Wine 101: What’s the Deal with Vintage?

“Vintage” means one thing when you’re talking about dresses from the forties or that cool thrift shop you’ve always meant to visit, but it means something entirely different when it comes to wine. I’ve always been vaguely aware of this, but unsure of how what exactly it means or, more importantly, how significant it is to making and choosing the perfect wine.

What makes a wine a vintage?

“Vintage” comes from the French “vin,” meaning simply wine. A wine’s vintage refers to the year its grapes were harvested. In France, the USA, and Canada, to be labeled as a vintage, a wine must be made from 95% of grapes harvested that year. Wines from other parts of the world sometimes have up to 15-25% of grapes from other years in their “vintages.”

Why does the vintage change the quality of the wine so much?

“Vintage variation” is the difference in taste between same wines from different years. Sometimes it is barely noticeable and others it can be very striking! This variation all depends on the way the weather influences the grapes during a given growing season.

A good vintage means the weather was well-balanced throughout the entire year. Not too much rain, not too cold or too hot, no unexpectedly harsh hailstorms… This type of balance allows the grapes to ripen evenly and slowly. Too much rain can cause the grapes to rot, while too much intense heat makes them overripe and increases the taste of alcohol in the wine. Lots of rain right around the harvest can leave grapes flavorless and watery. Even the smallest imbalance of weather, be it “too much” or “too little” of any factor, changes the wine.

Interestingly, a bad year for reds could be a good year for whites. A “cooler vintage,” meaning a year growing season with colder temperatures and perhaps more precipitation, can be a death wish for full, spicy red wines but create whites that are pleasantly crisp and acidic.

a quick look at vintages in the last ten years from www.winefolly.com

A quick look at vintages in the last ten years, from www.winefolly.com

Likewise, as this “overly simplified” vintage chart from Wine Folly illustrates, a bad year in France could be a good year in Washington, since weather varies so much between regions.

Does the vintage always matter?

To some extent, yes—wine is an agricultural, not an industrial product, and thus the climate and weather will always influence the way grapes turn out.

However, very decent wines can be made from not-so-decent vintage years, which is often where the skill and craftsmanship of winemakers comes in.

Wines that aren’t from the best vintage years often benefit from aging and can turn out great if they are cellared and stored for a few more years!

Further, some regions have less volatile climates than others. California, for example, is one of the biggest producers of wine in the world, but the weather is so dependably, consistently good that the vintages do not change much from year to year. For California wines, the vintage is not always important.

On the other hand, the famous Bordeaux and Burgundy regions in France are places where the vintage matters very much—and their good vintages are so well known that wine merchants often find it difficult to sell Bordeaux wine from an “off” year, even if it is quite good!

Here in the Pacific Northwest, vintage also matters. While the weather is a little easier to count on in the Walla Walla Valley than in the western part of the state, Washington in a place with lots of variation in our weather. Sometimes it snows in the winter and sometimes it doesn’t, and spring doesn’t have an arrival date—it pretty much comes whenever it feels like it!

While it is definitely not the only factor that makes a wine “good,” vintage is a great thing to know about when tasting or buying wine in Walla Walla!

Walla Faces 2013 Syrah: Harvested!

At the Walla Faces Estate Vineyard, we grow two of Walla Walla’s signature grape varieties: Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon. These two grapes ripen at different rates, meaning we need to harvest on different dates. The Syrah grapes are always ready to pick before the Cabernet Sauvignon.  The Cabernet grapes are usually 2-3 weeks behind the Syrah in terms of being ready to harvest.

As predicted, the warm summer weather bumped up the date of harvest significantly.  Last year, we harvested our Syrah grapes on Halloween. As the Tasting Room staff handed out candy to swarms of Walla Walla youth, Rick, Debbie (owners) and our vineyard staff were hard at work harvesting the grapes! This year, we harvested the Syrah almost a month sooner: on October 5th.

As winemaking has progressed, it has become increasingly scientific. In centuries past, vineyard owners decided when to harvest based on taste alone. Now, most wineries use quantitative analysis to ensure that their grapes are top-notch at harvest. At Walla Faces, we do a bit of a hybrid. On Thursday, October 3rd, we brought our grapes to ETS Laboratories, an analytical lab that provides services to Walla Walla wineries. There, we measured the sugar, acidity, and pH. Our grapes tested at 26 Brix (26% sugar), suggesting that harvest should be imminent. These slightly higher sugar levels help us ensure that the flavors of our wine are fully developed before we start crush. However, we feel that you cannot harvest based on numbers alone. Our second step is to go through the vineyard and taste! We are immortalizing this flavor, so it has to be perfect. Rick and Victor de la Luz (Assistant Winemaker) tasted the grapes and found them excellent.

 

“We spent Friday rallying the troops!” Debbie, a Walla Faces owner, noted.

Victor called our vineyard crew to see if they were available to pick on Saturday.  Fortunately, they were available to pick Saturday morning.

On Saturday, the weather was brisk, but sunny, in the high 60s. Ten people, including Victor and the two owners, Rick and Debbie, hustled. They managed to harvest our grapes in three hours. From there, the grapes were brought to the Walla Faces Winery for crush. Rick, Victor, and helpers sorted the grapes and crushed them, finishing at one thirty Sunday morning!  The Syrah grapes are now fermenting on their way to becoming our 2013 Syrah.

Although the Walla Faces 2013 Syrah is well on its way to your table, the big task is still yet to come. We have 7.5 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon that are yet to be harvested.  We will start harvesting these grapes next week.

Warm Weather Indicates an Early 2013 Harvest

If there is one word to describe the summer of 2013 in Walla Walla, it is hot. It’s been the second warmest summer on record. The blazingly sunny days have only been outmatched by the incredibly warm nights. As the Washington State University Agricultural Weather Network noted, “Warm, warmest, and warmer is the best way to characterize the 2013 summer season.” This weather pattern suggests that we’re likely to see an early 2013 harvest.

Washington state as a whole averaged more than two degrees above standard weather. The heat also started early this year. In Walla Walla, we were hitting high temperatures by the beginning of July. August was equally hot; it was the warmest that it has been since 1991. During this time, Walla Walla stayed characteristically dry, with only 0.15 inches of rainfall in August. This dry weather is ideal for wine growing, since it allows winemakers to completely control the amount of water that grapes are exposed to.

What does the summer heat mean for the Walla Faces 2013 Harvest?

Rows of Cabernet Sauvignon. Taken at the Walla Faces Estate Vineyard on September 9, 2013.

This heat decreases the amount of time that it takes for grapes to ripen. After veraison, the grapes throughout the Walla Walla Valley began to ripen quickly. This quick ripening process means that the berries are smaller than usual, making their flavor more concentrated. This will create an intense, flavorful wine.

The Walla Faces Estate Vineyard is at a higher elevation than the rest of the valley. As a result, we have a more temperate climate. Consequentially, veraison and harvest are usually a little later for us than they are for the rest of the valley. However, the warm weather is definitely bumping up the date of the 2013 harvest.

A few storms and some anticipated cooler temperatures will probably slow down the ripening process in the next few weeks. Still, we expect an early harvest date and some bold, fruit-forward 2013 vintages thanks to the weather!

A look at the Walla Faces 2012 harvest!

 

The decision about when to harvest is one of the most critical steps in the wine-making process. If you harvest too early, the undeveloped tannins will lead to a grassy flavor and a bitter wine. If you harvest too late, winter weather conditions may destroy the entire crop.

Walla Faces harvests our grapes later in the year than most other wineries, a luxury afforded to small vineyards, to ensure that the grapes have had sufficient time to mature. Our pesticide- and herbicide-free vineyard is 10 acres of juicy Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah grapes, two varietals that take longer to reach the ideal sugar and acid level. For 2012, Walla Faces is also producing a Tempranillo and a Merlot blend that use grapes from other vineyards. Tempranillo, whose name comes for the Spanish word for “early”, matures quickly. Consequentially, our 2012 Tempranillo was well into its time in the barrel by the time we harvested our Cab and Syrah.

This year, we harvested on October 31st and November 1st. In the days preceding harvest, we kept a very close eye on both the ripeness of the grapes, testing them for sugars and acids to ensure a perfect product, and on the weather, waiting for clear skies. On Halloween, we had a perfect storm of beautifully ripened grapes and crisp, dry conditions.

Every year, we assemble a crew that handpicks our grapes off the vines. They move quickly, allowing us to completely harvest our grapes in a mere two days.

When harvest is over, the grapes are immediately taken to be crushed at a crush pad. Unlike table grapes, wine grapes do not last once they have been picked, so they need to be crushed immediately.

If you have a patient palette, be sure to keep an eye out for the 2012 vintages from Walla Faces. It was a perfect harvest, so our wines are sure to be wonderful as well. In the meantime, drop by the Walla Faces Tasting Room at 216 East Main St. and pick up a bottle of the 2008 vintages.

October at the Walla Faces Vineyard

Cab_SauvIt’s October and starting to get a little chillier in Walla Walla! Even though many of us are starting to abandon our summer apparel of shorts and tank tops for sweaters and hot beverages, the grapes at the Walla Faces Estate Vineyard are still soaking up the sun.

Leaving the grapes on the vine longer allows for that perfect balance of sugar and acidity. Harvesting too early will mean that there is not enough sugar and too much acid. The resulting wine will lack aroma and will often have a “grassy” flavor. Because our vineyard is a very small 10 acres, we are able to be sensitive to changes in the weather, allowing us to harvest at the perfect time. Often, we hold off on harvesting until November. This year, we anticipate waiting another two to three weeks to harvest, depending on the weather. Harvest typically takes only two to three days of hard work.

rows_of_syrahThe luscious grapes aren’t the only thing vineyard visitors are likely to notice. Ever since the grapes underwent veraison, the process by which grapes turn from green to red, they have been a juicy treat for wandering birds. Consequentially, we use speakers playing a soundtrack of “birds in distress” to ward off hungry pests. Thankfully, even though this is the only pest-control measure we use, we have never had a problem with birds!

The grapes are not just a treat for birds- they are a treat for humans as well! When you bite into one of the Cabernet Sauvignon or Syrah grapes growing at the Walla Faces vineyard, you will be surprised by the opulent sweetness. Although the grapes are very sweet now, much of that sugar will be converted to alcohol during fermentation. Wine grapes are also smaller, softer and juicier than table grapes. The Cabernet Sauvignon grapes have a subtle hint of cherry with a deep fruitiness, whereas the Syrah taste almost like blueberries. This will contribute to the ultimate flavor of the wine, although these differences are significantly enhanced during the wine-making process.

Both the skin and the seed also hold important clues about the wine. The skins play an important role in the wine, giving it both its color and most of its flavor. Both Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah have very thick skins, allowing them to be robust, age-worthy wines. The Syrah has slightly thicker skin than the Cab, making the tannins more prominent in that wine.

The seeds help give clues about the ripeness of the grape. As the berries ripen, the prominent seeds inside the grapes change from green to brown. Looking at the seed color is a quick and easy way of assessing ripeness.
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Overall, our grapes are coming along very nicely. File this away for future knowledge: 2012 is sure to be an amazing vintage!

All photos in this post were taken Saturday, October 6, 2012 at the Walla Faces Estate Vineyard.

Why Walla Walla for Wine?

There are about 700 wineries in Washington state, making us second only to California in wine production. Over 100 of these Washington wineries are situated in the Walla Walla basin. So what helps our beautiful grapes grow so well in this area?

Walla Walla means “many waters” in the Native American language Sahaptin. These waters flow down to this small town at the foot of the Blue Mountains, irrigating the 1,800 acres of grapes that grown in the region. In addition to vineyards, Walla Walla is known for its orchards, wheat, and onions, all of which benefit from the amazing rivers that flow throughout the area. Because Walla Walla does not get much rainfall, growers can perfectly control the amount of water their grapes receive for the most delicious product.

Washington State
The complex history of the Walla Walla soil has also helped facilitate the wine industry. 15,000 years ago, glacial floods brought mineral-rich silt to the area. Heavy winds deposited a form of silt called loess into the soil, allowing for the perfect amount of drainage for the grapevines. Finally, volcanic eruptions covered the area in rich ash. Volcanic ash breaks down quickly and releases minerals when it is in contact with the sun, making it ideal for nurturing growing vines. (Indeed, most world-renowned wine regions, from Napa to France to Italy to Germany have benefited from volcanic ash in their soil.)

Cabernet GrapesBecause Walla Walla is on latitude 46°, just like the Burgundy and Bordeaux regions of France, it has long summer days and short, cool nights to create the perfect balance between sugar and acidity in the final wine product. Regardless of the stereotypes about Washington as a super rainy state, during the 200-day long growing season, Walla Walla has two hours more sunlight per day than California. Thanks to Walla Walla’s extended summer, grapes can be left on the vine longer than they can in most places. Walla Faces, for example, often doesn’t harvest until the middle of November.

It’s no wonder that Walla Walla has been producing some of the best wines in the country since in the mid-1980s.

The first grapes were planted in Walla Walla as early as the 1850s, but it wasn’t until the 1970s that the industry really began to take hold. Although Walla Walla originally gained notoriety for its Merlot, it is now producing some of the most delicious American Syrahs and Cabernets. 41% of the grapes grown in the Walla Walla Valley are Cabernet Savignon, followed by Merlot and Syrah. These luscious reds should not be missed. Our delicious white-peppery Syrah, smooth Fusion Cabernet blend and fruit-forward Reserve Cabernet all benefit from the amazing region where they are grown.

Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Riesling, Ice WineWalla Walla has even more to offer than the wine. Walla Walla has a myriad of upscale restaurants, a rich art and music scene, beautiful historic buildings, lush parks including a locally-run aviary, and a the longest-running symphony on this side of the Mississippi River.

If you want to visit these exceptional wine-growing conditions yourself, make your reservation at our hotel at the vineyard here.