Cool vintages are challenging for growers and winemakers, but teamwork during the season can result in good wines, says the director of winemaking and viticulture at Long Shadows Vintners.
Wines made from cool vintages seem to get a lot of bad press, said Long Shadow’s Gilles Nicault of Walla Walla, Washington.
Long Shadows Vintners, founded by Allen Shoup, former chief executive officer of Chateau Ste. Michelle and its affiliated wineries, is a unique owner-partner winery of seven acclaimed international winemakers. The group focuses on producing wines from Washington’s Columbia Valley.
“Wines from cool season vintages often don’t show as well initially because the acids and tannins can clash together,” said Nicault, who spoke about the 2011 and 2013 vintages during the annual meeting of the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers. “But a cool vintage is not necessarily a bad thing. The wines might not be amazing in the beginning, but winemakers can still make good wines from cool vintages.”
He noted that cool vintages have a stigma because in most wine growing regions, cool equates to rain during harvest and high-disease pressure, which can impact fruit quality. But in eastern Washington, most precipitation comes in winter months and not during the fall harvest.
The type of growing season does influence the winemaker’s style of wine. Nicault, in working with seven winemakers at Long Shadows, has found that some of them prefer to make wine from cool sites while others gravitate to fruit from warmer sites.
In warm vintages, like 2013, much of the winemaker’s focus is on fruit numbers (pH, acidity, Brix) and determining how high to let sugars get before picking, he says. Cool vintages require more winemaker interaction in the vineyard and communication with the grower.
At what point do you know what type of vintage you’re in? The first indicator is timing of bud break. “By bloom, if it’s early or late, you start to know what type of vintage is coming, but not always,” said Nicault. Weather during bloom for 2013 was cool and rainy, not indicative of the above-normal warm temperatures that later occurred.
For a winemaker, the most important time is veraison because that’s when you know what’s hanging on the vine, he says. “If it’s late August, and 10 to 15 percent of the berries still haven’t finished veraison, then you know you’re in deep (trouble) and you need to get things on track.”
Fermentation management is key in both cool and warm vintages if the picking window is shortened. Picking dates, tank rotations, extraction and maceration times, and pressing practices are all impacted by a rush of grapes coming to the winery.
In 2013, winemakers were challenged in managing fermentation because much of the Cabernet Sauvignon ripened all at once.
“You need to think ahead about how much fermentation capacity you have,” Nicault said. Also, shorter maceration time is usually better in cool vintages because grape skins are typically thicker.
The use of oak and oak alternatives also depends on the type of vintage. Fruit from warm vintages have riper tannins than cool-vintage fruit.
Oak alternatives, like untoasted oak powder, may help reduce methoxypyrazine levels from wines of cool vintages. He prefers the use of polysaccharides as an additive for cool vintages because it helps give wines more intensity and mouth feel.
For sugar management in wines, he doesn’t go by Brix numbers (sugar levels in fruit) but considers the type of berry (small or large) and the juice they produce. For example, Malbec is a very juicy variety, and he may drain away some juice to result in better skin contact. But if he pulls out 10 to 15 percent juice, he may have to add some water back later.
When making acid adjustments, he doesn’t follow a recipe but considers pH and malic acid content. Cool vintages usually have more malic acid, though in warm vintages, winemakers are trying to preserve acidity. Brix are usually much higher in warm vintages and dealcoholizing may be necessary.
Nicault said that making wines from warm vintages is not without its own challenges from the high-heat units and reduced acidity levels in fruit. “There can be a loss of varietal character and a loss of the fruit’s sense of place.”
Should winemakers strive for consistency from vintage to vintage or embrace vintage variations? Because every year and every vintage is different, he recommends that winemakers match each vintage with their style.
“Winemakers are like crazy scientists,” said Nicault. “We don’t follow a recipe but react to what we have. We’re not here to make Bud Light.”
Market for cool
The historic Ridge Vineyards, located in California’s Santa Cruz Mountains appellation, is proof there is a market for wines produced in cool regions and for cool vintages. Paul Draper, CEO and winemaker at Ridge Vineyards since 1969, said his winery also had radically different vintages in 2011 and 2013.
Ridge Vineyards celebrated 50 years as a bonded winery in 2012, but its roots go back to late 1880s when grapes were first planted on Monte Bello Ridge and the Monte Bello Winery was built. The winery was closed during Prohibition and rebonded in 1962 by new partners.
Though the original vines are long gone, some vines that were planted in 1949 are still in production. The estate vineyards, at elevations of 1,400 to 2,700 feet, are 15 air miles to the Pacific Ocean but located in a rain shadow. The high elevation and marine influence give cool nights that help fruit maintain its acidity.
The 2011 vintage was one of the wettest and coolest in 75 years. Yields in 2011 averaged 2 tons per acre because of excessive soil moisture.
In contrast, 2013 was very warm and dry and brought the earliest harvest ever (September 7). Because their vineyards are primarily dry-land farmed without irrigation, vines struggled to reach 1.5 tons per acre in 2013.
Growing degree-days between 2011 and 2013 differed by nearly 300 heat units—2,400 and 2,700, respectively—and alcohol levels of Cabernet Sauvignon wines were a full percent different (12.8 and 13.8 percent).
“Our goal is to not let the fruit get overripe,” Draper said. Their winemaking approach follows minimalistic techniques of the 19th century. They use few additives and the least intrusive of modern equipment. Ridge Vineyards is one of the few wineries in the nation that lists wine ingredients on their labels.
“There is a market out there for wines from cool regions, and for wines in the 13 percent alcohol range,” he said. “We have a large market in the European Union and in the United States for our style of wine.” (The Ridge Vineyards website prices Cabernet Sauvignon wines from 2011 for $165, $103, $85, and a members-only offering for $55.)
Ridge Vineyards made a name for itself during the 1976 Paris wine tasting that became known as the Judgment of Paris. The tasting pitted six California wines against eight French wines. Ridge Vineyards’ 1971 Monte Bello Cabernet placed in the middle.
Thirty years later, the tasting was reenacted with simultaneous tastings of the original red wines in the United States and United Kingdom. This time, Ridge Vineyards was named the winning wine in both tastings. The 1971 Ridge Cabernet alcohol level, at 35 years old, was 12.2 percent.
He said their traditional approach to winemaking—with minimal intervention—results in wines that can age a minimum of ten years. He believes Washington wineries can make the same kind of wines without using today’s full array of processing and additives. •
Understanding when key phenolics develop in red wine grape varietals and how they are influenced can help growers and winemakers decide when to perform cultural tasks and when to pick.
Phenolics are a group of chemicals responsible for the sensory aspects of wine—color, smell, flavor, and mouth feel. In red wine grape varietals, anthocyanins are responsible for color, and tannins give fruit and wine astringency or bitterness.
The key development stage for anthocyanins is from veraison to harvest, while accumulation of tannins starts in the fruit skin at fruit set and continues until slightly after veraison, according to Dr. James Harbertson, Washington State University extension enologist. Seed tannin accumulation starts at fruit set, reaches a maximum at veraison, and then declines, he noted.
Anthocyanin development needs light, which the grower can influence through canopy density and leaf removal.
Anthocyanin development is also dependent on temperature (not too cold, not too hot), nutrition, and water deficit. Because too much nitrogen interferes with anthocyanins, he recommends that growers apply no more than 50 pounds of nitrogen per acre.
Deficit irrigation can increase anthocyanin if the vine receives less water than it needs from fruit set to veraison and after veraison to harvest. But Harbertson warned that anthocyanin production is hindered if deficit irrigation is applied during veraison.
Skin tannin levels are increased if deficit irrigation strategies are applied early and throughout the season, but not at veraison. If water is withheld during veraison, skin tannins are lowered. Seed tannins are not directly affected by cultural practices, and are only impacted by the change in berry size.
In general, he found that steady warm periods from bloom to veraison favor skin tannin production, while cool periods from veraison to harvest favor anthocyanin production.