We spend a lot of time looking at weather forecasts and some years it gives peace of mind and some years it puts a knot in your stomach. Most years you get a little of both. Whether it is February or September, the year’s weather conditions are going to directly influence the wines we produce. We are big believers in celebrating these slight variations that the weather brings us each year. The vineyard is still king when it comes to defining the characteristics of a wine but vintage variation is often times subtle but sometimes major influence on the final wines we produce.
The past four years have been a study in contrasts. 2009 was as close to picture perfect as we might hope for with a dry winter, mild spring, warm but not-too-hot summer, and a nice cool fall with no rains or frost to force picking decisions. This year, 2012, we returned to that scenario. 2010 and 2011, however, were both years farmers are glad to have behind them. Late spring rains got things off to a late start and persistent fog kept things moving at a snails pace which had growers in the vineyard often managing canopy (leaf cover) and crop load to try and pull the grapes towards the finish line in good shape. Early rains in each of these seasons had wine makers working with late-ripening varieties biting their nails. We’re extremely lucky to work with growers who know how to react quickly and who will spend the effort to stay ahead of potential threats. We are also fortunate that Pinot noir and Gewürztraminer both ripen early in the fall harvest season which, nine times out of ten, helps us dodge those early rains.
So how does this actually influence our wines? Because we’re complete nerds at heart, our back labels list many of these weather related variables. The data is all about the wine but you can see the affect the weather has by simply comparing one wine’s info to another, thus giving you a snapshot of what our growing season was all about.
The two back labels below compare the 2009 and 2011 Perli Vineyard Pinot noir. Perli sits high in the coastal range between Anderson Valley and the Pacific Ocean. The appellation is Mendocino Ridge. Because Perli sits above the fog line is was spared some of the cold conditions we saw on the valley floor in the Russian River which had harvest a full 20 days later in 2011 compared to 2009. You can see by looking at the budbreak dates shown below that the grapes got off to a late start in 2011 and the cool conditions lengthened the hang time for the fruit. We picked Perli over a week later than the warm 2009 vintage.
These slight shifts in start and harvest dates aren’t drastic but the rest of the data on the label shows how warm and cool years affect the wine composition. Warm years tend to give us grapes that reach physiological ripeness at slightly higher sugar levels and slightly lower acid levels, which you can see by comparing TA (total acid in the wine) and alcohol levels. Higher sugar content in the grapes translates directly to higher alcohol levels. BUT, how does the wine actually taste?
It’s been a lot of fun to have 2009 and 2010 Pinot open in the tasting room to compare wines from the same vineyard side by side from such dramatically different growing seasons. With the 2010 wines grown in a very cool season they reached ripeness with lower sugar levels and higher acidity. This gave us wines that are bright and lively on the palate showing cranberry and strawberry aromas and flavors. These are elegant wines with a clarity that impresses with nuance rather than brawn. The 2009 wines, seeing a lot more sun, gained a depth that comes off on the palate as more robust and rich. They are just now starting to take on some secondary characteristics from their bottle aging that, especially in our Russian River Valley wines, is showing deep earthy aromas to compliment the riper dark cherry flavors. 2009 was truly a benchmark year for California Pinot noir lovers who revel in the multi-layered velvety wines a warm season brings. And for those of you who yearn for clarity, brightness and a lighter style, 2010/2011 should bring you many great wines that should age extremely well. Find the wines you like and stock up.
I hope you get a chance to compare these vintages with our wines, or your favorite winery’s wines, to experience for yourself how seasons influence what ends up in the bottle.