the tyranny of the weather

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Over the past few days a winemaker of long acquaintance has been writing me, asking for advice on an upcoming speaking engagement. Apparently, he’s been asked to comment on the 2011 vintage here in Washington, and make an assessment about the wines it will produce.

Weather statistics are tracked like winning Lottery numbers in the wine world, and no sooner has bud break begun than the clock is ticking on whether the vintage is late, slow, fast, cool, hot, dry, or potentially the vintage of the century.

Right on through veraison and harvest, the weather-watchers alternately smile and frown, and no sooner have grapes hit the fermenters than opinions are strewn about as to quality. In the media especially, the race is on to be the first to share the news about the vintage. Such opinions, being based solely on weather charts and conditions at harvest, are of dubious value.

Apart from the fact that weather conditions can differ dramatically in two vineyards that are right next to each other, there is a poor track record at best of being able to predict how wines will actually show, no matter what the conditions were.

The 1999 vintage in Washington is a classic example. Most of the national magazine and newsletter writers called it a poor vintage right away. The wines were hard, tannic, and shut tight upon release. Some seemed a bit green. But in fact, those very wines are now in full bloom and drinking beautifully. I opened a 1999 Canoe Ridge Merlot a few nights ago and found it in perfect condition. It would be difficult to find a Merlot from anywhere from that vintage that was any better.

Back to my winemaker friend. His original thought was to use statistical weather stats to make a case that 2011 was a poor growing year – i.e. a not-so-good vintage. I wrote back that “You can make that case, but I wouldn't advise it. For one thing, it's very negative. For another, it begs the question that I think is most important, which is - shouldn't Washington winemakers embrace vintage variation, and derive the best wines from each and every year? I'm excited to taste more 2011’s - I think it will force wines to be sleeker, more acidic, less jammy/oaky, overall more terroir expressive and Euro-styled. Nothing wrong with any of that.”

He agreed that it would be a more interesting and more positive spin on what was undeniably a cooler vintage here in the Northwest. I think the jury is still out, whatever the pundits have decided, but I would bet that, much like 1999, 2011 will turn out to have more ageworthy wines than the warm years that produce the jammy fruit-bombs and get the initial rave reviews.


Keep Clean Bob said...

I think the most positive approach would be to discuss how winemaking has changed from 20 years ago to now and how those techniques, and better vineyard management, have provided more tools to turn the challenges of weather into cudo's for themselves and better wines for the public, no matter what the weather.

Dave Larsen said...

Paul, We are now doing tasting trials to decide on the blends of our 2010 wines. The weather that year was similiar to 2011 and I agree with your assessment of the 2011 vintage. They are closer in style to the wines we produced in the 90's, which is the style our winery has been slowly reverting back to anyway. People who only like the high alcohol style may be less impressed with the 2010 and 2011 vintages but I think they will be better balanced, better with food and will be longer-lived wines. I view the vintage variation less as qualitative differences and more as stylistic differences.

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