It has overwhelmingly been the most popular question of the fall,
"What does all this rain mean for the grapes?"
Well...the short answer would be it is exactly what we hope not to happen at harvest and it creates a wicked spike in my blood pressure. That said, when have I ever given the short answer? If I could have this harvest all over again would I pray for no rain, absolutely! But, the Vintage is not as bad as some are making it out to be. We seem to have forgotten that we did have a brilliant summer leading up to the harvest season. I have heard comparisons to the 2003 vintage which is really quite crazy. In 2003, the rain started in April and never really stopped. There was simply no real ripening in 2003.
The 2011 vintage will really be a test of several aspects:
1) Vineyard sanitation
2) Vineyard yields
3) Trellis systems
4) Vine age and root depth
5) Soil drainage capability
6) Risk vs. Reward policies
7) Winemaking ability
To start, vineyard sanitation is always important. That does not however mean that it needs to have excessive amounts of chemical spray. If the vineyards are well maintained with a properly managed canopy and the fruit is not laying over each other, what spray and air that does get to the vine, can achieve more effectiveness. It is also important to have maintained a healthy vine throughout the entire growing season and pay close attention even when the pressures seem low. If there are mildew spores present as you lead up to a wet month like September, it will be nearly impossible to stay on top of it when the pressure gets bad. Luckily, this year our vineyard looked meticulous which gave us a better chance to hang through some of the rain and get what ripening was available.
Vineyard yields are one of the most heated debates among growers. Obviously if someone is buying fruit from you by the ton, then more sounds better and really can be for the grower. This is why we prefer to purchase by the area from any of our outside vineyards, or even lease the entire property. This gives us better control of the yields. This year that was vitally important. If a vineyard was growing substantial yields (anywhere over 3 tons per acre) this year it will have been incredibly difficult to ripen at all. With our vines they are generally aimed to be between 1 to 2.5 tons per acre and we have slightly higher vine density than most at around 1350 vines per acre. This means less fruit per vine. We only allow one cluster per healthy shoot and none on a shoot that is not 100%. This meant a lot of our fruit was further developed with flavor and physiological ripeness than many that had excessive yields thinking the hot summer would ripen more fruit. People will argue all the time about having more fruit for balance, or that 4-5 tons per acre is not excessive, but the reality is, lower yields often offer better ripening, better concentration, and more even ripening. It is more expensive, but in years like this year in particular it pays off hugely.
Trellis systems are crucial in moisture maintenance. There are several styles of training systems that include split canopies, vertical shoot positioning, etc. Unfortunately in years like 2011 if the canopy is too dense or divided it is simply too hard to have good maintenance on all the leaves and there are several pockets that will hold moisture which you need to dry fast in years like this. Split canopies this year were also problematic where 25% to 50% of the shoots were trained downwards because it kept the shoots too close to the wet ground. There was also a lot of weed and under vine growth this year from the rain which would then get intermixed with the canopy making it impossible to dry out and in many cases this bottom half of the trellis lost all its canopy earlier. These leaves are needed to generate sugar and ripening so the lower half of the canopy would be lesser quality. Luckily, most of our vines are Vertical Shoot Positioned and are cane pruned (all on Nevaeh are like this) which means the shoots are directed upwards away from the wet ground, get whatever sunlight was available and is not a dense canopy so it was easier to maintain.
Vine age and root depth is critical in assessing how vines will uptake water in years like 2011. This is where older vines pay off. If the vine has been around long enough and is not excessively irrigated (we no longer irrigate at all in any vintage) then the roots dig deeper. This is helpful in wet years because so much of the soil moisture is at the surface and it is helpful in dry years because the vines can often still uptake the water needed for survival from deeper subsoils. This year we definitely saw that some of our younger vines struggled more than the older vines. By this I mean we were able to physically see the size of the berry growth far more in younger vines due to heavier dilution. So the simple fix was how we went, and simply harvest them separately as micro blocks so that they could be treated differently in the winery and assessed later on.
Soil drainage capabilities vary all over Virginia. Some of our vineyards have heavily compacted clay that can hold lots of water and some are shallower clay soils with more limestone and granite that allows drainage. Each block from each vineyard had to be assessed this year to better understand the water up take. Were any of them dry, well no, but there were some that were less impacted then others. Once again it was simply telling us to harvest the micro blocks separately to preserve some of our best fruit.
Risk and Reward are not words tied only to wine growing, although some of us Winemakers think we are the only people doing this analysis so often in years like 2011. It was very hard to gauge when to pick this year. On one side you were saying to yourself "This needs to come off or we will simply lose more crops." On the other side you were saying, "But it's not ready". Ultimately we took the approach that we always take and that was quality over quantity. We lost a good amount of crop by simply dropping fruit or leaving it on the vine. We took some risk and let the grapes hang until as close to maturity as possible this year. We were once again one of the latest to finish (really we are not even finished yet with Mourvedre, some Cabernet Franc still hanging and Cabernet Sauvignon still drying on straw mats) because we held off. There was still ripening happening during this rain. The seeds were still developing, and the skins were ripening to release better color and softer tannins. There was not a lot of sugar development in September, but that is only one parameter. We actually stopped checking sugar in the vineyard to not allow it to change our thoughts. Our risk of letting the fruit hang longer did result in some lost yield, but we firmly believe we were able to get some fruit of a more superior quality than if we had simply played it safe.
Winemaking for once actually does play a bigger role in years like this. There are a lot more decisions to be made by good Winemakers in years like this. Even with all the steps above, we were dealing with more rot and dilution than any normal year. Every lot had to be analyzed closely for flavor development, berry weight showing dilution, seed ripeness, etc. This year we did a few things differently than most years. We did use enzymes on our white wines to accelerate settling to get clean juice for ferments and to settle out more botrytis that was often on the fruit. We have done shorter fermentations on our reds to not allow as much time on the seeds and skins trying to extract color fast while not over extracting tannins that were greener than in past vintages. We did more small lot fermentations to micro-manage each block more. In fact, we did not even use our four largest tanks in the winery this year which was quite an accomplishment. It was very fast paced, where we are normally quite relaxed with our winemaking and most of the ferments this year we did use the safer commercial yeasts that are available instead of our general indigenous yeasts that we prefer. One really cool thing that we did this year that we would have never dreamed about in the past is some appassimento. That is simply a process that is used in North East Italy for Amarone wines. It is the process of allowing the grapes to dry prior to processing them. It is also known in other ways like Passito or Vin de Paille but is generally used for dessert wines. We did this with some of our Petit Verdot, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon. Some are actually still drying on these straw mats as they average being out there about one month before we get the concentration we are looking for. Overall, for winemaking this vintage has encouraged us to micro-manage even smaller blocks and smaller fermentations as well as experiment to make great wine in a year many are saying is quite challenging.
The 2011 vintage certainly was not ideal but we really don't think it is as bad as many people are saying. There is definitely some dilution causing issues with intensity, but if managed properly there was still a chance to get some good flavor and physiological ripeness. It was certainly a year that took a great attention to detail and won't garner the results of 2007 or 2010, but with most of the wines finished fermentation we are quite pleased with a lot of what we taste. We tended to make wines with more elegance and subtleties as apposed to pure power, intensity and complexity. It is a vintage whereby many wines may be ageable due to their brighter acidity, but we will have to wait and see if the fruit intensity remains powerful enough for aging. It was not a year we normally wish for, but there are some gems that we can't wait to share with you.