Bon Courage | December 2011
In early September 2011 I was dining with Jean Philip Roby, a visiting consultant from Bordeaux. We had just dodged a bullet by the name of Hurricane Irene, but were in the midst of the constant unending rains of Tropical Storm Lee. Jean Philip does not carry the stereotypical pessimism that seems to be the trademark of many of my French colleagues. In the time that I had known him there was always a refreshing optimism that spirited me on. Even though we had suffered from some gloomy days at the beginning of his visit, he was encouraging. However, within the span of a few days of unrelenting showers from Lee, we could feel his demeanor change. Jean Philip was to depart the next day. I asked him for a final word of advice. After a long silence he said “bon courage”.
I knew we were in trouble. Bon chance would have left hope and the possibility of getting lucky, but bon courage is what one musters up after the unfortunate event. My intention is not so much to write about vintage 2011, but to address exactly how a winegrower technically and emotionally faces the slow moving train wreck of a soggy vintage.
First we must understand why things were so bad. 2011 was a relatively easy and cooperative growing season through the spring and summer. We were sitting pretty with a healthy, balanced crop and happy vines. This part of the growing season is analogous to a sports team having a successful regular season and making it to the playoffs. In winemaking terms, the weather during September is our Super Bowl. What we want are dry, sunny warm days and cool nights. What we got was a month of tropical depression.
Late season rain is bad for the wine for three reasons: 1. The vines roots absorb water from wet soil and transfer it to the grapes making the juice dilute. 2. Lingering rain provides perfect conditions for rot to develop. 3. If it is raining, the sun isn’t shining and photosynthesis is reduced.
When a potentially great vintage goes south, a winemaker’s job is to get a grip, face reality, and make the best wines possible. This is technically challenging, but perhaps even more so it can be psychologically traumatic.
I have to play mind games to ward off depression when it rains during harvest; otherwise my decision-making abilities become compromised, not to mention that nobody wants to be around me. During harvest 2011 I had to work hard on keeping myself mentally healthy.
When it is raining all day I feel like a caged cat. The best thing I can do is keep busy and take on projects not related to grapes or wine. It is also wise to stay away from the computer as I find myself incessantly checking the radar to see what will happen next. In 2011 it was rarely good news.
Rain at night is like Chinese water torture to winegrowers. I cannot sleep when I hear rain during harvest. I have to turn on my ceiling fan on high to provide white noise.
I stay out of the vineyard when the vines are wet. The crop always looks worse than it is when the weather is inclement. It is better wait until the sun shins to inspect the vines. They usually look better. It is too easy to panic pick if things don’t look good.
I do all this because once it truly is time to harvest I have to make good decisions. This can only happen if I am well rested and optimistic about the potential of making good wine. When a winemaker is tired, the goal is to process grapes to wine as quickly and efficiently as possible. When rested, the goal is to do what is best for the wine. This rarely includes short cuts.
It is equally as important to step back from the routine of harvest and crush, pausing to question and reflect on what is going on. Some of my most valuable winemaking decisions come at night when I am sitting on my back porch doing nothing but starring at the moon, or at least the misty glow of the moon.
I constantly refer to my libraries during crush, especially when the vintage is atypical. I have two resource libraries. One contains books and journals in my study; the other comprises years worth of wine purchases in my cellar. As the vintage unfolds I begin my studies, researching similar vintages in Europe. Last year’s vintage (2010) led me to focus on Europe’s notoriously hot and dry 2003. I especially got great insight from interviews of producers of red Bordeaux and white Burgundy. For 2011, I focused on Germany’s 2000, Alsace 1998, and Bordeaux 2007. These were rainy harvests that challenged winemakers. Some made good wines. Others didn’t. Why? There is no substitute for reading about benchmark producers’ philosophies and techniques followed by tasting the final product. This information provides a roadmap and a plan that is important when one feels under siege.
Respect the vintage
Perhaps what I learn most is that regardless of region or grape, the great wine producers know how to respect the vintage and have faith in their vines ability to show its terroir. Many people are under the impression that winemakers are chemists. While this may be the case in some of the more industrial operations, great winemaking isn’t about recipes or adding stuff from a bag. In the tough vintages a winemaker needs to tune into what is good about the grapes and then make the rest of the wine fall into harmony around this specialness. In this sense the winemaker is an interpreter.
The beauty in 2011 wines is their acidities. They are very high, but they give freshness and length to the wine. In white wines this acidity has to be supported by minerality and the delicacy of lower alcohol. With red wines from 2011 we had to be very gentle in our extraction techniques so as not to pull out too much astringency or bitterness which could clash with the higher acidity.
I’m now excited about vintage 2011. The wines will start to show their character during the winter. I anticipate some surprises. Most importantly these will be wines that reflect their time and their place. And that is the goal.
Flavor, December 2011