by Jeff Miller of Artisan Family of Wines (Seven Artisans, Sly Dog Cellars, Red Côte)
I’m asking this question somewhat facetiously, as every vintage, from the industry’s perspective, seems like it’s the vintage of the century. But this vintage, at the least, is going to be different. As anyone living in California knows, this has been a very cool year both for people and grapes. Only time will tell for sure how the vintage will turn out, and there’s still lots of time for the weather to do a 180 and give us some real heat. But, at least so far, it’s looking like one of the coolest growing seasons ever.
So what does this portend for the quality of harvest? Looking at it from the point of view of the optimist, this could be one of the best vintages ever, particularly in the inland appellations. We know that the grapes are lagging several weeks, indicating that they will ripen under much cooler conditions than normal, if for no reason other than maturity is being pushed into a later, autumnal, season. I’ve written often about the benefits of ripening under moderate weather conditions, and how much of California is too warm to achieve this. This year will probably be the exception, particularly inland. What we’re seeing is a shift of normal weather patterns, where what would be normal for coastal (and cooler) regions is being experienced further inland. If so, this could be an exceptionally good vintage for the Central Valley.
Looking at it from the point of view of the pessimist, the worst case scenario is that the grapes aren’t ripe before the fall rains start. This puts the grape grower in a quandary: does he harvest, even though the grapes aren’t fully mature? Or does he wait, and risk botrytis and other infections that depend on rain? Either option is fraught with potential problems, and neither betokens a stellar harvest. Coastal regions, which in a normal year can still harvest under optimal conditions, are most at risk.
Assuming that the rains don’t come, there’s still an issue whether certain cooler, coastal, regions will be able to fully ripen their grapes. This seems like less of a concern to me than the possibility of rain, but for some coastal areas could be a concern, particularly if the cool weather persists.
Also, on the negative side, is the possibility that the cool weather will suddenly break, and we’ll get some real heat. Grapes, not acclimated to heat, don’t always respond well to a sudden warming. Some vines can shut down under these circumstances, particularly if they don’t get enough water. So dry-farmed vineyards could be particularly at risk. Even when the vine remains in good health, a sudden heat wave after cooler weather can result in shrivel, causing raisiny characteristics in the wines.
One question I have (and I’m not at all sure of the answer) is whether we can expect leaner, more classical, wines this vintage. It seems that this probably wouldn’t be the case in inland areas, where there should still be enough heat to fully ripen the grapes, but would be more likely the case in cooler regions.
One thing we know for sure—this isn’t going to be a normal, relatively stress free, California vintage.