A Case of Fertilisationis Interruptus
The similarities between 2010 and 2011 are remarkable. As the remainder of the US has sweltered through record heat, coastal northern California has had another year of below average temperatures and above average rainfall. Indeed, the cumulative degree days (an approximate measure of the total time during the growing season that grapevines are sufficiently warm such that they can be metabolically active) and seasonal rainfall totals between 2011 and its predecessor are nearly identical, and yet I can say with complete confidence that the vintage characteristics will be completely different.
How can that be so, you might inquire? There are a number of differences, some profound and some subtle, that will ultimately differentiate the winegrape characteristics between the two vintages. Perhaps the most important single factor influencing grape quality in 2011 will be the number of berries in a given grape cluster, which is greatly reduced from 2010. The reason for this relative lack of grape berries is that, in 2011, the flowering of the grapes was rather prolonged, a bit delayed even beyond its late timing in 2010, and, for better or worse, intersected by a bout of cold, wet weather. In some instances (especially in our Tenma Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon and Dunaweal Vineyard Petit Verdot blocks in Calistoga), this resulted in a complete loss of unopened and unfertilized grape flowers from the cluster (a process known as shatter or coulure). In some Chardonnay and Pinot Noir blocks at Mitsuko’s Vineyard in Carneros, poor quality of fertilization resulted in shot berries (millerandage), a sort of crazy quilt of berries of various sizes throughout the clusters.
Shatter and shot berries provide a distinct natural advantage in 2011 that was not present in 2010, namely there will be less fruit to ripen overall in a cooler year. The more prodigious crop levels in 2010 forced us to cut a lot of grapes off of the vines early on as the reality of a cooler season set in. This year, we needed to follow this expensive practice (paying employees to cut potential profits to the ground) in only a limited number of blocks (one example paradoxically being our Graveyard Hill Cabernet Sauvignon, which bloomed at a different time than the Cab at Tenma Vineyard and did not shatter appreciably). However, lest you think that this luck of nature will permit us to coast to an easy harvest absent of hard work in the vineyard, it should be noted that the long bloom time period has translated into an attenuated veraison (the time in the growing season when the grapes soften, change color and begin to accumulate sugar), requiring us to be more liberal in pruning off clusters (or even parts of clusters) that lag significantly behind the main crop in maturity.
2011 is beginning to show other differences from 2010 as well. As one example, the cumulative degree days are beginning to increase significantly ahead of last year at this time, and the average peak daytime temperatures and average daily sunlight are greater as well. The millerandage in the Burgundian varieties typically indicates years of excellence in the Old World, and are annual characteristics of our favorite Chardonnay field selection, Old Wente (a heritage block of which is used as the base of our Hommage Chardonnay); thus, expectations are especially high for these varieties especially, perhaps even surpassing the excellence we achieved in 2010. However, as anyone even glancingly familiar with winegrowing is aware, the season can never truly be predicted until the fruit is “in the barn,” as the example of the 1999 vintage (the coldest vintage on record…until it wasn’t) makes clear. We can only do everything in our power using our state-of-the-art knowledge to set ourselves up for success, and continue in the complex dance with Mother Nature until the 2011 show is over.