Ah…harvest 2011! If your plan is to read only the first paragraph of this article, let me sum up the 2011 harvest for you. We finished picking on the 2nd of November before the second batch of cold and rain. The brix levels (sugar in the grapes) were on the lower side (21.8-26.0) with the average being around 23.1. The titratable acid levels were on the high side giving the pre-malolactic bodies a little more leanness and elegance. Color extraction this year is exceptional but the tannins are a bit more aggressive. The wines are fruity and we fared better than many other regions of California. So you want to know why and where we go from here? Then read on a bit more…
Make no mistakes. This was a challenging year to be farmer, tomato, peach and grape alike. A very cool spring coupled with a cool summer made it almost a race to be able to pick. Throw into the mix the spring frosts (with the associated crop loss), a late May snow (with the associated crop loss), heavy rains at the end of June during flower (and the associated crop loss), five inches of rain the first week of October, and this really could have been a recipe for disaster.
Chardonnay (which was hit by the snow and frosts), and Malbec and Merlot (both damaged by shatter) were our real losers. The Chardonnay lost about 60% of its crop, the Merlot about 50%, and the Malbec produced less than two barrels of wine (compared to a normal production of 8 barrels or so). And overall, our total production was down about 20%.
But we did harvest. In fact, we picked everything in the vineyard, for which we should be ecstatic. Not all farmers were so lucky. And everything was picked before the cold and rain started in November.
I’m now thinking the rains in early in October were a mixed blessing. The problem with a late spring, a cool summer and a light crop is that the grapes don’t get the hang time they need. The sugar levels were increasing quickly, but acid levels in the grapes weren’t dropping quickly enough. (And making a high-alcohol, high-acid wine with elegant flavors just doesn’t work.) But the rains were picked up by the vines, putting the water into the fruit, and thus giving the grapes more hang time to get better balance.
Where we were lucky was after the rains, we had three and a half weeks of wonderful weather. Without this, the season would have been a loss. Instead, the fruit was slightly acidic, with slightly lower brix levels (sugar) with uniform ripening levels and very interesting characters.
Ironically, the biggest concern for many wineries in California this year was the lower sugar levels in the grapes. This ultimately impacts the alcohol levels in the wines (less sugar means less alcohol) and may make the wines leaner. So the grape concentrate part of the industry has been hopping as wineries buy up concentrate to add to the fermenting musts. For us, our sugars were at a level that would give us alcohols of 12.5%-14.5%, and I wouldn’t mind seeing alcohol levels a hint lower than “normal” anyway.
Instead our concern with the shorter growing season was the possibility that the tannins in the skins were under-ripe. Thus long fermentations on the skins would produce aggressive wines with “green” tannins. We needed to prepare for shorter fermentations to maximize the extraction of color and flavor during this period. The way to do this is to make sure that fermentation temperatures are warm from the start.
I’d like to introduce you to my new best friend for challenging vintages. It’s my G&D Chiller glycol warmer. We’ve always had the ability to cool our tanks, but never to warm them. But with this glycol warmer, I could warm four tanks at a time, bringing fermentation temperatures up to 84 degrees very quickly.
What I got in return was positively unbelievable color in the reds (whites are fermented cool). The higher acid of the vintage combined with the warmer fermentation temperatures produced amazingly black, opaque wines. Even the Nebbiolo has pretty impressive color (for Nebbiolo!).
However, we were still nervous of the potential tannins. We did press cuts on each of the red varieties and most of the whites, separating out the higher-pressure pressings from the free run. Although the higher-pressure pressing often brings out more flavor and intensity, the wines can also be much harsher. By separating out this portion, we can work (fine) these wines while not touching the free run.
So our biggest fear, the tannins, are not a problem this year. For that, we are thankful.
As of yesterday (when I was last tasting the 2011 vintage in the winery), the reds are more elegant than say the 2009 vintage. It’s a bit premature to make too many judgments on their bodies as I expect the secondary fermentation (malolactic) to shift the richness of the wine quite a bit. This combined with the brighter fruit (more cherry and raspberry than blackberry and blueberry) and the lower alcohol levels will give us more claret-styled of wine, ageworthy and exciting.
This vintage, 2011, I think, will be a year for the Bordeaux varieties. The Malbec, Merlot and Cabernet Franc are particularly exciting right now, fruity and intense. And on the whites, the Gewurztraminer showcases the body and fruit I love in the variety.
All in all, I think the foothills fared better than other regions (especially after hearing some of the horror stories of vineyards in the coastal regions). It could have been really bad, but we may just end up smelling like roses (at least the Gewurzt will). And although any winery can make good wines in a great vintage, I think the truly exceptional wines come from the challenging vintages. And 2011 definitely qualifies as a challenging vintage!