Wine Grape Growers Discuss Vintage Variation

Experts from Washington and beyond discuss lessons from state's difficult 2011 season

by Peter Mitham
Paul Draper, Gilles Nicault, Kent Walliser and Dick Boushey (from left) discuss vintage variation at the annual meeting of the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers.
Kennewick, Wash.—Keeping pace with variations in growing conditions and their impact on wine was a recurring theme at the annual meeting of the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers in Kennewick earlier this month.

The topic was central to the meeting’s initial session, which compared variation in Cabernet Sauvignon between the difficult 2011 season and the idyllic 2013 vintage.

‘No room for error’
Red Mountain, for example, where veteran grower Dick Boushey has been advising on the planting of acreage for Fidelitas, Duckhorn and other producers, described Cabernet Sauvignon as a variety that needs to be in the right spot—not for the good years, but for the bad.

“It’s a whole different approach, and there’s no room for error,” he said, noting that a bad year underscores just how much good wine is made in the vineyard rather than the winery.

“The burden for delivering ripe Cab falls on the grower’s back,” Boushey said.

Red Mountain saw 3,200 growing degree-days in 2013, but a mere 2,700 growing degree-days in 2011. The difference set harvest back three to four weeks between the two seasons.

Managing water
Cool, moist conditions during the 2011 season also played a role, highlighting the need for proper irrigation strategies.

“Overwatering at any stage is undesirable, especially in a cool year,” Boushey said.

Growers should give themselves options to handle what a given season delivers, he explained, noting that underwatering earlier in the season allows irrigation later in the season (an easier feat than trying to remove water from the soil or prevent its uptake).

Regulating irrigation ensures that even when a season delivers damp conditions, deficit irrigation occurs.

The majority of Washington vineyards employ regulated deficit irrigation, which limits the total amount of water a vine receives to induce stress for a set period of time. The strategy typically targets a specific outcome, such as a particular canopy size and density or enhanced phenolic development.

Jim Harbertson, associate professor of enology at Washington State University’s Irrigated Agriculture Research and Extension Center in Prosser, Wash., endorsed the idea, noting that less water earlier in the season promotes the development of anthocyanins, which contribute to tannin retention and wine color. Their development depends not only on light and ambient temperatures but also ambient moisture levels after véraison, when the berries are physiologically mature but coloring up and developing the sensory characters often tracked in the lead-up to harvest.

Whatever the season delivers prior to véraison, grapes need to be coddled as phenolic components that contribute to wine character and balance develop.

“Try not to stress the berries during the developmental period,” Harbertson said.

By managing the vines prior to véraison for ambient exposure of the berries to air, light and uptake of moisture after véraison, vineyard workers help winemakers.

“We’re thinking the same thing,” said Harbertson’s colleague Markus Keller, Chateau Ste. Michelle distinguished professor in viticulture at WSU, while speaking to the role of deficit irrigation.

The discussion was reinforced by perspectives from California.

Input from outside
Paul Draper, winemaker at Ridge Vineyards in Cupertino, Calif., said the 2011 vintage was “one of the wettest years we’ve seen,” as well as being one of the coolest in California in 75 years.

Wet conditions required workers to make as many as four passes through Ridge’s Monte Bello vineyard to keep growth in check, and even then the diminished harvest cropped at 2 tons per acre thanks to larger berries with less intense phenolics.

By contrast, the dry 2013 season produced smaller berries yielding intense wines. Cropping averaged 1.5 tons per acre with far less effort: Workers made a single pass through the vineyard to thin.

Of course, the work—or the lack thereof—to produce a wine is something lost on most consumers.

Focus on the product

“They’re not looking at the vintage, they’re looking at your product,” Corey Beck, president of Francis Ford Coppola Winery in Geyserville, Calif., told growers.

And when they look at the product, consumers want their expectations affirmed rather than disappointed. Beck said tools such as the Adams-Harbertson assay could help mitigate variations between vintages and guide the production of wines that are more consistent, but winemakers can never go solely by the data.

Speaking to Coppola’s 2009 Claret, the winery’s signature red blend, Beck said data regarding the vintage and composition of the grapes and the juice had allowed the winemakers to bring anthocynanins and tannins into whack.

“It gave us a great indication of what we needed to do with this blend to maintain consistency,” he said.

But the data merely supports the work of winemakers and growers to produce a vintage in the vineyard rather than scrambling to manage fermenting fruit in the winery after the fact. Knowing what’s happening in the vineyard will improve scheduling of ferments, Beck said, allowing winemakers to get more from equipment and reduce the cost of bringing wines into line with consumer expectations. Ultimately, this leads to an efficient, improved flow of wine to a thirsty marketplace.

Difficult lessons

But many of the lessons aren’t learned without tough vintages.

While much of 2011 was something Boushey would rather blot from memory, he doesn’t regret the lessons he learned during the season.

“I think it’s made me a better grower,” he said, noting that it should affirm Washington state’s ability to produce fine wines in what the state’s wine commission has billed as “the perfect climate for wine.”

“If (2011) is the toughest we get here, then we can handle it,” Boushey said.

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