Winegrowing appellations – or American Viticultural Areas, as they’re known in the United States – are defined by their geography, geology and climate. It’s a concept that the French embody in a single word: terroir.
Few AVAs are known for more than a handful of grape varieties. That’s because a specific variety requires a specific type of climate in which to thrive. All types of winegrapes have certain minimum requirements, but each does better in specific types of settings.
That’s why in California’s North Coast region, the Napa Valley is known primarily for Cabernet Sauvignon, the Russian River Valley for Pinot Noir, and the Dry Creek Valley for Zinfandel. Several other varieties are grown in all three regions, but each region has its own “star” variety.
Some of the best wines in the world are crafted by wineries whose vineyards are situated adjacent to AVA borders – particularly if the AVAs involved share certain similarities. Take Lancaster Estate, as an example.
Lancaster is located at the southernmost tip of Sonoma County’s Alexander Valley, and near the confluence of two other acclaimed AVAs: Knights Valley and Chalk Hill. The climate and soils are ideal for growing classic Bordeaux varietals, and because of the diversity of the soils, there are specific spots that are just about perfect for specific varietals.
The Lancaster Estate has 53 hillside acres planted to grapevines. Those vines have been divided into 24 blocks that, in turn, have been sub-divided into 27 distinct sub-blocks. All told, 65.5% of the vines are devoted to Cabernet Sauvignon, 26.6% to Merlot, 3.7% to Cabernet Franc, 3.4% to Malbec and .7% to Petit Verdot.
“When I first walked this property in the summer of 1994, I knew this was a special place,” says Ted Simpkins, who would purchase the estate from Maacama Creek Winery the following year. “It wasn’t just the landscape’s beauty that spoke to me – it was the soil, the climate and the southeastern-facing hillsides. That was the day I committed to making wines that reflect the true beauty and essence of this rare place.”
Winemaker Jesse Katz understands that he is fortunate to have a special job in a special place.
“Lancaster is that rare thing among wineries,” Katz says. “Every decision we make – from growing and harvesting the grapes to winemaking, barrel aging and bottling – cultivates the character of our wines.
“All of our grapes are grown here on the estate, which means I spend lots of time walking in the vineyard, developing an understanding of every row in every block. It’s this understanding and an integrated approach to winegrowing that allows us to make wines that consistently honor and reflect the essence of the estate.”
That integrated approach required a special type of winery. Eugene Silva, an architect who specializes in buildings that blend organically into their surrounding landscape, was hired to execute the family’s vision.
The contemporary style reflects the rustic elegance of the estate, with natural building materials that promise to weather attractively over time.
The winery includes more than 9,000 square feet of caves, carved deep into the heart of the ironically named No Name Hill. With the cave system, wine aging takes place under naturally regulated temperatures and humidity.
A niche was subsequently carved out of the cave’s northern wall to create a unique underground tasting room.
Outside, the family embraces sustainable practices, and not just because it’s the “fashionable” thing to do in today’s world.
“Sustainable farming techniques maintain the integrity of our wines’ origins,” Katz explains. “We employ permanent cover crops to improve drainage, replenish the soil nutrients and reduce erosion. We also encourage natural predators, such as colonies of raptors and beneficial insects, to eliminate vine pests.”
And to produce grapes with concentrated flavors, each vine’s yield is carefully managed.
“We actively manage vine vigor and encourage low yields by employing classic viticultural practices such as cluster thinning and deficit irrigation,” Katz says. “Our hillside orientation, higher-density vine spacing and low-nutrient soil compositions also control vine vigor and reduce yields,” all of which helps maintain the purity of the estate’s expression and character.
Combine attention to detail in the vineyard with a nearly perfect climate, and you have the potential to make stunning wines. And as more and more wine critics and wine drinkers are realizing, Lancaster Estate definitely is living up to its potential.
15001 Chalk Hill Road, Healdsburg, CA 95448