New World Albariño. Hope You’ve Got a Thick Skin.

Albariño grapes have been written about in Spanish monastery records for 800 years. The name may translate as “White Rhine,” but frequent attempts to stitch together comparisons with Riesling have generally struck me as promotional twaddle ~ fanciful at best. Let’s not forget Semillon was called “Hunter Valley Riesling” in Australia for much of the 20th Century. Actually Albariño is carving out a niche all its own. That process is instructive; no less because it’s happening before our very eyes, with barely twenty years of antecedents. We have the opportunity to play a role in Albariño’s cultural story.

Prior to the mid 1980’s white wines in Spain and Portugal were frequently blended affairs, largely forgettable. Which is not to deny millions of people the memorable experiences they may have had in Spain involving white wine. You must understand there is a difference between the quality of the wine and the poignancy of the memory. The most widely planted white grape in the world is Airen, at around 750,000 acres. That’s more acres than all the wine grapes in California. Almost all the Airen in the world is in Spain. Airen is drought resistant. It makes a reliable foundation for alcoholic, oxidized junk sold cheaply in Spanish bars. Where the situation began to change was in 1986 when the Galician (northwest Atlantic coast of Spain) Province of Rias Baixas (pronounced REE-ahs BUY-schuss) was granted experimental DO status by the Spanish Government. Ninety percent of the grapes grown in Rias Baixas are Albariño.

Rias Baixas

Stylistically and culturally the wines of Rias Baixas bore something of a resemblance to the white Vinho Verdes of northwestern Portugal, from the Duoro River north to the border with Spain at the Minho River. No wonder. Albariño (called Alvarinho in Portugal) is a commonly used grape variety in Vinho Verdes, especially in the Minho district. In most instances the grapes are grown on high trellises (what Italians call a pergola), which help them dry out in the wind after frequent rainstorms coming off the Atlantic. It also allows for cultivation of row crops underneath ~ this lush section of Portugal is densely populated. The wines frequently have startling acidity, because it is hard getting ripe in these wet, maritime vineyards. And the wines are a wonderful match for the dominant cuisine of both regions: seafood.

High Trellises

DO (Denominación de Origen, Spanish appellation control) status for Rias Baixas put Albariño on the radar for consumers worldwide, goosed exports, and raised prices. Which in turn allowed more careful vineyard practices, and more artistic winemaking techniques. Growers in California and Oregon began to take notice. Which in turn spurred vintners in Galicia to raise their game further. It’s all happened recently. Which brings us to the TAPAS (Tempranillo Advocates Producers and Amigos Society, www.TAPASsociety.org) tasting at Fort Mason in San Francisco last weekend, 9 June 2012. These are American wineries making wine from grapes indigenous to the Iberian Peninsula. They put on a nice spread. I went to focus on Albariño’s future on America’s Left Coast. If it goes with seafood, it ought to play well from Vancouver to Ensenada.

There were some 40 wineries, and about half of them had an Albariño or two on display. I was delighted to have a chance to chat with a couple highly qualified commentators amongst the winemakers. Ken Volk (www.Volkwines.com) is the guy who owned and grew the Wild Horse label in the Central Coast to 150,000 cases by the turn of the millennium. He then sold it. Today he is beginning again, using his family name, and a healthy bit of capital from the Wild Horse sale. His emphasis is on Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, but he enjoys auditioning lesser known varieties. He is convinced Albariño will show best in California’s cool, coastal vineyards. I asked him, “Is it possible for Albariño to be too fruity?” Ken isn’t the kind of personality to bad mouth other people’s wine at a public promotion, but his answer strongly implied there were areas of California where the grapes would get riper than his personal preference. I’m inclined to go along with him.

Albariño grapes have thick skins, which is important in the wet (read moldy) climate of Spain’s Atlantic coast. Importers of Spanish wine are constantly waxing on about the peach and melon fruitiness of Albariño wines from Rias Baixas. I don’t see it. I’m routinely struck by the earthy brackishness of those wines. Call it minerality if you must. To me it is the intersection of saltiness and acidity. I perceive it as a mildly metallic glint. There may be some crab apple aroma sitting harmoniously on top, but the overall impression to me is built for mussels or grilled sardines; not for peach cobbler or watermelon salad. I also feel Albariño shares a slightly phenolic tendency with white wines from the Rhône Valley, which means winemakers need to manage skin contact very carefully.

But these remarks refer to traditional Albariño from Rias Baixas. Albariño grapes grown in California could be quite a different matter. For comparison take a look at Pinot Grigio from Veneto in Italy side-by-side with Pinot Gris from Alsace. The low elevation Italian Pinot Grigio is classic fish wine: good acid, long finish, not a lot of aromatic high jinx, well-suited to cuisine from the Po River delta. The Alsatian example (I’m partial to Kuentz Bas ~ www.kermitlynch.com) is where you find texture, along with those peach and plum skin smells. Same grape variety, but dramatically different wines. The same thing is going to be true when you compare Albariños from different regions in California. If you want a fruit-forward example, try one of the many grown around Lodi. Priced for everyday consumption, but not my personal cup of tea. Simple, was the descriptor I used several times.

Based on evidence from the TAPAS tasting, I’m drawn to further exploration of Albariño from coastal vineyards in the New World.  Ken Volk’s Albariño was very nice in a restrained style, with hints of both fruit and salt. Think melon wrapped in prosciutto. Bob Lindquist, of Qupé fame and arguably California’s first Rhône Ranger, was there pouring two Albariños (www.verdad.com) made by his wife Louisa. The one from their own vineyard had a bracing acid backbone with hints of caraway in the nose. Perfect for steamed clams. The bargain of the day was a finely honed example from Tangent with big passion fruit and a whack of lemon on the nose. It is sold to restaurants in kegs, and priced at the equivalent of $15 per bottle retail (www.nivenfamilywines.com).

Octopus… YUM.

My favorite Albariño of the day though offered a good lesson in how vintage conditions need to be overlain upon anyone’s concept of terroir. The wine came from Paso Robles, a warm inland location, but was grown during the 2011 vintage, which was exceptionally cold. The winery is called Bodegas Paso Robles (www.bodegaspasorobles.com), and they only made 160 cases. Price is $22 a bottle. The wine had lots of acid and complexity. In the nose there was a bit of that salt and melon trick, but great peachy length in the mouth marshaled between the lines by ropes of minerality. For the first time I could see the comparison to German Spätlesen Riesling. And I liked it. A lot. The perfect match would be that Spanish bar dish of grilled octopus (pulpo a la parilla) with onions and potatoes in a rich, salty fish sauce. Talk about memorable ~ makes my mouth water just to think about it.

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Betting Your Dessert on California Terroir

The concept of terroir in wine is fascinating; also fairly complicated. The idea is that cuttings from the same grape vine grown in two separate vineyards will produce wines that taste differently. Okay, I’m on-sides so far. But why do they taste differently?

Chardonnay at crusher

Chardonnay at crusher

Thirty-five years ago it was common for sellers of French wine to say the soils in the various vineyards were the primary factor affecting taste characteristics. After all, the common translation of the French word terroir would be ‘earth.’ The French have had hundreds of years [thousands really] of evidence that two vineyards lying virtually side-by-side can often produce wines which consistently over centuries command dramatically different prices. The climate can not possibly be much different over such a small distance. So the difference must lie in the soil. American wine academics never really bought that argument, stating forcefully that top quality wines were produced around the world on a great many different types of soil.

The discussion has shifted somewhat these days. Most Frenchmen now speak of terroir as a concept which embraces everything about a specific vineyard location: soil, climate, viticulture techniques, even cultural tradition. American wine academics are generally inclined to go along with that point of view. Bear in mind though, terroir implies a distinctive, recognizable, predictable, reproducible taste; not necessarily quality.

Wanting to explore this idea re California, I jumped at an opportunity to see three high-end Chardonnays grown in separate districts, but all made in much the same manner by the same winemaker. These are all part of the La Rochelle line from Steven Kent Winery in Livermore Valley. Steve Mirassou (Kent was his grandmother’s surname) met me in their well attended Tasting Lounge to explain how they intend to pursue both Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs from prestige growers in at least four coastal districts. The wines are fermented in half-ton bins because they make very small quantities ~ around a hundred cases each in the inaugural 2010 vintage. Should the program prove extremely successful, Steve still doesn’t foresee producing more than about 300 cases from any single vineyard. We had a vigorous discussion about whether the marketplace would demand opportunities to taste the wines side-by-side. In the end we pretty much agreed it wasn’t going to be likely in America these days, at least not outside their Tasting Room.

The current Chardonnay examples are from Ferrington Vyd in Mendocino’s AndersonValley, from Morelli Lane Vyd on the Santa Rosa Plain in Sonoma, and from Rosella’s Vyd in Monterey’s Santa Lucia Highlands. Let’s begin with factors which blur terroir. Each of these vineyards grows a different clone of the Chardonnay grape: the Robert Young clone in Ferrington; the Hyde (Wente 1) clone in Morelli Lane; and the Dijon 76 clone in Rosella’s. There is also the fact that Chardonnay so notoriously reflects the hand of the winemaker. Our taste comparison controlled for that factor, but two winemakers acquiring grapes from the same vineyard might produce significantly different styles simply by picking two weeks apart. My impression of Morgan’s Rosella’s Vyd Chardonnay, and this one from La Rochelle, supports that notion. The Morgan is more fruit forward, less crisply elegant, more indicative of the long hang-time on the Central Coast. Moreover, American winemakers tend to take decisions that guide wines toward an idea in their head about what constitutes quality. Frenchmen would argue that tendency steps all over terroir. Even a terroir supporter like Steve Mirassou says about acidulation, “If a wine needs acid, we’ll acidulate.”

Despite all these factors which might overshadow terroir in California wines, both Steve and I found several characteristics in the three La Rochelle Chardonnays which we chose to attribute to regional terroir. The Morelli Lane had a clear citrus note. Even though reined in, the La Rochelle Rosella’s was more ‘tropical’ than the other two La Rochelle wines. I found the Ferrington less terroir-imprinted than the other two, but Steve picked it out by its green apple aroma. All of them were good wines, with fine aging potential, but they were distinguishable from each other. And they were set apart like night and day from the Chardonnay Steven Kent makes from Livermore fruit. Different strokes for different folks.

Try this little experiment at home. Get a bottle each of Morgan 2010 Rosella’s Chardonnay, the La Rochelle 2010 Rosella’s, and the La Rochelle 2010 Morelli Lane. Invite two couples for dinner. Serve a planked Salmon and potatoes au gratin. Give everybody three glasses. Serve the wines wrapped in tin foil and numbered. Tell everyone what the three wines are, but don’t tell them which bottle is which. Only those guests who correctly identify all three bottles get dessert. I don’t want to see any money changing hands.

 

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Roussanne ~ My Quaker Moment in the Rhône

Gordes

Gordes

Twenty-plus years ago I was traveling with a bunch of friends in the southern Rhône Valley. We went to visit an art academy in a tributary valley called the Luberon ~ a district subsequently given a big dose of notoriety by Peter Mayle. We stayed in the little village of Gordes, a couple thousand feet above the valley floor with a magnificent view, and an even more magnificent restaurant called La Bastide (http://www.bastide-de-gordes.com/en/index.php). Surely, one of the top five meals of my life. None of us spoke much French, and the sommelier spoke very little English. Didn’t matter. We let him know we loved wine, and that we wanted to place ourselves in his hands for the evening. There were eight or nine of us. He must have brought fifteen dishes, each matched to a different wine. Took about five hours. All the wines were from the Rhône Valley, and half of them were white. Three or four of those were seven to fifteen years old. Each successive pairing was more stunning than the one before. There were bean dishes, followed by parsnip dishes, followed by mushroom dishes. I was transfixed. You had to be there. It was like a Quaker moment: so impressive, and yet so plain.

Prominent among the grape varieties on display was Roussanne. I’d barely heard of it before. But the style was very attractive. It had the weight and length of good Chardonnay. By which I mean serious flavor and complexity in the mouth. It had the ability to age well in bottle. By which I mean the ability to develop enjoyable smells and flavors beyond those that could be found in the wine when it was young. And it had nuanced fruit and floral aromas to which no Chardonnay has ever laid claim. Finally, there was this utilitarian, root vegetable patina to the wine which spoke of noble yeomen, honest labor, and good health.

Roussanne is often blended with other grapes: Marsanne in the northern Rhône; Grenache Blanc in the south. This trick is not to demean Roussanne wine quality, it is a relatively difficult grape to grow, subject to mildew in moist summers and not very productive. The blending grapes add some complexity, but mostly they are used because they are reliable producers, and there are lots of them planted. Assume what you may as to implications for the quality of white wines from the Rhône in the future. My advice: taste each vintage before you buy any quantity to cellar.

In California it is much more common to see wines labeled as Roussanne. That means they are at least 75% Roussanne by regulation. The grape variety is fairly new to California, and its first importation at the end of the 1980’s was a bit of slapstick comedy (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roussanne). Today there are still only 350 acres of Roussanne in CA. Twelve of those acres are in Napa, where the grapes sell for over $7,000 per ton ~ 50% more than the average price for Napa Cabernet Sauvignon. Thirty-five acres of Roussanne grow in Monterey, where the price per ton is a still outrageous $3,765. That is four times what Monterey growers get for Cabernet, and almost four times what they get for Chardonnay. Rarity begats its own privileges. There are 130 acres of Roussanne combined in San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties, where the grapes sell for half the price they do in Monterey. Go figure. I guess there aren’t enough transactions to really have a marketplace.

Is it any wonder I chose Roussanne as my focus during last week’s Rhone Rangers Show at San Francisco’s Fort Mason?

There were 500 to 600 wines on offer at Rhône Rangers (www.rhonerangers.org). Twenty of them were Roussannes according to the catalog. Four of those producers failed to show up. Roussanne is still in an adolescent stage in CA. There is no standard against which to compare examples. Prices ranged from $15 per bottle to $35. Some of the wines were simply not well made. Nothing unusual there. Common problems were oxidation and overly acidulated, tasteless wines (perhaps unripe). A couple of the wines, from well-known producers, had extremely distinctive characteristics. The Qupé, for instance, had lots of toasty oak, overshadowing ghost-like flavor notes. The Terre Rouge was earthy, with a citrus rind nose, much in the genre of the ‘herb tea’ descriptor used by Jancis Robinson, and duplicated by several commentators who appear to have borrowed from the Oxford Companion to Wine. To me the Terre Rouge spoke of aging potential. The Tablas Creek was fruity in the nose, but nicely restrained at the same time. I was remarking to myself, while smelling it, how finely tuned it seemed. Then I put it in my mouth. Talk about shocking minerality! It was as if my glass had just deployed a steel pike. I’m not entirely sure where I come down on the minerality concept for Roussanne, but I know this one is working outside the box.

I liked three of the wines more than the others: Stephan Vyds from Paso Robles; Truchard from Napa; and Holly’s Hill from El Dorado County. I think balance is extremely important in a Roussanne. Holly’s Hill (www.HollysHill.com) demonstrates that feature very neatly. It has both pear-like fruit aromatics and some shy florals, but they are all nicely cinched down. The flavors reminded me of one of those fragrant Japanese lemons: Yuzu or Sudachi. Not the juice; the marmalade made from the zest. Best of all the wine is priced at $18. The Stephan Vyds (www.aventurewine.com) is twice as expensive, and mildly simple by comparison. It does have that beguilingly fragrant tea leaf nose though, and lots of mouth-filling body. Truchard (www.truchardvineyards.com) has a bit of track-record, so I was surprised to note it priced at $22. It has that combination of pith and orange blossom in the nose, without being too loud or effusive. The profile is long, and the flavors are very complex, faceted. Real nice wine, at a price which in Napa is something of a gift.

If there is a classic dish to pair with Roussanne, I’d vote for cassoulet. No question about the dish being a classic anyway. Personally, being a Californian, I’m more likely to have some Thai soup redolent of lemon grass and loaded with coconut milk. Those elements really have got Roussanne’s number. Put a little seafood in a tomato bisque. Add lots of vegetables. Light it up with some hot sauce. Put in the coconut milk, the lemon grass, and some turmeric. Light chill on the Roussanne. Not a first course; serve as a meal with crusty bread.

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Fondue is in the Air

For image alone fondue has Valentine’s Day written all over it. And choosing wine would seem to be easy. Can any wine be a failure with melted cheese? Tell the truth. When I say fondue, don’t you immediately think Alpine chalet, big sweaters, fireplace, and some wonderful, but completely unspecified wine?

Okay. I’m on the case!

As it happens there’s a restaurant with a long fondue tradition in Nevada City near where I live in the Sierra Foothills. It is downstairs from the County Probation Dept, and I admit to a little concern about why the sous chef would choose to wear a knit ski cap and shades in the kitchen, but then fondue really isn’t all that tricky. Fondue is simply a huge profit opportunity for any restaurant. It started snowing a few weeks ago, and I gave Friar Tuck’s a try in the company of a woman who was Homecoming Queen when we went to high school together. No way around it ~ the social mechanism of fondue in a restaurant is a lot more impressive than the food experience. Restaurants seem to feel Chardonnay is the obvious wine answer. I don’t agree.  If fondue’s secret is the intimacy of sharing food, I’d recommend ordering several different specialty dishes, and eating off of each other’s plate in the restaurant. Save fondue for dinners at home with friends.

The wines will be diverse, because the concept of fondue has become so diverse. There’s melted cheese and wine, of course. There’s also cooking meats and vegetables in hot oil, and cooking in broth (shabu shabu).  There’s the hot Italian cooking medium (garlic, oil, and anchovies) called bagna calde, and there are unlimited versions of dessert fondue, most involving molten chocolate. Clearly your whole cellar will have a chance to play if you host at home, and what you put on the forks will be as important as what is in the cooking pot. Think about roasted potatoes (microwave them first to make sure they’re cooked through), or a salame could add interest value to crusty bread. I love to use thin-sliced Serrano ham. Incidentally, if you don’t own a fondue pot, you can always feature an electric skillet in the center of your dinner table, or a double boiler and a hot plate.

Let’s break down the traditional cheese concept. It has broadened considerably since last we visited that little mountain cabin in Switzerland. Our starting point is Emmental (Swiss) and Gruyere cheese melted with white wine. Most recipes call for a touch of cornstarch, a clove of garlic, and a homeopathic dose of Kirsch (cherry liqueur). The Gruyere confers a slight nutty smell, and the Kirsch gives a faint impression of rose petals. I like Albarino as a grape variety with traditional fondue much more than Chardonnay. Albarino has a lot of minerality, and very restrained fruit. Try Longoria’s Clover Creek Vyd (www.LongoriaWines.com). Or, from the home of Albarino in Galicia, Spain, try Lagar de Cervera (Rias Baixas). I feel California Chardonnays especially are much too fruity for Swiss fondue. If you’re dipping apple slices, they may be okay, but Chardonnays don’t really work all that well with cubes of sourdough French bread. You want something considerably more earthy. Lighter-bodied reds with a little complexity, good acidity, and bit of cherry in the nose can be nice as well. Lesser Sangioveses are a fine recommendation. Try Antinori’s IGT called Santa Cristina. It’s mostly Sangiovese fermented in stainless. Just what the doctor ordered for around $10.

Another historic dish in the fondue genre is Welsh Rarebit. That’s a sharp cheddar melted with ale, sometimes a little mustard and cayenne. Purists think of rarebit as tavern food served on toast, but it’s such a good match for ultra-ripe CA Cabernets, we shouldn’t overlook it here. Get yourself a hunk of 2-year-old Raw Milk Cheddar from Ig Vella’s Cheese Company on Second Street in the town of Sonoma (www.vellacheese.com, 800-848-0505). Use it to make a fondue with Anchor Christmas Ale (the one with the tree label ~ www.anchorbrewing.com, 415-863-8350). You’ll never again wonder what food writers mean by ‘piquancy.’ The wine you want should be cassis-driven, with smooth tannins, and a big mouth-feel. There are a lot of them around, and you can easily spend three figures. But you don’t have to. Think Merryvale (www.Merryvale.com) or Ferrari-Carano (www.Ferrari-Carano.com) Cabs from the 2007 or 2009 vintages for examples under $40. Even Silver Oak Alexander Valley, almost a cliché for this style, can be had for $60 (www.JJBuckley.com)

Then there was spicy! In downtown Saratoga lies an extremely eclectic restaurant called La Fondue ~ light fixtures made out of guns, and zebra seat cushions. For cooking in the hot oil they offer alligator, wild boar, elk, buffalo. You get the picture. They have a fondue made with parmesan, cream cheese, chicken broth, and whatever you think you can handle in terms of chile peppers. Very Californio! Expensive, but like the rest of the place, you want to be able to say you’ve done it at least once. Saratoga is the high-end shopping district for Silicon Valley’s most successful entrepreneurs! This spicy fondue could be one of the toughest dishes for a wine match I’ve ever encountered. Salty, spicy, lights you up and keeps you going. An Amontillado Sherry was my first idea, but you couldn’t drink enough of it to keep up with the capsaicin burn. And some of the most interesting dipping items were mango and pineapple ~ wonderful taste sensations with the fondue, but not particularly good pairs for Sherry.

It’s entertaining research ~ all about the journey; not about the destination. Communal dining, obviously, is nothing new. It evokes primitive pleasures, among which I count shared bottles of wine. We can call it a nod to Chaucer’s romantic notion of St. Valentine, or we can just revert to the Roman (read pagan) feast of Lupercalia (February 13-15) with its overtones of fertility ritual. You choose. Either way, enjoy yourself. Next year we’ll take a cut at wines for cooking in your fireplace at home.

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How Useful are Vintage Charts?

I’m going to spend a lot of time in this post tearing down Vintage Charts. So why don’t I begin with a few supportive remarks about the general concept. Clearly, most wines are different from year to year. At least wines are that haven’t been blended for consistency. Wines from marginal growing areas, say northern Europe, are often dramatically different from year to year.  In fact, vintage years can often be better indicators of quality than who produced the wine when considering top vineyard properties from northern Europe. Moreover, high-acid wines from northern Europe, which age very well, allow time for a consensus about vintage quality to emerge through repeated tastings.

Evaluating California vintages with any degree of accuracy is another matter. First,California is a very big area. It’s very hard to reconcile rain in Napa on 25 Sept after all the Chardonnay has been picked, with the same storm in Monterey before the Chardonnay harvest even begins. Similarly a great year in Californiafor Pinot Noir may not be a very good year for Zinfandel. In Germany or Bordeaux a Vintage Chart basically evaluates a single varietal, which is picked over a 15 to 20 day period. A California Vintage Chart pretends to evaluate eight varietals picked over two months. Can’t be done. Even if CA does have more consistent growing season weather than northern Europe.

Fog Entering Bien Nacido Vyd, Santa Barbara

Vintage scores where 9 out of 10 years are either ‘good’ or ‘great’ are generally offered by promotional Trade organizations, or somebody else with an inventory to sell. They are useless. The following Chart shows a strong alternative technique. In this Chart each decade must be divided into ten levels (“forced ranking”). Some year has to come in last. Naturally, reasonable people may disagree. May? Reasonable people will disagree. That’s the nature of fine wine, and of fine wine conversation.

Forced Ranking of CA Vintages by Decade [Bruce Cass] 
[1970 to 1979]  [1980 to 1989] [1990 to 1999] [2000 to 2009] [2010 to 2019*]
1970 9 1980 8- 1990 10 2000 2 2010 4
1971 2 1981 5 1991 3 2001 3 2011 2
1972 1 1982 3 1992 1 2002 5 2012
1973 10 1983 1 1993 6 2003 4 2013
1974 7+ 1984 6 1994 7+ 2004 6 2014
1975 6 1985 10 1995 9 2005 10 2015
1976 4 1986 7 1996 4 2006 1 2016
1977 3 1987 9- 1997 5 2007 9 2017
1978 8- 1988 4- 1998 2 2008 7 2018
1979 5 1989 2 1999 8 2009 8 2019
*numbers early in any decade subject to considerable change as additional years unfold

 

But there is a bigger question to be explored here: Must Vintage Charts always be subjective, or are there objective measurements which could be employed to predict the quality of wines from any particular growing season? A good example is crop size. Traditional wisdom holds that smaller crops yield more depth and concentration. Hence the technique of “green harvest,” wherein clusters are thinned following veraison (color change). Personally I do think crop size can indicate strong years. Side-by-side tasting of the same Napa Cabernets from 1990 and 1991 is an excellent illustration. Many CA Vintage Charts list 1991 as the superior year. No way. The crop in 1990 was cut by a late frost. Side-by-side I always feel the 1991 seems to have had 3 oz. of water poured in each bottle. I also feel 1999 ~ lowest yield of the last two decades ~ was a spectacular, very reliable, and somewhat overlooked vintage.

Unfortunately these illustrations do not tell the complete story. There are also several examples of the vintners’ nirvana ~ very large crops in years widely viewed as exceptionally good quality. 1997 and 2005 would be particularly strong evidence. I’ve always considered 1997 way too robust stylistically for my personal palate, but there is no arguing about its success in the marketplace. On the subject of the 2005 vintage ~ biggest yield of the decade ~ even I am on the bandwagon. No less an authority than Dr. Richard Smart, perhaps the world’s pre-eminent viticulturalist, says, “Great wines occur when healthy vines get fully ripe.” That is precisely what happened in both 1997 and 2005.

 

Overall Harvest Size in California  [Wine Institute]

YEAR MIL  TONS TONS / AC YEAR MIL  TONS TONS / AC
1990 2.14 5.558 2000 3.32 5.845
1991 2.62 6.834 2001 3.01 5.281
1992 2.53 6.64 2002 3.1 5.576
1993 2.62 6.599 2003 2.86 5.406
1994 2.62 6.437 2004 2.77 5.399
1995 2.53 6.007 2005 3.76 7.203
1996 2.17 4.987 2006 3.14 5.958
1997 2.89 6.174 2007 3.24 6.195
1998 2.53 4.99 2008 3.06 5.817
1999 2.62 4.729 2009 3.7 6.968

 

Which brings us to reports on vintage quality offered in San Francisco newspapers and on TV in early December each year. In 1995 I went to Australia, then in 1996 to South Africa, to work the crush at Coldstream Hills in the Yarra Valley then at L’Avenir Winery in Stellenbosch. Both trips were extraordinary experiences, both socially and physically. I went as a stagiaire, which is often translated as an intern, but in the wine industry should translate as well-educated, grunt labor. I was no spring chicken at the time, but I wanted to see the inner workings of a winery up close and personal throughout the chaos of a crush. I already knew what I would see as a journalist visiting a winery during the crush. In Australia and South Africa, I wanted to learn what journalists do not see during a crush.

I learned winemakers have to make hundreds of decisions by the seat of their pants. When I interview a winemaker as a journalist, I frequently ask how a wine was made. This is often two or three years after the fact. Winemakers routinely tell me how they planned to make the wine. It’s not that they’re lying to me; they just don’t remember all the small things that go wrong. When actually on the scene, I found the gap between plan and execution is actually a chasm. Grapes don’t ripen on schedule. Pickers are not always available exactly when you want them. Same with equipment. Things break. Quantities are frequently not as one expected.

Which leads to an interesting phenomenon. Winemakers like to talk about tough vintages! They don’t do this with consumers, and they only do it with writers once they come to trust the journalists’ scientific curiosity. But it makes sense. Winemakers have every reason to be proud of the magic they perform in difficult years. Doesn’t mean the overall, industry-wide quality of wines from that year is likely to be noteworthy.

On a different, but often entangled track, it would be hard for any winery owner to be entirely objective about vintage quality either. When asked which of your daughters is most attractive, wouldn’t the logical response be to point out the charms of your unmarried female child? Best vintage? “Why, coincidentally it’s the one I currently have for sale.” Doesn’t surprise me one bit when winery owners extol the virtues of a vintage which featured a really big crop. They’ve got a lot of that one to sell. A short crop may imply concentrated flavors, but it’s going to sell out quickly, especially if it is really good quality. So why waste media exposure on it when you could be hawking the vintage of which you’ve got warehouse(s) full?

 

SST ~ Seasonal Surface Temperatures (ºC) in the Equatorial Pacific Ocean [NOAA]


1970 to 1979

          1980 to 1989

          1990 to 1999

         2000 to 2009

          2010 to 2019

1970

DJF

1.3

1980

NDJ

-0.12

1990

DJF

0.43

2000

NDJ

-0.66

2010

NDJ

-1.37

1971

OND

-0.97

1981

OND

-0.14

1991

DJF

1.75

2001

NDJ

-0.15

2011

OND

-0.83

1972

NDJ

2.07

1982

NDJ

2.29

1992

NDJ

0.15

2002

OND

1.45

1973

NDJ

-2.09

1983

OND

-0.9

1993

NDJ

0.24

2003

OND

0.56

1974

OND

-0.86

1984

NDJ

-1.06

1994

NDJ

1.33

2004

OND

0.82

1975

NDJ

-1.72

1985

DJF

-0.46

1995

NDJ

-0.74

2005

NDJ

-0.71

1976

OND

0.75

1986

DJF

1.24

1996

DJF

-0.4

2006

OND

1.11

1977

NDJ

0.75

1987

OND

1.27

1997

OND

2.5

2007

DJF

-1.4

1978

OND

-0.17

1988

NDJ

-1.88

1998

NDJ

-1.39

2008

DJF

-0.79

1979

NDJ

0.51

1989

OND

-0.21

1999

NDJ

-1.56

2009

NDJ

1.76

Each figure is a three-month average. Hence ‘NDJ’ means Nov – Dec – Jan.

 

What is an ideal vintage in CA? That’s another quandary. Weather stations can provide objective data as to temperatures and rainfall. A Princeton Economics professor named Orley Ashenfelter has made a very strong case that he can predict auction prices on Bordeauxwines based on climatological data [http://www.liquidasset.com/feature1.html]. Hasn’t exactly been embraced by the industry, but his correlation does appear to work for Bordeaux. The problem in California is standards keep changing. A warm growing season, and hot – dry harvest (the features Dr. Ashenfelter looks for in Bordeaux), may produce fruity, forward, opulent Napa Valley Cabernets which sell briskly when they first come out (cf: the 2001 vintage). But do those CA wines have any cachet past their tenth birthday? 1974 was that type of year in Napa. The 1974 Napa Cabs mopped the floor with the harder, less ripe 1973’s when both were in the marketplace. Today most 1974 Napa Cabs smell like prunes, while many 1973’s are still in good shape. Collectors of California Cabernets need to think about when they will be consuming those wines in order to evaluate vintages. Long life for Napa Cabs probably does not derive from extreme ripeness.Each figure is a three-month average. Hence ‘NDJ’ means Nov – Dec – Jan.

Flooded Sonoma Vineyard

Drought years are another consideration inCalifornia. Some water stress on vineyards can serve to concentrate wines. After a lot of stress, however, the vines simply shut down, making awkward, unbalanced wines. Is it possible to measure El Nino / La Nina conditions in thePacific Ocean, and thus predict drought-induced vintage quality in CA? Not easily. It’s not even easy to predict CA drought based on El Nino / La Nina conditions.

In the table above an extended period of temperatures above 0.70 indicate El Nino conditions, i.e. warming of the surface temperatures in the Pacific Ocean along the Equator, which often brings rain toCalifornia. The opposite condition, an extended period of temperatures below – 0.70 indicate La Nina, i.e. cooling of the surface temperatures in the Pacific Ocean along the Equator, which often means drought for California.

 

Annual Rainfall at Placerville, Sierra Foothills [1,870 ft elevation]

 

1970 to 1979*

1980 to 1989

1990 to 1999

2000 to 2009

2010 to 2019

1970

- 1.33 **

1980

-13.38

1990

-10.87

2000

-11.65

2010

14.32

1971

-14.32

1981

24.14

1991

-16.77

2001

-4.31

2011

1972

5.59

1982

33.35

1992

9.26

2002

-6.32

1973

7.04

1983

3.99

1993

-14.3

2003

-26.81

1974

-3.32

1984

-12.26

1994

25.94

2004

13.76

1975

-23.6

1985

10.05

1995

3.97

2005

20

1976

-23.64

1986

-20.08

1996

11.21

2006

-13.73

1977

6.59

1987

-17

1997

21.22

2007

-16.87

1978

-5.73

1988

-7.22

1998

1.25

2008

-8.39

1979

6.28

1989

-12.01

1999

3.82

2009

-5.97

* Rainfall figures are from July, in the year of the vintage, thru June of the following year.

** Average rainfall inPlacervilleis 39.50 inches. Figure shown is over or under average.

 

Take a glance at 1976 / 1977. They were definitely severe drought years. [Note the rainfall figures in 1976 above run from July 1976 until June 1977.] See also 1982 / 1983 which were definitely rainy, flood years. In the first instance the Equatorial Pacific Surface Temperatures would have predicted the opposite. In the second instance the ocean temperatures were split ~ hardly a strong indicator.

At the end of the day California Vintage Charts are very complicated undertakings. They are open to many interpretations. They may work best for you in the same manner political speeches analyze current events, i.e. arrive at your conclusion first, then look to the Chart for whatever justifications it may offer you.

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