Get Beyond Vintage

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in: Soapbox

Hourglass CEO Jeff Smith of the Napa Valley

Vintage and terroir are borrowed paradigms, bulwarks of the Old World adopted by the collective consciousness of a young and impressionable American wine scene. They represent powerful ideas and shape the way wine is produced, sold and enjoyed.

Of all the products humans create for consumption, none is more influenced by its physical surroundings — terroir — than wine. Wine’s flavor, texture and aroma are all products of how soil, climate and the natural ecosystem surrounding a vineyard interact with grapes. Vintage, a measure of time, is the yearly accumulation of mostly weather-driven events that affect the maturation of grapes. Consider vintage as the yearly expression of terroir. But in the U.S., have we properly framed our mind-set relative to these concepts?

When reviewing California wines, what I find intriguing is how producers, reviewers and consumers alike separate vintage from terroir. With wide sweeping proclamations from the media and industry, vintages are deemed “great” or “terrible” — as if the vintage conceit could exist without being influenced by the particulars of terroir. As you ponder the sea of reviews, talk to professionals or listen to consumers, it is common to encounter “vintage” referenced as a blanket evaluation of entire regions. Fortunes are won and lost on these proclamations.

In Napa, terroir trumps vintage

After 22 years of managing the Hourglass vineyards in Napa, I’ve become a strong proponent of the influence of terroir, and more wary of accepting broad vintage declarations, especially in California. Vintage, as we apply the definition, makes sense in regions where the variables of the growing conditions, such as sun exposure, rainfall and soil type are limited and consistent. The fewer the variables, the more evenly the popular interpretation of vintage applies.

But how does an Old World view of vintage fit with the vastly more complex and less understood terroir of California? How prudent is it to apply catch-all assessments when evaluating our wines, when it might over-encourage or unduly discourage consumers from purchasing them? I wish I had more ’98 Hourglass Cabernet Sauvignon in my cellar, as that was one of our best vintages, despite being considered an overall “terrible” year in Napa.

More to the point, does our concept of vintage need to evolve in regions of complex geography like Napa?

Getting the dirt

Let’s compare Napa and Bordeaux to illustrate how the Old World view of vintage may not sit well here. Both areas share a Mediterranean climate and both grow the same varietals, but the similarities end there. For Bordeaux, the popular concept of vintage may be more useful than when applied to Napa. Why? Bordeaux, eight times larger, is the alluvial soil plane of the Gironde River. The left bank is a sequence of low rolling gravel mounds over marle formed between 5 million and 65 million years ago. There are approximately eight to ten soil series in comparatively organized concentrations. The elevation rises gently to a maximum altitude of about 130 feet. The left bank has essentially one sun exposure and reasonably consistent weather patterns. By comparison, a relatively limited set of farming variables.

Napa is vastly different. Napa soils were formed by chaotic volcanic activity and a sequence of alluvial soil fans (created by water flow) roughly 2 million years ago. Half the world’s soil orders, or classifications, can be found here with a minimum of 150 variations and little order to their distribution. Two steep mountain ranges climb dramatically up 2,000 feet, providing a mind-boggling array of sun orientations. Marine influences with daily diurnal (day/night) fog flows typically deliver 40 to 50 degree temperature swings within 12-hour cycles throughout the growing season. Napa possesses four of the world’s five viticultural climate zones. This is a complex place to farm.

Close vineyards, disparate terroirs

At Hourglass, we farm two estate vineyards five miles apart, one in St. Helena (Hourglass), and one in Calistoga (Blueline). Hourglass has an east-facing orientation planted on fractured bedrock, Blueline a west-facing slope on gravely river-wash soils. Temperatures can vary by 5 degrees a day, and the two sites see very different weather patterns throughout the growing season.

If we applied the same definition of vintage here that we ascribe to bottled wine, we could farm both vineyards identically. Not so! Each requires a unique set of farming decisions matched to its personality. The cooler Hourglass site needs more time to soften tannin and build phenolic depth, while the warmer Blueline vineyard develops rounder mouthfeel and deeper fruit-driven characteristics sooner. Time of ripeness, which effects aromatics, depth of concentration, texture, weight and structure, varies at each site. In cooler years we open the canopies at Hourglass more than we would at Blueline and wait longer before picking. In warmer vintages we encourage more shade and deeper waterings at Blueline.

The 2010 and 2011 vintages will shine light on these complexities, likely demonstrating greater variability. Consider late-ripening Cabernet in 2011. For those growers wading through early October rains, the game became increasingly complex as soil moisture turned to fog with warming temperatures. Drainage and water holding capacity of soils, air circulation, elevation and sun orientation in specific sites had measurable effects on ripening cycles, as well as Botrytis mold concentrations. Different vineyards exhibited very different results in response to these weather patterns. Some were brilliant, some challenged, but there was hardly the same net result across Napa.

I’m not saying vintage is irrelevant. It’s a very important factor in making and evaluating wine. But it can’t be applied in the Old World sense. Vintage is inherently linked to terroir. For Napa Valley, it is best seen through a tighter lens. For a deeper understanding of Napa’s wines, the concept of vintage must take on a more nuanced perspective, one driven by site-specific conditions. To truly get to know your favorite wineries you must get to know their vineyards.


This week’s Zester Soapbox contributor, Napa Valley native Jeff Smith, is founder/CEO of Hourglass, which has produced award-winning Cabernet Sauvignon and other Bordeaux varietals at its vineyards in St. Helena and Calistoga, California. He currently serves as public relations chair of the Napa Valley Vintners Association.

Photo: Jeff Smith. Credit: Dave Fenton

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