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Wine: A harvest season gone topsy-turvy

Mother Nature must be laughing at us, because this year she turned our preconceptions of climate and wine vintage quality upside down.

Here in the East, where vintners are supposedly engaged in a quixotic quest to ripen grapes against humidity and a host of mildews, we’ve enjoyed what some growers call “a California vintage” after our torrid, dry summer. Yet in northern California, where vintage variation is supposed to be minuscule and growers leisurely leave grapes hanging on the vine just to see how ripe they can get – well, this was the coolest summer on record, and every time vintners tried to compensate, the weather took a nasty turn.

“This will be a great year for reds, with lush extraction and soft, ripe tannins,” says Jim Law of Linden Vineyards near Front Royal, Va. “Whites will be relatively low in acid and high in alcohol, which I call hedonistic. It’s not the style of wine I particularly like to drink.”

But then he brightened a bit and added, “They will sell well, though!”

The excitement was notable in other regions we don’t normally consider “wine country.” Long Islanders were happy to dodge the two tropical storm systems that took aim at the North Fork during September’s harvest. And in Michigan, the Kalamazoo Gazette reported that 2010 will go down in the books as the best year ever.

In California, the record cool summer and later-than-normal harvest has vintners talking of a “European vintage,” with lower alcohol levels. (Never mind that the excessively high alcohol levels California has become known for are largely voluntary – a result of the grower’s decision of when to pick.)

Europe, of course, has good vintages and lousy vintages, something California isn’t really accustomed to. It looks like Sonoma County has had one of its worst vintages in recent memory. The cool growing season prompted many growers to strip leaves from their vines in late August in a desperate attempt to promote ripening – then a sharp heat wave spiked temperatures over 100 degrees and sunburned the exposed grapes. The later-than-usual harvest meant grapes were still hanging when autumn rains came with a vengeance. Last weekend, four inches of rain fell across Sonoma County, with as much as 15 percent of the crop still on the vine, according to the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat.

Bill Smart, spokesman for Dry Creek Vineyards (http://www.drycreekvineyards.com/) in northern Sonoma County, said this year was “the worst I’ve ever seen.”

“The vineyards are so wet now, it’s not even possible to drive a tractor, much less harvesting equipment, between the vine rows,” Smart said Monday in an e-mail. Dry Creek (whose name seems ironic this season) had already picked its trademark sauvignon blanc, but still had about 100 tons of cabernet sauvignon to harvest. With more rain on the way, fears were high that the grapes might rot before they could be picked. “It’s a seriously dire situation,” he said.

Serious indeed for an industry that only has one chance a year to get it right. For us consumers, who would like our favorite wines to be consistently good year after year, it’s a reminder that nature sometimes has other ideas.

-- Dave McIntyre

By Dave McIntyre  | October 28, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Wine  | Tags:  Dave McIntyre, wine  
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