“Un Petite Wrinkle”
By: George Balling
In one of the great wine movies ever made in my opinion, A Good Year, the real estate agent for the main male character in the movie played by Russel Crowe utters that catchy little line, “un petite wrinkle”. It turns out a vineyard and winery that Crowe’s character had inherited from his estranged uncle and is attempting to sell has a title problem due to an illegitimate child. The sale is jeopardized when the real estate agent delivers the news and the line. And so, the story unfolds. If you haven’t seen the movie do, it is a great one.
At this time of year when red wine grapes have turned from green to hues of purple every development in the vineyards around the world is watched with as much nervousness and anticipation as any pending real estate transaction. In the interest of keeping our word to update all of you on all of those changes we are sorry to do so but must share that there has been un petite wrinkle, especially in Northern California.
This is the time of year when every grape grower and every winemaker yearns for warm and dry fall days and cool fall nights, and please, please no rain. This keeps the wine grapes happy and disease free. It allows the chemistry of the grapes to come into line for both sugars and acids and in the best of years warm dry weather allows for extended “hang times” that allows the grapes to develop enhanced and layered flavors that make for the best wines.
Well, just last weekend much of Northern California including the “holy grail” of American Viticulture regions of Sonoma and Napa counties received days long sustained and heavy rain. Not what anyone was looking for or hoping for. In an extended conversation with one of our favorite winemakers he outlined the problem for us. It turns out they were close to picking their Grenache for their dry rosé, the grapes were at 21 brix, a measure of sugar that increases as the grapes ripen. They were targeting 23 or 24 brix and some enhanced flavor from hang time when the rains hit.
The rain immediately stopped any further ripening and with the potential for water absorption from the rain hitting the grape bundles our winemaker friend suspected the grapes might “back up” to maybe 18 or 19 brix. His next comment was the most concerning. “At that point will the grapes even get back to the necessary 23 or 24 brix.” The situation could be even worse for the later ripening varietals like Cabernet and Merlot.
There is some good news though. Temperatures are supposed to return to warm and conditions are expected to dry this week. While this will help it will further delay an already late picking season, increasing the chances that more wet weather can come into play prior to the completion of the harvest.
As we said in our last column regarding the harvest the vineyards of the Northwest were well behind normal. That trend continues especially with our own cool snap over the last week, it looks like picking will extend well into October.
The unpredicted rains in Northern California show just how fast a harvest can go from looking very good to facing substantial challenges. We will keep everyone up to date on the vintage as it moves forward and right now, we are hoping for all of our friends to have many weeks of warm and dry weather until they can proclaim, “and they are off”!
On another subject that concerns all wine consumers, I just had a conversation with a Washington based winemaker, and I gained some valuable new knowledge on the subject of smoke tainted grapes. The winemaker I spoke to has a substantial general science and chemistry background and presented a compelling case on the inability to treat and remove smoke taint from grapes that were in a fire zone prior to harvest. This particular winery had some grapes from their 2018 crop that had substantial taint. While the winemaker bulked most of the tainted wine out to a private label big box store, they kept a small amount around to experiment with. Through a series of reverse osmosis treatments and some other chemical “gymnastics” they found they were able to remove the smoke from the wine. The rub is though they also removed everything else, including all of the flavor, so the resulting “wine” if you can call it that was more like colored water with alcohol to use her words. For consumers the resulting advice is quite simple, there is never good wine that is made from grapes that have been exposed to wildfire smoke.