Monday, July 5, 2010

Talkn' 'bout a heat wave!

Last weekend my family and I vacationed to the North Shore of Minnesota and landed in a sleepy little town named Grand Marais - population 3,500 give or take a few tourists. This trip has been a family tradition since my wife and I got married a few years ago. Each year over the 4th we escape the heat and humidity of central Minnesota to relax in the 65 degree comfort of Lake Superior. This year however was different. Rather than campfires and sweatshirts we were wading in the 40 degree waters of the world's largest freshwater source (by surface area) to cool down from the summer heat.

After spending the weekend commenting on my dissatisfaction about the weather (yes, that's right - I complained about the heat) I started thinking, is this going on everywhere? What will this mean for the 2010 wine vintage in the United States? The vintage on the bottle informs the buyer the year that the grapes were grown and picked. It's a reflection of the region's growing season that year. So if the summer was unusually hot the grapes ripen differently than if the season was cool. Same goes for rain, a wet growing season results in a completely different crop than a dry season.

A region's general weather tendencies, called climate, during the growing season is what helps a grower decide which grapes will grow best in a particular place or region. But climate is so much more than just a factor in helping vintners decide which grapes to grow, it also helps define wine profiles. Wines are a reflection of their surroundings. A hot climate is likely to produce lush, ripe fruit flavors and aromas whereas a cool climate tends to display crisper, leaner fruit flavors and aromas.

There are different categories used when defining a region's climate. For example Bordeaux is a Maritime climate, The Rhone Valley is mostly Mediterranean, and Alsace is Continental. Of course within each of these regions their are sub climates or micro climates and influences that make one site better than another. Climate coupled with soil type, aspect and location are important factors leading up to why you pay more for one wine over another. France is a great example of this, they have defined their best growing sites and prices dictate this. In regions like Burgundy they define their best wines using the term Cru and then qualifying it with a level inside of the classification. Cru meaning growth and referring to the quality factors from the sub region or vineyard where the grapes were grown.

Climate doesn't just allow you to charge more, it's a huge variable in a wines quality from year to year. The year on the bottle (the vintage) is a direct reflection of the region's weather that year. This is why people discuss how one vintage may be better or worse than another. Weather patterns change from year to year and can mean the difference between selling all of your wine at a premium price and having to dump it down the drain.

Bordeaux's climate as I mentioned earlier is defined as Maritime which just means that there is a relatively narrow annual range of temperatures. These usually occur around large bodies of water like seas and oceans. I usually describe this climate as being similar to that of San Diego, 78 degrees and sunny year round. While there's a little more variation than that in regions like Bordeaux the point is Maritime tends to be fairly moderate year round.

The 2006 Bordeaux vintage for the left bank was a bit unusual for the region. July was too hot, August was too cool and September was really wet. The unusual hot and cold resulted in grapes ripening unevenly and ultimately unbalanced (referring to acid and sugar levels). In addition, the excessive rain in the harvest month (September) resulted in watered down grapes. Just think of excessive rain at harvest like putting too much water in your Kool-Aid - where's the beef? The 2006 Bordeaux prices were less than other vintages because the weather resulted in a worse crop than other years.

To sum vintage up: climate is what it should be, weather is what it actually is. So what does vintage have to do with me swearing at a giant lake in Grand Marais? Well, there has been unusual weather all over the United States this year. The northeast and south are experiencing record temperatures and the west was drenched with rain in the spring. Needless to say 2010 is going to need some help to produce a good vintage. Whether it's irrigation, a hot fall or a strong wind something has to happen in order to bring balance and quality back to the 2010 crop.

In the same breathe, never count a vintage out before it's picked, it's a long growing season and a lot can happen. Good sites will produce good grapes year after year. That's why quality wine producers make good juice every year and command high prices even in less than ideal weather vintages. I think that climate change or global warming or whatever you want to call it is having an effect on wine around the world and over the last decade it appears to be a positive one. Take Bordeaux again, 4 classic vintages (2000, 2003, 2005, 2009) to kick off the new millennium. I'm not saying I'm against the environment, just stating there has been 4 outstanding vintages in 2010.

So keep your eye on the 2010 vintage when buying in the future and remember where you were sweating the day those grapes were ripening. Needless to say I will be reminded of the less than perfect weather during my mid summer getaway.

As always thanks for reading and make sure to check out the Cru Wine TV Split on how climate effects a wines profile.

Nicholas Barth
Certified Sommelier
Cru Wine Online
Wine Director

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