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Vines & Vittles: California continues its string of good vintages

By John Brown

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The importance of a quality wine vintage cannot be underestimated.

As a home winemaker, I know firsthand what a poor vintage in incompetent hands can yield. One year, confronted with a half-ton of mushy, moldy grapes, I produced a foul-smelling liquid that tasted not quite as good as turpentine.

But this year, there's some pretty good news for California wine lovers. The 2013 vintage is shaping up to be very good or, according to some prognosticators, even excellent. In fact, the harvest has already commenced with the picking of whites such as sauvignon blanc.

There has been a string of good to excellent vintages in California recently, with 2012 being generally regarded as superb. The 2009 and 2010 vintages also are stellar, especially for reds such as cabernet sauvignon.

Only in 2011, where rains fell during peak harvest periods, was the vintage considered poor. However, some wineries had the foresight to pick before the rains or the patience (and nerve) to wait until late in the season, and made good wines in 2011.

So how much should you pay attention to vintage reports in deciding which wines to buy? In general, these reports are helpful to use as a starting point. However, a region as large as California is full of very different appellations, microclimates and terroirs.

What is terroir (pronounced tare-wah) you ask? Terroir starts with the place where the grapes are grown. The vineyard location, its slope, topography and angle toward the sun are all part of terroir. So is the soil type and climate (including rainfall and other precipitation) as well as the type of vine or clone of the vine used.

There really is no simple answer to the vintage date question because there is so much variability from wine region to wine region. As a matter of fact, there are usually significant differences among wine-producing regions from within the same small geographic area. Vintage disasters in one area can be mitigated in another by Mother Nature, vineyard practices or good winemakers.

The individuality of vintages reminds us not to take things for granted in the wine world. It is a good lesson, and vintages like 2011 serve as reminders for us to dig a little deeper and find good wines in "bad" vintages.

So the next time you wish to know about the quality of a particular vintage, consult one of the many vintage charts available, but be aware that these guides can be general in nature and somewhat misleading. Always remember to trust your own palate.

Here are a couple of wines from two distinctly different vintages you might wish to try.

2011 MacMurray Ranch Russian River Pinot Noir ($25): An example of a wine produced from a "poor" vintage that is very tasty. From a very cool region, this pinot noir has cherry and cola flavors along with an earthy toasty oak aroma. Pair it with roasted salmon that has been brushed with soy, sriracha and ginger.

2010 Cantine Colosi Rosso Sicilia ($13): From Sicily, this Nero d'Avola red is full of ripe plum nuances and is a medium-bodied but rich wine. With excellent balancing acidity, try this with grilled Italian sausage and fried sweet and hot red peppers.

For more on the art and craft of wine, visit John Brown's Vines & Vittles blog at thegazz.com.


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