What is Vintage and Does it Matter?

Wes Hagen discusses Vintage and how it is influenced by nature, weather and cultural practice. 

How is vintage different in Europe and California? 

What are the critical moments in the vineyard that dictate the quality and expressiveness of a vintage? 

Rainfall

Flowering

Critical ripening (July-September) 

Harvest

Video Transcript
AUDIO START: [00:00:01]

Well, hey, everybody it’s August 5th, 2013. My name is Wes Hagen, I’m the vineyard manager and winemaker here at Clos Pepe Estate Wines and Clos Pepe Vineyards. You can see the beautiful vineyard behind me. We’re right in August we’re kind of getting fired up for vintage so I started thinking about what is vintage? What does it mean? And how are things going to sort of be moving on from right now and kind of what’s the difference, why does wine get a vintage and so beverages and other fruits that are grown don’t? How does it affect it? What are the most important parts of vintage and how do they affect the final line?

I wanted to start first talking about the Old World and the New World. Old World we get this idea of vintage. In France and Italy and Spain vintage is so important because in a continental climate the weather can be so different that it really has a strong effect on the flavors and the character of the wine that’s made. So in the end the most important thing to remember is vintage is probably more important in Europe, perhaps in Oregon, than it is in California. In California we get all the sunlight that we need, generally the wines are fairly, adequately ripe every year that we grow wines. So as a result you can expect there to be less vintage variation in California wines than some of these other places.

Now, in the Old World, especially in Burgundy, France where Pinot Noir was born and finds it greatest and maybe its worst expressions, vintage is very important. And vintage is sort of a matter of will the grapes get ripe enough to make a good wine? So they really hope for a big, warm summer and a warm, dry period to get the grapes in. As a result in California it’s very different and for us we get all the sunlight we need, we get all the ripeness we need. We’re actually hoping for something completely different. We’re actually hoping for a cool summer to allow the grapes to have as much time to stay on the vine and ripen and develop character as possible. So the goals of Old World viticulture and California viticulture are completely different. In California we’re hoping for sort of good, long hang time, and of course in Europe they’re hoping for a bunch of heat to get the grapes as ripe as they need to so they can make wines that have some richness and some ripeness as well.

Then you can talk a little bit about the various things that affect vintage in California. I’m going to talk specifically about what I see here in the Santa Rita Hills, but all this could be applied throughout sort of west coast viticulture. Number one is rainfall. Rainfall is sort of the foundation for the vintage. If the soil profile is fully charged with water you’re going to have water at the root system of the vine and the vine’s going to recognize when it wakes up in maybe March or April that it has enough water to get itself through vintage. Now that’s really important. If we’re in a drought cycle like we are this year, we only had five or six inches of rain, so as a result we started having to irrigate in December, January, February three months in advance of bud break because we knew we weren’t getting any rain.

So the vines need a lot of water and of course rainwater takes salts out of the soil profile while adding irrigation actually adds salts to the soil profile so getting a good solid 10 to 15 inches of rain every few years is very important for cleaning out the soil profile and making sure the salts don’t become too restrictive to the roots. Once the roots are encrusted with salt you can imagine they don’t do a very good of transporting nutrients and water to the vines.

Now the next thing that I want to talk about a little bit was the flowering period. Now flowering usually kind of occurs in about June, late May, early June and we want good, warm weather during flowering. If it’s really windy or if it’s—it’s never raining here in May, generally, but if it’s too rainy or for instance it’s too windy and too cold we’re not going to get a good flowering. Flowering can impact the vintage. Usually 10 percent will either allow the grapes to fully flower and fully set or you lose maybe 10 percent in a bad set. I’ve seen a really, really bad set where we’ve lost 20 to 25 percent of our grapes because of bad, windy temperatures during flowering, a windy situation during flowering. But I’ve seen pictures of certain sections of France where they had a horrible hail storm during flowering and it absolutely wrecked 80 to 90 percent of their vintage. So flowering is a really critical part of vintage to get us to growing good grapes.

So we get good rainfall, we get good flowering, next we’re going to talk about sort of the period when the grapes shut off their vegetative growth cycle and really engage in the ripening cycle to get the fruit physiologically ripe. So what’s going to happen now is the vines are going to take most of their photosynthesis and focus that energy towards ripening the fruit. And of course we would like a nice, long hang time. A nice, warm, but not blazing hot weather, especially for Pinot Noir. Pinot Noir’s so sensitive that if we’re near the end of our growing cycle and we get 100 degrees we can actually lose two or three weeks of hang time and bam, just start having to pick the fruit right away. So this 70 degree, 71, 72 degree weather that we’ve been having this last week and that we expect to have for at least another week is just perfectly timed. We had some heat spikes. We had some warm weather. Now we’re kind of cooling now and letting everything sort of mellow into its sort of organic space.

A couple weeks from now we’ll be harvesting grapes at 20 bricks for sparkling wine, and about a month from now we’ll probably start picking grapes for still wine. So that’s that critical ripening period. We want a long, cool hang time. Of course, in Burgundy and in Europe they would be hoping for a lot of heat to get that last little bit of ripeness done before the rains and the hail and all the bad weather comes. Fortunately, living on the coast of California we don’t really have to worry about this. This is one reason why our vintages don’t have as much variation.

Then, of course, harvest. The weather during harvest really does matter. And that’s one reason why we pick all of our grapes here Clos Pepe at night. We start work at 9pm, we finish work at about 3 or 4am, then we go to the winery and we watch the sun come up as we crush and press our grapes. It’s a great, great way of maintaining better consistency of the fruit. So the fruit is picked at 45 degrees, 35 degrees sometimes. Usually we’ll get the fruit in between 45 and 55 degrees in the middle of the night and we crush it without having to use dry ice, without having to use refrigeration. We only have one chance per year per section of the vineyard to make great wine and I find picking at night, bringing the fruit in cold, without having to worry about the fruit getting hot, the skin starting to break, spontaneous fermentation, they production of volatile acidity. That’s what happens when you bring the fruit in hot.

So we lose sleep for 40 nights a year and literally put our nose to the grindstone and work all night, every night to try to get through vintage. If it gets rainy during harvest that can dilute the flavor of the vintage, if it gets too hot during vintage we lose the capacity to maintain a moderate ripeness. So long, cool hang time, long cool harvest is what we’re looking for while in Europe they’d be looking for kind of exactly the opposite. The riper the wine—if it gets ripe fast, it generally doesn’t have a lot of flavor, but it does have a lot of alcohol. If it gets ripe slowly it picks up a lot of character, a lot of color, a lot of flavor, and maybe less alcohol. Short, hot vintage makes sort of short, hot wine. Long, cool vintage in California tends to make delicious, rich sort of deeply colored, deeply flavoured wines.

So that’s about it. Leave some messages if you have any other questions or something you want me to talk about let me know. Other than that have a great week and we’ll see you next Monday.

AUDIO END: [00:07:34]