cool and outside work-friendly through now. Spring in the Sierra Foothills is spectacular once the hillsides green up. Already though, the brown-out has begun…
So what does all of this mean for the 2021 vintage? Not much, really. Another drought year, with the near-complete absence of rain in April, following on a cool winter, has meant a late-ish budburst (portending a late-ish harvest), grass between rows remarkably under control (the native grasses and planted red clover already focused on setting seed for next year), and the likely need to begin irrigating earlier than usual. The quality of the vintage will be set largely by what happens between now and September weather-wise.
Shaker Ridge has used the opportunities presented by COVID-19 interruptions to experiment with new things and position for the future. Always aware that our Primitivo had its feet in 2 completely different soil types that meet in a gentle swale area that tended to collect extra irrigation water (besides rain water in winter), we have permanently removed some vines from the swale area, reasoning that they won’t be optimal for other varietals, either. To the west of the swale, on well-draining schist soil, we cut down about 500 Primitivo vines last year and grafted them over to certain Portuguese varietals that have proven to do well on our site: Touriga Nacional and Tinta Amarela. The budwood came from our beloved Quinta block. In addition–with no great conviction about how they will do but wanting to find out–we grafted a few partial rows of Primitivo to Cabernet Sauvignon, to which rows we added via plantings a handful of Merlot and Petite Verdot vines for a mini-Bordeaux block on a scale suitable only for home winemakers. We expect our first Cabernet this season, but will only use it ourselves while we learn about the viticulture. These Bordeaux varietals were grafted/planted on the highest altitude portion of our vineyard to give them their best shot in our view. Then, just last week, we cut down additional Primitivo vines west of the swale and planted our first GSM block—Grenache, Syrah, and Mouvedre. Again, the scale will only be suitable for home winemakers, but presents an opportunity to experiment with these Rhone varietals that are well-recognized to do well in the El Dorado AVA. Finally, we cut down one short row of Primitivo on the south side of the Primitivo block and grafted some additional Souzao, a Portuguese varietal that provides dark color and decent acidity to Portuguese blends and for which our yield has been declining. This addition should increase our total Souzao yield by over 50%. This last operation has isolated a corner of short rows of our Primitivo which will be used this season for some focused experimentation on optimizing Primitivo viticultural practices.
All of the above has left us with a smaller but more homogeneous and still commercial scale block of now 19-year old Primitivo vines that are now completely on the reddish, rocky, clay loam soil that we think grows our best (and certainly lowest yielding) Primitivo. We are committed to growing the highest quality Primitivo that we can, benefiting from our accumulated experience and continuing to test new practices.
As of this date, we still have availability of each of our major varietals: Barbera, Primitivo, and Touriga, and even a sprinkling of some others, as we are selling our Quinta block varietals separately this year, giving opportunity to make some more obscure varietal wines like Tinta Cao and Tinta Amarela. We look forward to a great 2021 vintage and hope that the commercial wineries in our region enjoy a “relief rally” to celebrate what we hope will be a return to normalcy in the coming months.