What makes a Great Vintage?

How do you know if it’s a great vintage? While the viticulturalist is trained to know when to prune, how to manage leaf canopy and control pests and disease, for the most part, it’s the weather during the growing season that makes all the difference between good and great.

The 2019 Washington crush began the third week of August. Treveri Cellars always crosses the finish line first. And the reason for that is sparkling wines are harvested at a lower brix level (18–23°).  

In wine country, grapes are warmed by the sunshine which brings up the grape sugars and cooled at night which promotes that balancing acidity. In any vintage, a brix reading (usually around 24 brix) will signal the time to harvest grapes intended for still wines.

Brix is used to measure the sugar in grapes, the more sugar, the riper the grapes. When harvesting grapes early, the must will have less sugar and more acidity – ideal conditions for sparkling wines.

A higher brix level can be achieved by many days of hot weather, long hang time or drying the grapes. Hot weather raises the sugar levels; cool weather takes longer to reach maturity.

By comparison, the 2015 harvest – a very hot year – began August 6th.  In 2010, – a very cool year – white grapes weren’t harvested until September and no red wine grapes until October!

The 2019 grape harvesting is in full swing right now. And it’s shaping up to be a very good year. Not too hot and not too cool. I know because I’m a certified sorter, a very important and well-paid position. 

Sorters pull leaves, bugs and dried grapes out before the grapes are put into the destemmer where the grapes are separated from the stems. A destemmer is a big stainless steel tub with a big screw that pushes the grapes one way and the stems the other way. The big colander type basket at the bottom funnels the grapes and juice into one bin. The woody stems are pushed into another bin.

While sorting grapes for two wineries this past week, I tasted the grapes. One winery had Red Mountain Merlot and the other Horse Heaven Hills Merlot. And I can tell you from that tasting, Red Mountain and Horse Heaven Hills Merlot grapes tasted unique to their terroirs.

While sorting grapes, the winemaker does the scientific stuff by taking a reading of the juice to determine the brix (the sugar in the juice which will tell the winemaker what the final alcohol content may be), stabilizing the must (SO2 preserves the fruit color and kills the wild yeasts) and other winemaking techniques they may have picked up along the way.

In addition to adding SO2, Ben Smith of Cadence Winery pumped the juice out of one fermenting bin back into the same bin. This was to “stir” the juice so the SO2 was evenly distributed.

At Mosquito Fleet Winery, winemaker Brian Peterson added a 25-pound bag of oven toast oak chips to the three fermenting bins. This helps set the color and promote polyphenols. He also added a bag of dry ice to the fermenting bins – an effective way to cold soak when you don’t have refrigerated storage.

The bin mover sets the pace when a winery has tons of grapes to process. Using a pallet jack or forklift, the bins are moved around where needed – grapes to the destemmer, full fermenters to the side for a 24-hour cold soak, empty fermenters to catch the next ton of grape juice from and the bins of stems to the compost pile.

As I mentioned, certified sorters are well-paid. This year I earned two bottles of wine, a private barrel tasting, 22 gallons of saignée juice and free lunch. 

Saignée is a French term which translates “to bleed.” It’s a winemaking techniques that “bleeds” or removes juice and a few grapes from a fermenter.  Since there is a higher proportion of skins to juice, a richer more concentrated wine is the desired result of this technique. And the lightly-colored juice that is bled out will produce a rosé for next summer’s drinking pleasure.

A long time ago, I had the opportunity to taste a Carmenet Cabernet from the same vineyard, fermented in the same tank and aged in the same French oak. The only difference was the coopers used. I was stunned at the difference of what should have been a more similar than different wine. Lesson learned.

The private barrel tasting at Mosquito Fleet Winery was another educational lesson in French oak. We tasted three 2018 Cabernets aging in oak barrels. Two were the same grape, harvest, and fermentation aging in French oak barrel from different coopers, Taransaud and Bootes. The difference was very striking. The Bootes was a much bigger wine and the Taransaud was smooth and more fruit forward.

Tasting young red wine before it has been bottled is instructive but these young wines with their high acidity and tannin only hint at their true greatness after they have been in bottle for a few years. The key ingredient in my opinion, is to pay attention to the fruit. Is there enough fruit component to vault the young wine to an attractive maturity? For these two fraternal wines, the answer is a hearty Yes!

Up and down the west coast, you can look forward to the promise of a very good 2019 vintage. Cheers!