The 2010 harvest in California has barely begun with the picking of a few grapes to make sparkling wine and already wine makers are in panic mode.
So what’s new?
No matter how mild, obviously of no concern, or even downright beneficial the weather patterns in a year are, grape growers will find a way to be pessimistic. And then, after all the grapes are in late in the year, many wine makers will delight in saying that the vintage produced the best wines ever. Vintage of the century, etc.
It comes down to the truism one wine maker told me 20 years ago: “The best wine I ever made is the one I still have to sell.”
Is there any truth to vintage reports? And who really cares about this subject except the wine makers and the growers? By the time the wines are on the market, months or years from now, columns such as this one will be long forgotten.
I have lived in Sonoma County for 25 consecutive vintages. Just when I think I’ve seen everything, along comes No. 26 to add a new chapter to the template.
This year, it was two days in late August, but before we get to that, let’s back up to the rest of the season. It was cool. No, really, it was cold. Some days in Sonoma County, the fog didn’t lift until 1 p.m.
On California’s north coast, temperatures were unseasonably cooler than ever. Until late August, the grapes were about a month behind schedule. One wine maker joked, only half kidding: “If we pick after Jan. 1, can we say the wine is from 2011?”
Then came those two late-August days when temperatures rose to well over 100 degrees and the grapes wanted to begin to make some of the sugars that seemed to be lagging. But temperatures that hot confused the vines, and the risk was that they would “shut down,” and stop photosynthesizing.
Then came some cooler weather. Was this good news? On Aug. 31, it got hot again. Good or bad? Well, that sort of depends on who’s answering.
At one time, California was proud of the fact that it could advertise the great quality of its wines by saying, “Every year is a vintage year in California.” But the fact is, just about every vintage in California has had aberrations that make the wines a little different from one year to the next.
Yet, reports often generalize and when that happens, something gets lost in translation. Generalizations in vintage reports rarely are accurate.
In 1989, it rained so hard in Napa and Sonoma that Chardonnay was wrecked. One wine magazine called it “the vintage from hell,” yet most Cabernets survived just fine, a fact that was rarely reported accurately. I still have some splendid 1989 red wines.
In 2008, a damaging spring frost hurt some growers, but not others. That same year, some grapes in southern Mendocino and northern Sonoma were affected by the smoke from fires. Some wineries had problems, others did not. Generalizations here are inappropriate.
In 2004, very low humidity caused raisining, leaving many wines with an overripe aroma and taste. Few reported on this. (Humidity isn’t a very sexy topic.)
Both 1995 and 2006 were vintages that were somewhat overlooked in the haste to glorify other vintages, yet the red wines from those two years appear to be special and quite age-worthy.
So what will 2010 bring? It’s just too soon to make even a guess. What would it be based on? Two hot days in August?
Your best bet is to wait until the wines have been on store shelves for a year or so, and then see if a tasting of numerous regions’ wines can dissect them.
Or simply forget about vintage charts and enjoy the differences in wines.
Wine of the Week
2009 Forefront by Pine Ridge Sauvignon Blanc, Three County Blend ($16) – Mild dried herb and tea notes and a soft, but dry entry. A delicate, non-grassy version of Sauvignon Blanc that’s fresh and clean.
Dan Berger lives in Sonoma County where he publishes “Vintage Experiences,” a weekly wine newsletter. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.