By Cole Danehower
Willakenzie vineyard, September 2003, stormy skies over ripe vineyard
after hot hot August.
2003 was one of Oregon’s most unusual
and challenging vintages—but
it may also turn out be one of the most highly acclaimed. Early samples
of wines from some of Oregon’s leading producers show just
how far Oregon’s winemaking skills have advanced: despite unusual
conditions, the 2003 wines show surprising balance and power. Understanding
the challenges of the vintage is important in order to truly appreciating
the high level of quality Oregon’s winemakers are capable of
producing for consumers.
Part 1- "What the Grapes Gave us"
It has become part of the Oregon wine
canon that since 1998 we have had nothing but great vintages. Sure,
each one has been different,
and some have been a bit better than others, but it is pretty much
an accepted fact that they’ve all been strong. So it was only
natural that going into the 2003 vintage, consumer and trade expectations
alike were high: would it measure up?
And then, as the year developed and Oregon’s
grapes began their inevitable march to ripeness, unusual weather
cause for concern. Record heat, on numerous occasions exceeding 100° F, combined at first with excessive dryness and then with the ambiguous
benefits of spots of rain to make the 2003 harvest one of the most
challenging winemakers had ever seen.
The unprecedented summer heat dramatically accelerated the speed
of grape ripening at a majority of Oregon vineyards, and tended to
cause imbalanced ripening in many. In most locations sugar development
significantly outpaced acid and phenolic growth, presenting winemakers
with the dilemma of either picking early to prevent too-high sugars,
or waiting in the hopes that rain would slow sugar growth and allow
flavors and acids to catch up.
When rains did come, they were often relatively light and brief,
followed by renewed heat. In many vineyards this resulted in significant
mildew issues that had to be mitigated before harvest. A compounding
problem was the unusual circumstance of nearly all grape varietals
rushing to ripeness at once. For wineries used to spacing out the
harvesting of their Pinot noir and Chardonnay, or their Merlot and
Viognier, managing the picking of all their grapes all at once proved
Winemakers Faced With Inherent Imbalances
As the 2003 harvest came in from the
fields for processing, winemakers scrambled to determine just how
to deal with “what the grapes
gave us,” as one winemaker put it.
On the potentially negative side, unprecedented
grape sugar levels posed a number of challenges. In Oregon’s cool climate regions,
Pinot noir grapes might be ready to harvest in a so-called “normal” vintage
anywhere between 22 and 24 degrees brix (brix is the measurement
of sugar in the grapes). But in 2003 the unusually rapid ripening
presented winemakers with grapes that ranged from 25 to as high as
28 degrees brix!
The higher the level of sugar in the
grapes the higher the potential alcohol in the finished wine. This
can be a problem in achieving
complete fermentations because the yeasts may no be able to consumer
all the sugar before the alcohol they produce kills them, resulting
in the dreaded “stuck” fermentation—the inability
to ferment a grape lot to dryness. As a result, winemakers had to
carefully monitor the yeasts they used and the fermentation temperatures
they reached in order to coax out every last bit of fermentation
And even if the fermentations are completed successfully, the high
alcohol wines that result can be out of balance. This was especially
true in 2003 because in addition to high sugars, the grapes had unusually
low acidity. The pH level in grapes are an indication of the amount
of natural acidity they contain; the lower the number, the more acidity.
Normal pH levels for Willamette Valley Pinot noir may range from
3.2 to 3.5, but in 2003 pH levels frequently ranged from 3.8 to as
high as 4.5.
Wine fermenting, Ankeny Winery, October 2003
Low acidity and high alcohol make for unbalanced wines: hot and
flabby . . . nothing that very many people would want to drink!
There were other variables for winemakers to consider as well. In
2003 the grape skins were generally thicker than normal, and grapes
generally more pulpy. This meant winemakers had to carefully manage
their macerations (soaking of the skins, seeds, and pulp) in order
to control the degree of color, flavor, and tannin extraction. Some
winemakers accustomed to cold-soaking their grapes for a number of
days (letting them sit in their juice at low temperature to slowly
extract compounds) had to cut the soak time short because of too
much tannin development. Others, who habitually let the skins and
seeds soak in the post-fermentation alcohol, found that their normal
procedure gave them way more color and tannin then they wanted.
But not everything was a problem. On the positive side, winemakers
were exceptionally pleased with the flavors and aromatics of the
2003 grapes. Repeatedly, vintners commented on how deep, rich, sweet,
and complex the smells and tastes were. In addition, the fruit was
generally clean and healthy, and the yields were ample.
There was, in short, exactly the right
infrastructure for making excellent wines—If you could get
by the issues of high alcohol, low acid, and high tannin must.
A Vintage That Forced the Winemaker’s
2003 was a vintage that required the
proactive making of the wine—a
vintage where the winemaker’s hand was essential in achieving
top-quality wine. All else being equal, most winemakers don’t
like to add or subtract anything from the grapes—but in 2003
all else was decidedly not equal: the natural imbalances in the grapes
required the winemaker to intercede.
Despite all the self-effacing talk winemakers
like to engage in, the uncomfortable reality was that in this year
if you “let
the wine make itself” you’d get unbalanced, difficult-to-like
(and by the way, difficult to sell) wine. As never before in recent
years, 2003 demanded that the winemaker’s hand be active in
the winemaking process to ensure the best possible wine.
Luckily, Oregon has matured impressively as a winegrowing region,
and the collective skills developed in the last ten years seem to
have come into good play in 2003.
Testing new 2003 wine in the lab at Beaux Freres, October 2003
Careful monitoring of weather and grape
ripeness led winemakers to consider their picking decisions more
carefully than normal—resulting
in better timing. Often picking decisions were made on a block by
block (and sometimes a row by row) basis rather than by an entire
vineyard, so that the winemaker gained greater control on the quality
and uniformity of each lot coming into the winery.
Once in the winery, and realizing the inherent imbalance in many
of the grapes coming in, smart winemakers threw their normal routines
out the window and dedicated themselves to monitoring each fermentation
tank and each processing lot as an individual entity. Yeast decisions
were modified, acidulation employed liberally, space heaters were
brought in to warm the tanks, and macerations reduced or eliminated.
To counteract the potential imbalances of high alcohol wines, winemakers
tended to either add water and/or add acid. Adding water would reduce
the total alcohol, but potentially at the cost of diluting flavors
and color. But since the grapes were so densely concentrated to begin
with, judicious water additions might actually serve to balance out
the flavor intensity and lighten the overall character of the wine.
Where these decisions were made on a lot-by-lot basis, the results
were probably better than by employing a blanket formula.
Adding acid (acidulation), on the other hand, was a nearly universal
requirement in order to bring these naturally large-styled wines
into some degree of balance. Many bags of tartaric acid were used
throughout the state to supplement the natural acid deficiency, and
balance out the wines for palatability, ageability, and quaffability.
But did all of these things work? Did all the intricate interplay
of moment-by-moment winemaking decisions successfully turn the unevenly
composed grapes of 2003 into a vintage of reliable and quality wines?
At this stage in their development (the best wines are still a year
away from bottling), the only way to assess the quality of the wines
of 2003 is to taste them.
NEXT- Part Two - A Tale of Two Cellars:
Creating Symmetry Out of Imbalance