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Serious Grape: A Look at This Year's Growing Season

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[Photograph: L'Ecole Nº 41]

Back in April, Michael Honig reminded us that at the heart, winemakers are farmers. "We don't grow bottles," he said, "we grow grapes." So today I wanted to take a look at how those grapes have been growing around the country. The weather has been somewhat erratic, hotter than usual in New York's wine regions, and cooler in California (with a few scorching days), but winemakers are hopeful about what they're seeing. Will 2010 be a great vintage or a catastrophic one? Only time can tell.

When Should Harvest Happen?

Well, it depends when the grapes are ready. Joel Peterson of Ravenswood Winery says that they look for "good ripe fruit flavors (nothing green, veggie or harsh), balanced acidity and pH." Winemakers want to start harvesting when the grapes have good aromatics and a balance between sweetness and acidity. They taste many, many grapes from all over the vineyards, making sure the flavors are good and the tannins in the seeds are mature.

They also look carefully at the vines. Winemaker David Lattin of Kuleto Estate says he looks for stems that are lignified down to the rachis. (That means that the stems holding each cluster of grapes have turned woody and brown instead of green.) "This is a cue," Lattin says, "that the seeds will likely be woody and sweet." Gary Horner of Erath Vineyards says he also observes the vine carefully, "looking for signs that the vine is preparing for dormancy and no longer focusing on ripening fruit."

Waiting too long to pick is a gamble, because the fruit need to be picked before the weather gets frosty or too wet. "A large rain," says Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon Vineyard "can result in a massive imbibition of water, and extreme dilution of flavor, literally swelling the berries to 1.5 times their previous volume."

Checking In on California

This winter and spring was cool and rainy, so bud break happened late in many California winegrowing regions. A wet spring can lead to mildew, which prevents some clusters from ripening properly. The cool weather has kept the ripening cycle behind schedule.

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Sunburned Roussanne [Photograph: Randall Grahm]

Then in August there were a few days of extreme heat—it reached 108°F in some areas, sunburning and destroying some of the crops. Some winemakers are estimating 30 to 40 percent crop loss, and Chardonnay was particularly hard hit. Others don't sound too worried: "While we have had some damage and this fruit will be removed before harvest," said Bruce Cakebread of Cakebread Cellars, "we still think it is a good harvest."

Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon is particularly excited about some interesting new wines he hopes to make this year, including a single-vineyard Syrah and Viognier blend that he says "is not your French uncle's Côte Rôtie." Grahm plans on including 40 percent Viognier in the blend, producing a much lighter-bodied wine that you'd typically expect from Syrah. He's also hoping to make Old Telegram, an all-mourvedre wine he only makes in exceptional vintages, and says he's "hoping that the Gods of Botrytis will also favor us with some noble rot popping up in the roussanne" though none has been spotted yet.

Perfect or Worrisome Weather for Oregon Pinot?

It was a pretty mild winter in Oregon's Willamette Valley, followed by a very cool spring ("If you can call that 'spring', quips David Millman of Domaine Drouhin). Harvest is likely to start two or three weeks later than last year. It's been challenging, says Millman, but "here we are, with vibrant, healthy fruit, thinning down to what we think will ripen well." Sam Tannahill, director of Viticulture and Winemaking at Rex Hill, estimates that small berries and a small crop, plus a warm, mild, and dry fall and long hang time for the fruit could equal "a tremendous vintage."

Gary Horner, the winemaker at Erath, says the long and cool growing season is perfect for Pinot Noir. "The 2008 vintage was another such late season that produced some of the finest Pinot noir in the last twenty years." But Bernard Lacroute of Willakenzie warns that "the quality of the vintage will be determined by what kind of weather we experience in September and October. If we have a nice Indian summer, the vintage could be great, somewhat like 2008. If we do not get good weather it could be average, to mediocre to catastrophic. It is too early to tell, but the current situation is worrisome."

The Word from Washington State

Martin Clubb of L'Ecole Nº 41 in Walla Walla says that though it has been cool in Washington, it hasn't been as severe as in other regions. L'Ecole is running about ten days later than last year, and says that the grapes this year will likely have stronger than normal acidity levels, which is a good thing.

In Prosser, Amber Fries of Desert Wind says that they rarely see any rain or frost during harvest. "We have the ability to leave the grapes out pretty much as long as we need to without being forced to pick due to weather. We actually prefer when the grapes take their time to ripen since that helps flavor development, as opposed to having a really hot August and seeing a big spike in the sugar content very quickly."

Juan Munoz-Oca, winemaker at Columbia Crest, says he expects "sharp refreshing whites and flavorful reds with tons of color and great acidity" due to the cool spring and lovely summer. "It will be a great vintage," he declares.

The News from New York

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Merlot undergoing veraison in early August [Photograph: Bedell Cellars]

New York wineries are similarly excited. Bedell Cellars winemaker Rich Olsen-Harbich reports that the growing season in 2010 "has been magnificent thus far." Summer was warm with plenty of sun and just enough rain. "The vineyards look absolutely beautiful and very happy," he says. Ripening is ahead of schedule, he says: "This season is on track to be the earliest in the history of Long Island wine."

Josh Wig of Lamoreaux Landing in the Finger Lakes region agrees that the weather has been wonderful for reds and Chardonnay, but ideally, he'd prefer the nights be a bit cooler to preserve aromatics and acidity in the Riesling. "We will end up bringing the Riesling in a little earlier than usual to counteract this. Because there is so little acidity, we did not bring in any grapes for sparkling this year," since they only make bubbly under ideal conditions.

Stay Tuned

Will 2010 be a good year for wine? As David Millman says, "I don't know why anybody would say anything other than 'I sure hope so!' at this point." We'll be filling you in later on as harvest season continues—and we'll even be getting our hands dirty with some winemakers out west in October. Until then, we wish winemakers everywhere good luck and good weather.

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