You know there’s trouble on the ground when California winemakers describe the fruit they’ve just harvested as having “outstanding” acid, a descriptor that they would have used for the fruit itself in a normal year. The California wine advocacy group Wine Institute with 1000 members publishes a harvest report at the end of each year, describing the harvest in all California wine regions. In a concerted effort to accentuate the positive, the unanimous opinion of winemakers, who contributed to the report, was that the harvest had fine acidity, necessary for a balanced wine but also an indication that fruit didn’t ripen as expected. The larger the wine entity, the more optimistic it became. Greg Fowler, senior vice president of operations for gigantic Constellation Wines U.S. said, “…overall, 2010 is going to turn out to be a beautiful year for wine,” whether just his or everybody’s was unclear. Another senior vice president, Jay Indelicato from Delicato Family Vineyards said delicately, “I am very optimistic about the quality of the 2010 vintage.” The Gallo Family was conspicuous by its absence in the report, but regardless of vintage accolades or difficulties, that family always has a good year. Wine must be made and sold, independent of Mother Nature, and consumers must not be discouraged by bitter truth or wine.
Whether the 2010 California vintage is good or not will also depend on how you like your wines. If you like them big, rich, and ripe, you may be disappointed. Everyone in the report acknowledged that this was a mighty cool spring, summer, and fall, the coolest in 12 years according to Steve Lohr from J. Lohr Vineyards & Wines in Monterey. And according to Michael Blaylock, winemaker at Quady Winery in Madera, veraison was the second latest in 17 years. In other words, veraison or the transition from berry growth to berry ripening, a point that winemakers often refer to, occurred extremely late in the growing season. All the talk about outstanding acidity means that especially late-ripening fruit like Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah did not ripen to its usual high brix or sugar at harvest. In cool years, winemakers hope that rains will be late so that they can leave grapes on the vine to ripen further even into November. But this year, that option was non-existent in many locations because California experienced rains in late October. Water on the fruit clusters at that point will promote mold, so winemakers were forced to pick.
But if you like your wines like your vegetables, a bit undercooked and crunchy, this is your vintage. All the talk about high acids in the fruit and lower sugars implies that the wines will be leaner and more elegant, especially from areas where early rain didn’t hit, and the fruit spent a longer time on the vine. The longer it spends dangling below its leafy shelter, the more opportunity the fruit has to develop deeper and intense varietal flavors. Pinot Noir will taste more like Pinot Noir, Cabernet more like itself, Zinfandel more like Zinfandel. In hot years when growers are forced to pick earlier, fruit can ripen before it develops enough of its characteristic flavors. Warmer regions, like Lodi, which saw cooler temperatures, will be very happy with their results.
Years like this one separate the artists from the technicians, and the artists are the ones who are capable of outwitting Mother Nature and producing beautiful wines. For example, ripening fruit in a cool year involves thinning the crop. Sugars are made in the leaves through photosynthesis, which takes place in the presence of light and heat, and those sugars then transmigrate to the fruit. So the gifted viticulturist somehow intuits that the growing season will continue to be cool and drops fruit, leaving only what he or she imagines the vine can ripen. There is no formula for this activity, yet it is crucial. After the harvest, the artistic winemaker then takes over, and he or she disguises any deficiency that the viticulturist may have overlooked. Between the two of them, they can make beautiful wine despite the lack of cooperation from Mother Nature.