by Jeff Miller of Artisan Family of Wines (Seven Artisans, Sly Dog Cellars, Red Côte)
I guess everyone knows by now that this isn’t the easiest of vintages. Things started off on the wrong foot with a cool spring that extended into summer. When in a normal year, the grapes are happily ripening in mid-summer, this year the grapes were treated to an unremitting recipe of cool days and even cooler nights.
That is, until it all came to an end. We went from cool days to major heat overnight. For some reason, the grapes seem to be able to accommodate hot weather just find when they are introduced to it gradually. But when it arrives out of nowhere, they tend to react with a lot of shrivel. Which is exactly what we got.
Our heat wave was followed by more cold weather until a few weeks ago, when suddenly it got really hot (like well over 100 in many areas). This was a mixed blessing, since we needed the heat to ripen the grapes, but we got more shrivel (though not as much as the first heat wave, thankfully). More recently, we’ve gotten a number of days of welcome heat, but moderate rather than extreme heat.
As many of you know, I’ve had a fascination with grapes that aren’t the usual Chardonnay, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon, three grapes that truly dominate the wine market. I experimented with small plantings of a number of different varieties, one of which was Montepulciano. This grape was the most successful of the trial paintings. As a result, we budded over four acres of Merlot to Montepulciano several years ago.
This grape is not widely planted in California. The last I checked, there were only 46 acres of it in the whole state. So our tiny operation accounts for nearly 10% of the total planted acreage in California. I find this truly astounding, as it in many ways it is the perfect grape for hotter parts of the California viticultural world.
When I go out to our vineyards, and take a look at our Petite Sirah, I see that this year has been quite a challenge. Our yields are down, how much we won’t really know until harvest. Part of the reason for the lower yields is the fact that much of the crop is shriveled, so we won’t pick it. I think what we do pick will be of good quality, if not better. But, bottom line, the Petite Sirah this year is difficult.
Now compare the Petite Sirah to the Montepulciano. In the Montepulciano, we have virtually no shrivel. While we expect a significant drop off in yield of the Petite Sirah, the Montepulciano seems to have weathered the various meteorological problems of the year in stride. The grapes are big and juicy, so seem to be quite resilient to the two heat waves we’ve gotten this year.
I think a big part of the reason Montepulciano has done so well is that it is such a late ripener. In our limited experience, it gets picked late October or even early November. My only concern with Montepulciano this year, in fact, is that, being such a late ripener, we may not be able to get the sugar levels as high as we’d like. Even in a normal year, the Brix levels on the Montepulciano have been moderate, usually in the mid-20’s, if that. This year, I expect they will be even a little lower, though the grapes seem to be ripening and the greenness that is so often evident in unripe grapes of other varieties doesn’t exhibit itself in Montepulciano.
So why is this grape, which seems so well suited to our environment, so little planted? It’s a mystery to me. My only explanation is that the sales pipeline and consumer just haven’t’ been exposed to how good a wine this grape makes. The wines are moderate to light, with lots of bright fresh fruit. Think strawberry. Like so many other grapes that produce great if largely unknown wines in other parts of the world, Montepulciano just hasn’t gotten the exposure it needs here to take off. Hopefully, that will all change.