A Heavenly Wine from Ancient Vines
To enter Deborah Hall’s world requires traveling from a four-lane highway to a two-lane road, followed by a barely noticeable, rutted dirt track to an unmarked gate, and finally through a lavender-scented threshold into a cathedral-ceilinged converted barn. Hall’s Gypsy Canyon vineyard, 50 miles northwest of Santa Barbara, is so tucked away and so off the grid you feel like you’ve stepped back in time. But this is precisely why I’m here—to taste her Gypsy Canyon Angelica, a fortified wine made with grapes from century-old vines using a recipe followed by Spanish missionaries in the 1700s.
On the wooden coffee table in her living room Hall sets out a plate of cheese and two glasses while a small dog pads around sniffing for treats and three others press their noses against the glass door. Hall is as warm as she is gracious and is equal parts earthy and ethereal. It’s an apt description too for The Collector’s Pinot Noir, which she pours as a prelude to the Angelica. It’s a wine worthy of attention in its own right—finely chiseled and nicely concentrated, a world apart from the big, bold, fruity school of New World Pinots and one of the best I’ve had in three days of tastings. But it’s also a critical part to Hall’s story, which she begins to describe as we swirl, sniff and sip.
Pinot Noir is what lured Hall and her late husband from a comfortable life in Los Angeles to one closer to nature. When they bought the property in 1994 the arable land had been planted with lima beans, while cattle grazed in the surrounding hillsides. As they set about replanting with Pinot Noir they discovered an east-facing, sandy hillside of gnarly old vines overgrown with sagebrush. “They were barely recognizable as grape vines and produced lots of these tiny little berries,” Hall tells me. At first the grapes were thought to be Zinfandel and for a few years she sold them to a local winery. A test at UC Davis in 2001, however, determined that they were actually Mission grapes, and, just like that, no one wanted them. Mission grapes (aka Pais in Chile and Criolla in Spain and Argentina) had been brought to the Americas in the 1500s by Spanish priests and used to make sacramental wine and brandy. At one time it was the most widely planted grape in California but has now dwindled around 1000 acres. One winemaker suggested she rip them out, but she loved these old vines and set out to discover their history.
Hall brings out a small dark bottle, and immediately you can tell this is something all together unique. The 375 ml bottles are hand blown and contain the winery’s seal. “That’s how they made their bottles back then, and I wanted to carry on that tradition.” The labels too have a historical craftsman-like quality. The paper is handmade, printed with a 19th century manual letterpress and embossed with a depiction of the mission vine that had been painted on a mission wall by the Chumash Indians. As a final personal touch, the cork is sealed with wax from the vineyard’s beehives.
As she pours the Angelica she pulls out a copy of the book that turned out to be her Holy Grail for Mission grape winemaking. She had discovered the old tome in the Santa Barbara mission, which held the archives of all 21 Spanish missions after they were secularized in 1833. The Franciscan priests, who had been sent from Spain to convert the native population to Catholicism, brought with them orange, apple, pear and fig seeds, as well as manuals for cultivating crops, animal husbandry, and most importantly for Hall, winemaking. There, among the stacks of old books written in Old Spanish she found the Agricultura General, a detailed guide for growing grapes and making wine published in 1777. “I liked the idea of the priests reading this by candle light,” she says.
The book contained four recipes, but in reading through old correspondence Hall determined which technique produced the most favored result. Mission grapes make a fairly neutral, uninteresting dry wine and would easily spoil during transport between missions in the hot California sun. But when fortified, the wines become nuanced and delicious as well as more stable. Although Mission grapes had long gone out of fashion, Hall figured if the padres could make a delicious wine out of them so could she.
Hall lets the grapes ripen as late as possible, harvesting around 28 brix, which is usually in late October or early November. The grapes are then immediately pressed without any extended maceration as would be done with port grapes. Fermentation takes place in half-filled old French oak barrels, which no longer impart any oak flavor. When alcohol reaches 12% she adds neutral grape spirit to halt fermentation. This brings the total abv to 18% with 9% residual sugar. The wine then stays in barrel, on its lees (spent yeast), for another four years and is never topped up. The lees lend the wine an additional level of complexity and mouthfeel, while the exposure to oxygen brings about dried fruit and nutty flavors. At bottling time she takes a bit of wine from each aged barrel to create a final non-vintage blend. The result is a wine with a rosy, amber tint and a lighter body than you might be used to with dessert wines. It has a refreshing amount of acidity that perfectly balances out the sweetness, and tastes of raspberries, cherry jam and dried figs, sprinkled with a hint cinnamon. Hall likes to pair it with five-year-old Gouda, whose salty, crystalline nuggets provide a perfect foil for the wine’s sweetness.
Sated with wine and cheese, we leave the dogs behind and head out into the three acres of Mission vines, which she named the Doña Marcelina vineyard after the area’s first female winemaker. “I love to be out here in the spring when the grapes are flowering. They smell just like the wine.” The sun is blisteringly hot. The fog that flows in every night from the nearby Pacific and cools the grapes (the reason the region has become a hotbed for Pinot Noir) burned off hours ago. Through local records Hall has managed to date the vines to 1887. Although the twisted, elephantine trunks, some a foot thick, look every bit their 127 years, the loose cluster of grapes shine a bright healthy green. In a few months they’ll ripen into deep violet before being transformed into a sweet, beguiling drop of history.
Gypsy Canyon wines can be found on her website: http://gypsycanyon.com
Trois Pinot Noir, 2012, 750ml, $95
The Collector’s Pinot Noir, 2012, Sta Rita Hills, 750ml, $110
Ancient Vine Angelica, NV 350 ml, $150