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?
There are over 35 varietals of grapes planted in the Paso Robles AVA, making up over 26,000 acres. Varietals differ from common, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, to obscure, such as Albarino. The kinds of grapes planted in a certain area can give you a real sense of place: what the weather is like, soil conditions, and more. So what do we have planted and why? I explore that here!
Paso Robles is well-known for producing great wines from varietals originating in the Rhone region of France. Currently, we have three Rhone varietals planted on the vineyard: Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvedre. This Spring, we will be adding one more: Viognier. We also have a traditional Bordeaux varietal, Merlot, planted and will be adding Cabernet Sauvignon this Spring as well. If you are curious about the differences between the varietals and why they work on our vineyard, read on!
There are currently 326 acres of Grenache planted in San Luis Obispo County, two acres at Paso de Record Vineyard. Originating in the warm climate in the South of France’s Rhone region, this grape is generally used in blends. We use it, combined with Syrah, for Randy’s Red. Another common use for the Grenache grape is to make dry rose wine, delicious in the Summer! The wines made from this grape are typically rich and high in alcohol, because of the high sugar content achieved before harvest, and contribute a wonderful fruit component when blended with more refined grapes such as Syrah. You typically get lots of bright fruit flavors, specifically cherry, in wines made with the Grenache grape.
The Syrah grape also originates in France’s Rhone region, but does well in both warm and cool climates. There are 2,770 acres of this versatile grape planted in San Luis Obispo County, which approximately 2,600 are in the more specific Paso Robles region. We currently have eight acres of Syrah and will probably plant more in the future. Syrah is a hearty grape with thick skin that does well in most climates. The flavor profiles of wines made from Syrah can differ greatly depending on the climate they were grown in. Warmer climate Syrahs typically have flavors of dried fruit, dark fruit, pepper and cured meats, and with an abundance of tannin, contributes structure when blended with fruitier varietals such as Grenache and Mourvedre. This grape is an important part of Randy’s Red but will also make a solo debut with the release of the 2010 wines this Summer.
Mourvedre is another varietal grown extensively throughout France and even Spain. While there are no specific number on the amount of Mourvedre grown in San Lis Obispo County (or the Paso Robles region) it is one of several red varietals that make up 150 acres of “other varietals” grown throughout the county. We planted one acre in the Spring of 2011 and are planning to plant one more in the Spring of 2012. We plan to use this grape to blend with the Syrah and Grenache to make a traditional GSM (Grenache / Syrah / Mourvedre) blend that are so popular in France, Australia, and now California! Mourvedre typically adds a spicy characteristic to these blends and on it’s own displays more spice and herbal characteristics than fruit.
Merlot is one of the most popular red grapes grown in the world. Originating in the Bordeaux region of France, there are 4,244 acres planted in San Luis Obispo County, 25 of those acres are at Paso de Record. Near perfect growing conditions are a must for a good Merlot crop. Even ripening is important to ensure lush flavors that are not overwhelmed by an herbaceous quality that occurs when the grapes are either under or over-ripe. This traditional varietal is typically soft, fruity and known for its great approachability. There are a range of flavors associated with Merlot, but we like the rich, bright, fruit that is achieved in our wine.
Probably the only more popular red grape than Merlot would be Cabernet Sauvignon. Widely planted throughout the Bordeaux region in France, it is also the most widely planted red grape in California. Currently, there are 9,540 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon planted in San Luis Obispo County, all of which are in the Paso Robles region. Typically more complex than Merlot, this varietal is rich in color and flavor. We will be planting 6 acres this Spring and have not decided yet if we will be bottling a Cab or selling all of the fruit. Other vineyards in our area grow Cabernet Sauvignon and we find them to be delicious!
The lone white grape varietal, we are planting two acres this Spring. Confined to the Rhone Valley in France, it wasn’t until the 1990’s that this varietal became popular in other regions. There are currently 333 acres planted in San Luis Obispo County. This varietal does well in the warm climate of Paso Robles and is more well-suited to the area than other popular white varietals such as Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc (although those are minimally planted in the region as well.) Viognier typically has a wonderful floral aroma and stone fruit characteristics. Sometimes, Viognier is co-fermeted with Syrah to add to the aroma of the wine. We are excited to experiment with this versatile grape!
I hope this quick education on the different varietals on our vineyard provides some insight to what is going on at Paso de Record, today and in the future!