Last week, Mindy, Randy and I attended the largest wine industry conference in North America, the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium in Sacramento. It was three full days of interesting sessions, trade show browsing, Bachelor sightings, eating, drinking wine, and networking. I was exhausted when I returned home Thursday night!
One of the major themes at the symposium this year is the issue of weather. More specifically, how the climate change is affecting vineyard practices and the resulting fruit and wine. Keep in mind that there are many factors that impact the fruit, in this post, I give a brief overview of some common issues that most people do not think about when shopping for and consuming a bottle of wine.
In recent years, it seems that every region has experienced climate change and growers have had to alter vineyard practices to account for these changes. There are many ways in which the grapes and the resulting wines are impacted by these trends. One of the most obvious, and one that affects more than just grape growers, is the threat of drought. The amount of rainfall we get each year determines how much we will need to irrigate. When we don’t experience enough rainfall in the vineyard, we rely on the availability of water to keep the vines alive and thriving. Fortunately, we have a well on our vineyard. But, the supply of water is an issue that requires long-term planning, even for those that have access to water today.
Typically, after harvest, throughout the winter months, the vines are dormant and resting up for the next growing season. Cooler temperatures are required to keep the vines in the dormant stage. However, when we experience a warming trend, like we have this year, it impacts the vines by triggering an early “awakening”, making the vines more susceptible to frost which impacts the fruit set and ultimately the yield. There are things that can be done in the vineyard to delay the growing season, such as pruning late, but not every vineyard employs those vineyard practices.
Dormant vines before pruning.
While we have experienced this warming trend in months that are typically cooler, we have also experienced cooling trends during the summer months that are crucial for the development of fruit and can negatively impact the vines as well. One grower on the panel entitled “Quality Grapes and Wine in a Challenging Climate” pointed out that in 2003 there were 21 more days of necessary high temperatures to evenly and fully ripen his grapes than in 2009. That’s a big difference! When there are not enough hot days in the vineyard, harvest is pushed out further into the Fall which creates a whole host of other issues…
The grapes need to achieve a certain level of ripeness (sugar content) in order to be acceptable for harvest. When there is a cooling trend, it takes a longer amount of time to achieve this necessary level of ripeness. When that happens, vineyards can experience Fall rain that will delay harvest and create problems of disease in on the grape clusters. Warm weather and exposure to sunlight is needed to control the disease without chemicals, which, unfortunately, is not always an option.
Ripe, healthy grapes ready for harvest.
So what happens when we experience a “challenging” growing season in the vineyard? There are many steps that can be taken, both in the vineyard, and in the winery, after the fruit is harvested, to “fix” the problems the vines experienced. Many wineries (and therefore growers) are worried about the consistency of grapes and wine. Consumers expect a certain style each year from a particular label, which is to be expected. Every time I buy a Diet Coke, I expect it to taste the same. However, the challenge lies in the fact that Diet Coke plants (facilities, not the type that grow) do not experience the same challenges that the weather can have on grapes in a vineyard.
While the changing weather, or differences in weather year-to-year, can be “challenging” and create a lot of stress for those managing the vineyards, I would like to emphasis the fact that wine is an agricultural product. I encourage consumers to embrace the differences between vintages and realize that what you are experiencing is a larger story than what you see on the label. Think about the particular weather trends that occurred around you during the same year as the wine you are enjoying. Compare the same wine that is produced in different years (you can do this with Record Family Wines starting July 1st!) to get a sense of what you like in a particular vintage.
I understand how it can be comforting and safe to expect the same thing out of a particular wine each year as you do with other products you consume. But realize that it can be fun to experience these differences in style and that a “challenging” year weather-wise does not always mean a “bad” vintage. We still get quality grapes out of challenging years, even though it may take a little more work, and are excited to see how each growing cycle leaves a lasting imprint on the wines produced!
Do you prefer consistency in the wines you enjoy? Or are you open to embracing the difference between vintages?