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It was a very good year

Winemakers are enthused about the 2012 harvest

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One of my early lessons about the wine business was learning that if you ask a winemaker whether a vintage, say 2011, was a good year, he or she would claim: “It’s the vintage of the century.” The funniest response I’ve heard came from winemaker Tobin James Shumrick of Tobin James Cellars in Paso Robles, during an educational wine seminar about his best vintage. He dubbed the best vintage “the one I have the most of right now,” meaning whichever vintage he’s selling. All kidding aside, winemakers are usually candid when discussing the vintage—which is up this year compared to the last two years, when Central Coast vineyards had lower-than-usual yields at harvest.

ARTIFICIAL SUN :  A Thursday night harvest begins on the far northern edge of Laetitia Vineyards near Arroyo Grande. - PHOTOS BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PHOTOS BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • ARTIFICIAL SUN : A Thursday night harvest begins on the far northern edge of Laetitia Vineyards near Arroyo Grande.

Only three weeks into harvest at Laetitia Vineyard and Winery, winemaker Eric Hickey reported they’ll be bringing in around 15 percent more grapes than they had during either of the last two vintages. During my visit with him at the winery, they had only harvested grapes for the sparkling wine program. That’s because sparkling wine grapes are always picked at lower sugar levels than grapes harvested for making still wines like Pinot Noir or Pinot Blanc. It’s still too cool for many varieties of grapes still ripening on the vines, which are about three weeks behind. That means they could potentially all be harvested within a very close timeframe, putting a lot of pressure on the winemaking and picking teams.

“It’s stacking up, and what is normally picked over a six-week period for harvest is now being compressed,” Hickey explained. “The weather has been cool and steady but it’s staying on the cool side and no big heat spike has been forecast.”

At the winery in Arroyo Grande Valley, they’re only about 2.5 miles from the Pacific, so they get full frontal exposure from the winds off the ocean, and he noted it can be anywhere from eight to 20 degrees cooler than the temperatures in Edna Valley.

“The quality of 2012 looks good, and this year it’s better than average,” he pointed out. “It’s all good. It will correct inventory problems.”

That forced the early release of his 2010 Reserve du Domaine Pinot Noir ($40) this year because the 2009 sold out. We tasted the 2010 Reserve and it’s a delicious, lush Pinot Noir that’s very well-made, available now at the tasting room.

“The 2011s are better than expected,” Hickey admitted. “It was the worst vintage we’ve seen in a long time, yet the wines turned out nice—that will be a surprise for some who dismissed the vintage.”

About five years ago, they started harvesting at night under floodlights, which Hickey said has several advantages: “The cool thing is that it’s cold outside at 50 degrees. The fruit gets down to that level, which is the temperature we want for cold soaking the Pinot Noir. When the fruit is cold it de-stems easier, and when we arrive in the morning it’s ready to be processed. He noted that when the fruit is warmer, it’s mushy and hard to work with.

VIENTE SIETE ANOS :  Rigo Castillo has been working for Laetitia for 27 years. This evening, he’s driving a harvest tractor that takes the grapes back for processing. - PHOTOS BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PHOTOS BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • VIENTE SIETE ANOS : Rigo Castillo has been working for Laetitia for 27 years. This evening, he’s driving a harvest tractor that takes the grapes back for processing.

“Another advantage is that the pickers like it better, there aren’t as many bugs, they don’t work in the heat, and they finish earlier.”

In SLO, winemaker Stephen Ross Dooley of Stephen Ross Cellars started harvesting his Pinot Noir from Edna Valley the second week of September. While admitting the crop is up, he noted that it’s not way up—and that’s very good.

“Over the last couple of years the yields were down, but 2011 was really exceptional,” Dooley remembered. “This year we had a great spring and a great growing season; the weather was just about perfect. We’re in full swing and it smells really good in here and it looks really good. The 2012 vintage can be very good, but we’ll have to wait and see.”

They just finished picking their Pinot Noir in Stone Corral Vineyard in Edna Valley, which was all picked by hand at night. He was also waiting on the Chardonnay to ripen enough to harvest, but described it as just around the corner.

“We’re moving at a good pace, the weather isn’t pushing us along like it did in 2010 when the temperatures during harvest averaged over 100 degrees,” he said. “This vintage is a warmer year with lower acidity, but the wines are ripe and lush.”

In Santa Maria Valley, Ariki “Rick” Hill, winemaker for Tantara Winery and his own brands, Labyrinth and Haka, is equally optimistic about the 2012 vintage: “It’s been very cool in the Santa Maria Valley. Harvest got off to a slow start, but it’s nicely spread out with no push to get everything in at once. We did bring in our Pinot Noir from Dierberg Vineyard and from the Santa Rita Hills, but it’s grown on the eastside, closer to Buellton where it’s warmer.”

He also harvested Pinot Noir from Presqu’ile Vineyard in Santa Maria Valley for Labyrinth.

Like his peers, Hill also said yields are up 15 percent, more than some growers expected: “The Chardonnay is taking longer to ripen this year. We’re not getting the heat, and Indian summer usually comes the first of October. There’s a little disease pressure with the late fog in Santa Maria Valley, which exposes the grapes to moisture longer. It means we have to pull leaves to get more sun exposure on the grapes. The 2012 vintage looks good: The acidity is high and the PH is low, we’re getting longer hang time, and I’m seeing incredible colors on the grapes.”

During spring wine festivals, we’ll have the opportunity to try barrel samples of the 2011s and 2012s, and I will be eager to taste these outstanding vintages.

Contact cuisine columnist Kathy Marcks Hardesty at khardesty@newtimesslo.com.

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