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!

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!

Veraison at the Walla Faces Estate Vineyard

If you’ve stopped by the vineyard in the past few days, you may have noticed a beautiful thing: Veraison has finally come to the Walla Faces Estate Vineyard!

Veraison is the process by which grapes turn from green to red. Before verasion, the grapes are simply getting bigger; cells divide and expand, resulting in larger and larger grapes. After veraison, grapes begin to ripen: the acidity of the grapes decreases, sugars become concentrated, and chemicals that give off herbaceous aromas degrade, leaving you with a beautiful, fruity scent. The berries will also get much softer. Prior to verasion, the grapes are very firm. Afterwards, they become much more supple. This is also the point at which a keen observer may be able to discern the characteristics of different grape varieties.

We’ve seen veraison in other vineyards in the Walla Walla Valley for weeks now, but the signs are just now appearing on our grapes. There are a few reasons that we see this difference. The first reason is the grape varieties that we grow: Cabernet Sauvignon, for example, takes a very long time to ripen. Vineyards that grow varieties such as Merlot, which ripens much more quickly, will see veraison earlier in August. Indeed, only our Syrah is showing signs of veraison. The Cabernet Sauvignon is usually two or three weeks behind!

The second reason that veraison occurs later for Walla Faces is because of the location of our vineyard. We are at a higher elevation than much of the Walla Walla Valley. Our vineyard is cooler during the Spring and Summer, but warmer during the end of summer, which helps give our wine a nice balance between sugars and acidity. (Our location also helps in autumn and winter. The warmer temperatures in cooler months help protect our grapes from freezing!)

In addition to being one of the later vineyards to see veraison, we are also one the last to harvest! This means we have many more weeks to admire our ripening grapes.

Photos taken at the Walla Faces Estate Vineyard on August 16, 2013.

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.