This year has had it all. We started with heavy frost on the Central Coast, rain during bloom and spring hail. The craziness continued with a long temperate summer which was punctuated by few heat spikes (if you can call mid 90s a heat spike out here). Growers fought Powdery Mildew and numerous invasive insect species all summer including the European Grapevine Moth, Light Brown Apple Moth, and the Oriental Fruitfly. For those growers who were able to get through the gauntlet of summer, everything was looking perfect until early October when the rain came back and brought with it watered down flavors, muted colors, and botrytis. As I woke to the sound of frost fans in northern Napa Valley today I felt that we had come full circle.
Today is the last day of harvest for Asti Winery. We’ve survived although the last three weeks have been crazy and stressful. It’s also a time of reflection over the wines that are fermenting away from this vintage. The floral whites are beautiful. Marked by crisp acid and intense white flower and spice notes, the Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer have really stood out this harvest. The Chardonnays that were harvested before the first October rain, while lower in alcohol, are displaying elegant fruit flavors and balanced acids. The alcohol conversions on whites this year were insanely high. Sugars that were picked at 23 Brix are topping out in the 13.5% range showing extremely efficient yeast conversion. Chardonnays picked after the rains look to be less concentrated than the pre-rain picks plus they are showing Botrytized characters that lean towards a bit earthy in most cases. Luckily most of our lots are pre-rain thanks to the hustle of our vineyard crews and growers.
It was yesterday as we tasted through pressed off Cabernets though when I came to the realization that my tasting notes were not that of a typical California Cabernet. Aromas of raspberry leaves, black currants, and sous-bois shined through in the best examples with high acid and moderate alcohol on the palate paired with moderately high powdery tannins. Granted these wines are pre-ML and have not seen oak for the most part but it struck me as very similar to my notes on Cabernet from Tuscany. As we’ve been saying all along, this vintage will be vastly different from what has become the norm in California. There will be some bad wine out there, I’m sure, but I believe that there will also be a new style of California wine to be found this year. All the proponents that have been wishing for lower alcohol, this is your year! The reds had the opposite issue from the whites as the conversion rates were very low. Even the higher Brix reds (which were anything over 24 this year) are only showing in the high 13% range. It’s going to be interesting to see how these wines develop and how each winery dealt with this challenging year. Most of all I feel sorry for anyone who gets one of this vintage on a blind exam down the road because it’s going to be so different from what is accepted as a typical California style.
As for me, I’m looking forward to capturing the spirit of this vintage in my wines this year. I think it will be fun!
In case you haven’t heard we’re going to have a weather event this next week. Now, being from the south, I love the way the western weathermen talk about precipitation. I hear “weather event”, “Major trough”, and my personal favorite “heavy drizzle”. In the south, weathermen would usually say “It’s going to rain!” and then go on to tell you when and how much. Rain is a four letter word out here and I suppose that comes from the fact that it only rains during the wintertime thus has the same connotation that snow or ice does in other parts of the country accustomed to the normal condition of rain being a possibility year round.
Anyway, it’s going to rain. No doubt about it!
So this past week will be known for this harvest as the week before the rain, otherwise known as the panic week. There are a few varieties that can handle a bit of wet weather such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. However, varieties with thinner skins like Chardonnay or Pinot Noir don’t hold up with really wet conditions. Best case scenario the fruit is diluted a bit and the sugar drops however in the worst case the berries start to rot or fall apart. In a year of already low tonnage because of the rain during flowering, there were few winemakers who wanted to take the chance on these more susceptible varieties. This week we’ve seen a LOT of Chardonnay; Sonoma County, Solano, and Mendocino making the bulk of it. Wine growers were rushing to get fruit to the wineries before the deluge comes. Much of this fruit is below what Californians would consider normal sugars however the majority is above 22 Brix. Make no mistake; this will not be a normal winemaking vintage for California. Like 2010, we’ve seen cooler weather than normal prevail over much of the state. Many of the white varieties that we’ve already harvested have come in under what would be considered normal Brix and the quality is very nice. I’ve only had to add Tartaric to one lot so far this year and that is next to nothing compared to what we normally add. Acids are beautiful this year! Sugars are not as dismal as everyone would like to believe and so far the flavors have been really nice. Even the natural nitrogen in the fruit is higher than it has been for the past two vintages which make the yeast very happy! When the yeast are happy everyone is happy.
Thus Week 9 brings us to the beginning of the end. Now that rain is going to be starting its only a matter of time before the harvest comes to a close. Generally Halloween is a good end date and whatever hasn’t been picked by then is in serious danger of not making whatever quality level it was intended for. The next four weeks can make or break the vintage when it comes to red varieties. We’ll see where we end up.
At this point we’re halfway through the harvest season. In another 8 weeks it will all be wrapped up. Wine will be tucked away in barrels or tanks either going through ML, extended maceration, and sur lee aging. Between now and then is the most complex time during the harvest. This is when the bulk of our North coast fruit comes in. NorthCoast is made up of Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino, and Lake Counties. Next week we’ll be inundated with Sonoma County Chardonnay as well as seeing our first Cabernets come in from Lake County. This week has seriously warmed up with temperatures between 95 and 100 degrees. Hot but not hot enough to really do damage like we had last year. Just hot enough to kick the harvest into gear. A ton of the reds are sitting around 22 Brix and as I heard someone put it for this harvest “22 is the new 24”. I’m very excited about that prospect! Chardonnay on the Central Coast is also coming in steadily this week. My vineyards for Emma Pearl have ripened nicely and are now being received to begin the process of primary fermentation. The Viognier that I use as 10% of the blend (give or take depending on the year) is already almost finished and ready to be sulfured. Acids have been amazing and the flavors are already showing very well. One of my earliest lots, a Gewurztraminer, is finished with primary, has had SO2 added and was clarified. At this point I’m just trying to figure out in what blend will the beautiful spicy aroma fit.
I’m also trying to work on my MW studies during this crazy time although it does tend to get put to the back burner this time of year. Since my disappointing results that I wrote about at the beginning of the month I’ve been able to rally through the support of many of my fellow students, colleagues, friends, and of course family. I feel like I have a much better plan than I did at this time last year (when I was still in shock and moping about). This week I cut up the last 11 years of theory exam reports and filed them in folders based on the theory paper the questions and commentary came from. My goal for the weekend is to get them sorted in to question buckets to try to see if I can discern a common theme (outside of the obvious themes of the papers) among the similar questions. In November, I will be traveling to Bordeaux and Burgundy thanks to a scholarship sponsored by AXA Millésimes with five of my fellow MW students from around the world. I’m very excited and love the fact that I’ll be touring in Burgundy, the classic home of my favorite red variety, Pinot Noir! I’ve resurrected my essay question basket and am seriously considering re writing all the essays that I’ve done running up to the exam this past year. I also would like to finish my World Wine File, an excel file distilling all the pertinent information about regions and countries of the world including climate, soils, laws, varieties, and general descriptors. Perhaps one day I’ll put it up on this site as a paid subscription information source. Heck, maybe it will be a book eventually. Who knows, but right now I want to get that massive database finished! These are huge goals but I’m going to try. After all achieving the MW is a huge goal as well and if one is going to dream why not dream big?
First, I have to get all the grapes put to bed… Bring on the 2nd half!