Harvest Journal: It's Raining Rot

Editor's note: Our wine writer Sarah Chappell is working as a lab intern this harvest season at a winery in Napa. Take it away, Sarah!


Every growing season—every vintage—is different, and while some are good and others not so good, 2011 is shaping up to be one of the worst in Napa's recent history. It's a popular adage that a good winemaker can make good wine even in a poor year, but sometimes it's just bad. Grapes struggle every year with the whims of nature and the weather she doles out, and disease can be a problem at any time. Some vineyards have gotten away without too much pain, but this year there has been a major problem with rot.

Botrytis is a fungus that shrivels grapes, giving some dessert wines, such as Sauternes, a characteristic flavor and concentrated sugars. It's great when you're hoping for it. But this same rot can ruin entire blocks of grapes, leaving a shriveled grey mess in its path. Thin-skinned varieties like pinot noir and chardonnay are particularly susceptible, and we saw some amount of rot in those grapes this year.

But the real problems came with the rain.

After a long, cool, and promising growing season, Napa had uncharacteristically early rains in October that encouraged rot. The thin-skinned grapes were concerning to many growers, but the rain and ensuing rot came late enough that almost all of the pinot and chardonnay was ripe and ready to go, and the overall quality was high. At the winery where I'm interning, though, we don't just make chardonnay and pinot noir. And we ran into a rather unusual problem of rot in the cabernet sauvignon.

Cabernet is generally a hardier grape, with thicker skins and looser bunches that discourage rot from growing, but this year has been the exception. Botrytis has affected much of our cabernet, resulting in low yields (which were already diminished due to shatter, a condition when baby grapes don't form or fall off early, usually resulting from an excessively wet spring) and, perhaps more severely in some ways, off-flavors. The cabernet was not ripe when the first rains came, so we couldn't pick it along with the pinot.

It is possible to sort out rotted grapes, and my fellow intern who works in the vineyards has put in some serious time recently to prune infected bunches. Grapes can also be sorted after picking, and our sorting table has been fully staffed with keen-eyed people on the lookout.

Despite these precautions, some rot has escaped our roadblocks and it is now up to the winemakers to work some of their magic (yes, it does exist) to attempt to diminish the rot's influence on the final wine. These tricks require more manipulation of the wine, and we have done things such as add oak chips and tannin while pushing for fast fermentations so that the juice doesn't have to stay too long on any rotted skins.

All this means that there is still tough work ahead as we struggle to get the grapes in the winery and crushed before more rain arrives in November. Early on this fall people were already celebrating 2011 as a great vintage, one that would be balanced and elegant. While the pinot noirs from Napa may achieve this fine fate, it's hard to say that underripe and rotting cabernet is going to be delicious. But that is where the winemaking decisions come into play, so we'll all have to stay tuned and check back in a couple of years when the wines are released.

About the Author: Sarah Chappell is a winemonger and writer living in Brooklyn Napa. She holds the Advanced Certificate with Distinction from the Wine and Spirit Education Trust and has contributed to Foodista, Palate Press and WineChap. Follow her on Twitter @chapsholic.

More Harvest Journal

Arriving in Napa »
The First Ferments »
The Mess We're In »
Where's the Magic? »