…Or, All Signs Point to A Great Vintage in Napa Valley (with a little luck and a lot of work)
The following is a grapegrowing/winemaking update from our winemaker Richard Sowalsky:
Frequently, people will ask how a vintage year is shaping up. This question can be answered quite matter-of-factly, citing comparative statistics on weather, vine growth, fruit development and the like. However, I know full well that this is not what people want to hear. Indeed, what is really being queried is a prognostication of future wine quality based on what I have observed to date in the growing season. Essentially, this could be likened to asking a woman in her third trimester of pregnancy if her daughter will be a surgeon or an artist – the genetics and potential environment (nature and nurture) will set the stage for success, but other more fluid environmental factors will shape the outcome over time. Fortunately for me, grapevines are somewhat more predictable and, with experience, I am able to “guess-timate” a final wine quality outcome, assuming that natural conditions and other factors affecting the environment of the vine do not throw me (and the grapes) a curveball – something which is never guaranteed.
Let’s take the 2012 growing season in Napa Valley. The year so far has been characterized by low-normal rainfall, slightly above average temperatures (although fluctuating between warmer and cooler periods quite frequently) and abundant sunshine as compared to the past several years. This has resulted in balanced vine growth and very healthy leaf canopies, setting the stage for excellent fruit development. Small clusters bearing a moderate number of below-average sized berries further suggests a high potential for excellence. However, the growing season began late, and erratic weather during bloom resulted in poor set of grape flowers into berry fruit in some varieties, as well as a range in fruit “age” amongst clusters in other varieties.
In short, we’ve so far been quite lucky this season, but must take into account all of the quirks that we have encountered as well as any foreseeable circumstances we might experience between now and harvest in order to reap the best that our Estate vineyards have to offer. This requires a lot of intensive effort in the vineyard, all of which is timed to particular milestones in the growing season. For example, while green leaves are essential for conversion of sunlight into sugars that nourish vines and provide the building blocks for all of the taste, flavor, aroma, mouthfeel and color compounds which will ultimately end up in the wine glass, an abundance of leaves in the wrong location on the vine can shade fruit, diminishing quality through poor color in red wines, underripe flavors, bitter tannins, excessive tartness and increased disease incidence. Yuck! Yet, removal of too many of these excessive leaves at the incorrect time can lead to sunburned fruit (in a warmer year and with certain positioning of the vines within a block) and delayed ripening (in a cooler year). Double yuck! So, if we remove specific leaves at the correct time based on the individual characteristics of the vineyard block, then we properly hedge our bets against future environmental impacts (such as excessively cool, hot or wet weather later in the season) and my prediction of wine quality based on the overall year to date becomes more accurate.
The fruit on each shoot of the vine is “fed” by the leaves on its individual shoot. If there are too few leaves or too many grapes (it’s all relative), the grapes will never be perfect. And, until we learn how to stick new leaves onto a shoot, we’ll have to solve this dilemma by removing fruit. Yes, that profitable fruit that could become wine. On the ground. Gone for good. Bye-bye. Only, this fruit (and the remaining fruit, for that matter) would never have become very good wine (and certainly not excellent wine) if we did not cut some off as needed. But here’s the rub – if the clusters are removed too soon, the berries on the remaining clusters will have a tendency to swell up, making the finished wine less concentrated. And, if they’re removed too late, the remaining older leaves will have divvied up their resources already and not be of as much help as optimal to the clusters that remain. Again timing of this activity is key and, if performed perfectly, then the results from the growing season will be much more predictable based on the seasonal conditions, and wine quality predictions will be more precise.
Often, when the grape flower bloom and set is prolonged, there will be grapes of different maturities within a vine row, and even within the same cluster. This situation obviously makes it difficult to assess “perfect ripeness” which is so essential for finished wine quality. There are typically two times of year when this fruit maturity disparity can be corrected – immediately after set (when the berries of differing “ages” will be different sizes) and at veraison, the time during which berry softening and color change occur (and will occur sooner in the berries that set earlier in the season). As mentioned previously, if we decide to even out the crop by removing fruit showing delayed development after set, the remaining berries can swell up, diluting the future wine. More troubling, in warmer years some of the lagging younger fruit can “catch up,” meaning that there is a possibility of both losing money (through clusters cut off without need) and experiencing diminished wine quality. Instead, we don’t address this situation at this time, but rather wait until veraison to touch up the blocks and even out maturity by dropping clusters that are slow to soften and change color. And, because veraison can be fairly quick, this requires a lot of diligence in the vineyard with respect to timing. Another expensive finicky crop grooming that is critical to ensure I’ve got the perfect ingredients for my winemaking.
Wine is an amazing, living beverage, and thus there’s no way for me to be able to definitively answer the question of the ultimate quality of a perfectly-aged wine based on how grapes have developed at the mid-point in any given growing season. However, through judicious application of viticultural prestidigitation (grounded in science, much like magic), I can think forward from a given point in time of the growing season to attempt to predict final wine quality, barring extraordinary seasonal circumstances. Since we’re doing everything right in a beautiful growing season to date, I will go out on a limb to predict phenomenal wines from 2012!
If people had to associate a grape with a place, Napa Valley would conjure up romantic images of outstanding Cabernet Sauvignon. That seems only natural, as most wines seek to showcase a sense of place, telling the story of where that wine comes from. It’s quite fitting that the land/climate/soil, etc. (or, more elegantly phrased “terroir“) would come into play.
But here at Clos Pegase, we also produce another type of Cab that does just that…
Our Cabernet Franc, is one of our best-kept secrets. You may not see many bottlings of 100% Cab Franc, but we have captured the essence of the variety with the help of just under 5 acres of estate fruit planted to the lesser-known Bordeaux grape. Everyone always hears about Cabernet Sauvignon but Cabernet Franc, the lithest of the Bordeaux varietal line up, has a much longer tradition in the Bordeaux and Loire areas of France.
We think it’s high-time we paid some respect to the otherCab, especially given its roots (pun intended) and figured there’s no better place to start than at the beginning with a little-known fun fact: as most people are familiar with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc is half of the reason we have Cab Sauv to begin with. You see, genetically-speaking, Cab Sauv hails from two “parent” grapes: Sauvignon Blanc (yep, a white wine varietal) and, you guessed it, Cabernet Franc. Hence the name combination of Cabernet (taken from Franc) Sauvignon (taken from Sauv Blanc).
But Cabernet Franc’s history goes back even further than the 1997 DNA tests that proved Cabernet Franc was in fact the original Big Daddy Cab.
We’re talking 17th Century roots, with religious ties. It’s actually believed that the grape was first called ‘Breton’ after the caretaker of the vines at the Abbey of Bourgueil in the Loire Valley. A century later, plantings in Bordeaux were producing high quality wines, just in time for Cabernet Sauvignon to come into play and steal the show. As Cabernet Sauvignon grew in popularity, the similarities in the Sauv and Franc were noted, and later a formal DNA test proved that Cabernet Franc crossed with Sauv Blanc created Cabernet Sauvignon.
While this is all well and good, let’s get down to basics. What’s the difference between the two wines in terms of style, you may ask?
Often used in small percentages for the mid-palate fruit drive, Franc is typically a blending variety in Bordeaux, and has the ability to soften harsh tannins present with some of the “bigger” varieties (read: Cab Sauv and Merlot). Franc is lighter than Cab Sauv, and often has a tobacco-like note, though the characteristics vary based on growing location.
We are fortunate to have two very different vineyard sites for our Cabernet Franc. Mitsuko’s Vineyard, down in the cooler Carneros region of the Napa Valley, yields Cabernet Franc that isn’t unlike Franc’s historical home of the Loire, which is a cooler climate than Bordeaux. Darker fruit aromas mingle with pronounced pipe tobacco nuances, together with great fleshiness and racy acidity in the mouth.
On the flip side, we also have Cab Franc planted at Dunaweal Vineyard in Calistoga, a much warmer northern sub-AVA of Napa Valley. Bright red cherry fruit atop a more substantial tannin framework and opulent mouthfeel typify Cabernet franc wines from this Estate.
This gives our winemaking team the best of both worlds: cooler Loire-style Franc, combined with warmer Bordeaux-style Franc, buoyed by unique Napa Valley characteristics, that allow our Cabernet Franc to truly showcase what this variety is all about.
The weather has been so fabulous lately that I’ve been dying to do anything outside. So when Richard Sowalsky asked if I wanted to head to the vineyard with him, I jumped at the chance!
Here’s what I learned while I was visiting our Tenma Vineyard: