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!

All About Rhône Wine Country

As anyone who has experienced the wines of Walla Walla knows, Syrah is one of the flagship wines of the region. Its deep color and full flavors have made Syrah one of the most notable grapes of the Walla Walla Valley. The history of the Syrah grape is long and mysterious, and while the Syrah grape–surprisingly–did not originate here in Eastern Washington, the region it comes from is a fascinating site of wine history as well as an exciting counterpart to our own home here in Walla Walla.

This, of course, is one of the oldest wine regions in the world — the Rhône, located on the Rhône River in southeastern France.

Rhône Valley

The Rhône is legendary for wine–although its scenery is breathtaking as well. Photo by Peter Gorges.

The Rhône is impressive simply for the sheer length of history that wine has in the region. As far back as 600 BCE, Greeks and Romans were enjoying and writing about the region’s wine. The varieties they described could either be Syrah or one of its parent grapes.  Scientists hypothesize that the grape we know today as Syrah was most likely cultivated for the first time in this region. One thing’s for certain: two thousand years later, the Rhône’s popularity and renown have only increased!

Generally, the larger Rhône wine region is broken up into two distinct sub-regions, the Northern and Southern, each with its own identity and flavor of wine. These fascinating regions combine the fertile climate of the south of Europe with the rugged chill of the north, to produce a variety of wonderful wines. They showcase the importance of climate on wine, and illustrate how even a small difference in location can yield vastly different grapes.

The northern Rhône region is hilly and full of steep, stony slopes carved by the river over thousands of years. It has harsh winters and mild summers, with a climate largely dominated by the powerful mistral wind, which brings in the cool air of northwestern Europe. This climate is ideal for Syrah grapes; in fact, Syrah is the only pure red wine that may be labeled an official regional product of the northern Rhône. Here, some of the worlds oldest and highest quality wines are grown and produced. It’s fair to say that the northern Rhône was the first Syrah country on Earth!

The larger Southern Rhône is a broad valley that straddles the river as it enters a more Mediterranean climate. This means warmer winters and hot summers, and a larger variety of grapes that can be grown. Reflecting this, the most popular reds from this part of the region are blends—which of course, almost always include Syrah.

As lovers of Syrah, we find the Rhône to be an inspiring parallel to Walla Walla. Hot summers, cold winters? Mountain hillsides and warm valley floors? A thriving industry with strong Syrah and a community that cares deeply for the quality of their wine? Hopefully in 2,000 years, we will still be singing the praises of Walla Walla wines as well.

Interested in exploring Walla Walla, the “Rhône” of Washington? Book a stay at our Walla Walla hotels to experience Washington wine country firsthand.

 Rhone Valley photo by Peter Gorges, released under a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license. Thank you, Peter!

What’s In A Color?

When doing a wine tasting, the first characteristic that we examine is the color of the wine. Although mere appearances can only tell you so much about a wine’s flavor, these visual cues can hold important and interesting information.

Here are some things to look for on three of our favorite reds: the 2008 Fusion, the 2008 Syrah, and the 2008 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon.

Can you spot the differences between these three gorgeous wines?

Five Reasons to Celebrate Washington Wine Month

Walla Faces Estate Vineyard

Walla Faces Estate Vineyard

What will you take home?

What will you take home?

March is Washington Wine Month, a month dedicated to the best of this region’s vineyards, wineries and drinks. But why celebrate Washington Wine Month?

1.  Wine is an important part of Washingtonian agriculture

Wine is the fastest growing agricultural sector of the state, with a 400% increase in the past two decades.

The state has 13 federally defined American Viticultural Areas, and 12 of those 13 are in Eastern Washington. 99% of Washington’s wine grapes are grown east of the Cascades. Thus, Eastern Washington is one of the largest producers of wine in the country.

Cumulatively, the state has over 350 wine grape growers. This wine growth adds up to 43,000 acres. As a result, Washington vineyards produce more wine grapes than any other state in the nation save for California.

2.  Wine is important to Washingtonian history

Wine grapes have been growing in Washington State since 1825. From there, they followed the moving settlers. German and Italian immigrants pioneered early winemaking in the 1860s and 1870s. By 1910, wine grapes were common throughout the entire state.

3.  Washington wines are diverse

Washington wines have huge diversity in both varietals and style. Unlike some areas, which may specialize in only a few varietals, our state offers high quality wine of many types. Whether you love Cabernet Sauvignon and Riesling or Syrah and Chardonnay, Washington wineries have many amazing choices of your favorites.

Almost equal amounts of space are dedicated to red and white varietals, offering the maximum amount of choice for consumers.

Washington wineries produce virtually every style of wine. Rosés, sparkling wine, fortified wine and ice wines are all produced here. Furthermore, innovative winemakers in Washington state are eager to try out new techniques or re-introduce more classical methods with a modern twist.

Of the 12 million cases of wine that Washington wineries product annually, there is almost certainly something for everyone.

4.  Wine is an essential part of the Washington economy

Washington State has over 750 wineries, a number that has more than doubled since 2005.

The Washington wine industry employs 30,000 full time workers inside the state. Wine supports everyone from farmers to machinery suppliers to laboratories to retailers. It also serves as a catalyst for other forms of commerce, such as tourism. In Walla Walla, our amazing restaurant scene is supported by tourists who visit to find the perfect Cabernet or Syrah.

According to a 2011 report by the Washington State Wine Commission, our state’s wine has a $14.9 billion annual impact on the US economy.

5.  Washington wines are delicious

Anyone who is familiar with Washington wines knows that there are some damn good wines here. Paul Gregutt, wine writer for both the Seattle Times and the Wine Enthusiast, observes that Washington wines are characterized by their purity, their ripe tannins and their bright acidity.

So, will you celebrate Washington Wine Month with us?

As Washington State Wine Commission president Steve Warner points out, “Washington Wine Month is a time to commemorate the hard work of Washington’s more than 750 wineries and 350 wine grape growers”. This month also allows us to honor Washington’s heritage, economy and agricultural industry… and drink some amazing wines to boot!

Walla Faces encourages you to celebrate Washington wine month by visiting Washington state wineries and vineyards. If you make it to Walla Walla, be sure to visit us too!

Holiday Wine Pairings

Holiday Placements

Winter holidays are made better with the perfect bottle of wine! Here are our tips for the perfect Walla Faces wine and food pairings this December. Don’t forget that Walla Faces is offering free shipping on six or more bottles until the end of the year, so it’s the perfect time to take home some holiday wine!

Red Wine

What should I serve with prime rib?
The Walla Faces Syrah has a beautiful white pepper flavor and an earthy boldness that pairs nicely with prime rib. Wine club members should also consider pairing their this luxerixous cut of beef with the Walla Faces Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, which has just the right balance of the tannins to be elegant without being too mellow.

What should I serve with a roast lamb?
The Walla Faces Fusion Red, a Cabernet-blend, is so smooth it won’t overpower a cut of lamb. The Fusion is also available in the 2006 vintage in a magnum size, which is perfect for holiday parties.

White Wine

What should I serve with ham?
The Walla Faces Riesling has enough fruity notes to truly enhance the flavor of your holiday ham, especially if it is glazed with succulent honey, which plays off the slight sweetness of the wine.

What should I serve with turkey or goose?
The Walla Faces Riesling is the perfect off-dry, allowing it to complement both white and dark meat, enhancing the complexity of your favorite holiday poultry.

What should I serve with latkes?
The Walla Faces Riesling has stone fruit flavors and a crisp minerality that cuts the grease of a fried latke.

What should I serve with dessert?
The Walla Faces Ice Wine brings a beautiful richness that pairs nicely with not-too-sweet desserts such as pumpkin pie, fruitcake or cheeses. And, of course, ice wine is the perfect dessert all on its own!

Fall Release Sneak Preview: Magnum Bottles!

If you have dropped by the Walla Faces Tasting Room in the past few days, you have probably noticed the large bottles on the edge of the counter. “Magnum”, which means “extra-large” in Latin, is the term for these generously sized bottles. A standard bottle of wine holds 750 milliliters. A magnum holds twice as much– 1,500 ml, or 1.5 liters.

Magnum

Magnum and a bottle of our Fusion

Wine takes longer to age in a magnum bottle because there is a greater ratio of wine to air. This ratio allows the wine to develop evenly and smoothly. Many wine experts believe that the size of a magnum bottle allows the wine to age with grace, increasing its complexity and sophistication.

Walla Faces is preparing for Fall Release, where we will be offering some of our most beloved older vintages in the magnum size. The 2006 Janice, a classic Walla Walla-grown Cabernet Sauvignon, and the 2006 Fusion, a delicious blend of 72% Cabernet Sauvignon, 18% Merlot, 7% Cabernet Franc and 3% Syrah, were two of the Walla Faces wines that helped give us our start. For long-time fans, this is an opportunity to try some of your favorite wines again, and to see how the magnum bottle enhanced their flavor and richness. For people who have been introduced to Walla Faces more recently, it is a chance to try a limited re-release of older vintages that are otherwise no longer available. Because wine in magnum bottles takes longer to mature, we have allowed our magnum bottles to age for an additional two years to ensure that they will have developed perfectly.

Magnums and bottles of Fusion and Cabernet

Magnums and Bottles of Fusion and Cabernet

Magnum bottles are the perfect addition to large events. You might want to consider bringing a magnum bottle of Walla Faces wine to Thanksgiving, Christmas dinner, or other holiday celebrations. The wine lovers at your table with certainly be impressed!

Walla Faces Magnums will be available for $99 apiece starting Fall Release Weekend, November 2-4, 2012.