2011 was cool. It was very cool. I first realized this as early as April while I lived in Fresno, when the temperatures would normally stretch high into the 90’s, scorching residents in the area way before we were ready for the summer heat. However, this year, it didn’t. This year, the weather, all the way until June, was cool and in the 70’s and low 80’s.
Grapevines don’t really think too hard when it comes to weather. Generally speaking, unless it reaches dramatic extremes that shut down the vine and its natural processes, it’s a pretty simple formula for them: hot weather promotes and accelerates ripening, while cool weather slows ripening. So this year, the ripening slowed, because it was cool, and the fruit was generally two or three weeks behind an average vintage in its ripening process.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with these types of things, the 2010 vintage did not go well. It had been equally cool, maybe a little less so, and California wine-makers had gotten burned, literally. You see, in any cool vintage, there is always concern about rain and rot. California tends to be dry in the summer and early fall, but late fall and winter are usually accompanied by rain, and if fruit is on the vine, well, it usually will rot, which is, well, bad. Fermenting wine with rot (specifically botrytis cinerea) is usually a bad thing. Unless you’re trying to make a sweet white wine, rot makes the wine oxidize easily, reduces color and is a hotbed for unwanted microbial activity, all of which can ruin the quality of wine overnight.
So in 2010, many California growers tried to speed up their fruit’s ripening by cutting out leaves and exposing clusters more to the sun. The idea being that more sun would increase the ripening of the fruit. However, this plan ended up backfiring on California, and thousands of tons of fruit were scorched and shriveled into raisins when massive heat waves hit California before the fruit was ready.
Turn the page to 2011 and now wine-makers are praying for late rains and brushing up on their techniques for fighting under-ripeness and rot. However, this year we were not going to be trying to shed too much leaf area trying to get things in as fast as possible. We learned our lesson the first time. If we were going to have a strategy, it was going to be to be more patient. So the winemakers hunkered in and waited for whatever mother nature was going to serve up this year.
The problem was, in order for a cool year to work with normal vineyard practices, essentially, it needed to rain late. If we didn’t get any rain until November, it may have been a fantastic vintage. However, our prayers didn’t come true. By the time early October rolled around, most of the fruit (especially reds) in Napa and Sonoma was still on the vine, and it was time to face the music. It was going to rain. At the time, a lot of the fruit was almost ripe. The question for every winemaker became: do I pick a tad early? Or do I try to ride it out? Most winemakers picked as much as they could, and lots of fruit beat the rains, but the majority of the fruit was forced to stick around on the vine.
The result of course, was rot. At our winery, we brought in one lot of Pinot Noir just before the rain (as a matter of fact, the rain hit as we were working on the sorting table) and the fruit was beautiful, the flavors were rich, the tannins were dense for the varietal and the wine was showing immense potential. But the fruit that didn’t make it wasn’t so lucky. A lot of Pinot Noir came in two weeks later and showed so much rot that on the sorting table our head winemaker said not to take out everything with rot, or there would be nothing left, and promptly upped the sulfur. That being said, the fruit was already under-ripe. It was still tart and the red apple and medicinal flavors of the fruit had yet to convert to cherry and blackberry like one would hope.
But that was the story of 2011 and I guess that is the nature of every cool year. There were some batches that came in and beat the rain, but there were also many lots that simply did not. What I noticed was that the fruit for the other winery where I work, Mazzocco, weathered the storm much better than for Gallo. Mazzocco, selling at a more premium point, had the luxury of farming lower yields, which not only concentrates flavor but coupled with talented management, also reduces the fruit’s vulnerability to rot. I also heard similar stories about premium wineries doing just fine in the rain. Friends at Tablas Creek in Paso Robles and Preston of Dry Creek described fruit that survived the rains just fine. It was vineyards that were gunning for higher yields that were struck first.
However, before I let you go and believe that 2011 was a bad vintage and it’s a number on a bottle that you should try to avoid, the truth of the matter for this vintage, as well as every vintage is that there was lots of good and bad wine made. Vintage 2011 was a great year for many wineries that were able to get their fruit in before the rains, so it may be a terrific year for some whites and premium wineries like Mazzocco. However, reds at the medium price point in regions where it was cool enough for quality but with higher yields most likely faced some of the biggest challenges. But at the end of the day, they are only that: challenges. It means the fruit doesn’t naturally lend itself to a higher quality of wine, so the adept winemaker has to do more. I think one winemaker summed it up best when she said, “Great wine is made in the vineyard; but when it rains we make it in the winery!”