As the leaves change colors and achieve ultimate levels of ripeness, vineyard workers prepare to pick grapes in the morning fog before the sun rises, and before the freshly pressed grape juice, or must, starts to bubble as the yeasts ferment. Harvest is a season anticipated by vintners, winemakers, and sommeliers alike. Vintners finally see the fruits of their labors; the baton is handed over to the winemakers; and sommeliers learn what to expect from the vintage when it finally makes its way into their hands.
As the harvest reports began coming in, it became evident that this is a vintage to invest in California wines. From the northern Napa Valley in Calistoga, to the southern regions of Santa Maria Valley, the 2012 vintage is, as many winemakers are calling it, a textbook vintage.
“This was a winemaker’s vintage for classically proportioned wines that should be pretty, while young with the ability to age gracefully,” says Robert Sinskey, vintner of Robert Sinskey Winery in Napa Valley. “The grapes achieved physiological ripeness at lower sugars for wines with great aromatics and flavor, with lower alcohol.”
Sinskey started picking Labor Day weekend and continued to harvest through November for his late-harvest wines. He describes it as an optimal vintage for both red and white wine, resulting in beautiful wines of balance. There was no rain during flowering, which led to a perfect set for a slightly larger than average crop. Moderate temperatures with few anomalies led to balanced canopies with a good fruit set across the board.
Further north in Calistoga, Richard Sowalsky, vice president and winemaker of Clos Pegase Winery, predicts that “2012 will be the most consistently good vintage of the last several years. The quantities produced will be robust, so the supply of wine should not present the same challenges as in 2009, 2010, and 2011,” he says. “There can be wines that will provide both early drinking pleasure as well as excellent aging results. I am anticipating that 2012 will be very similar to 2002 in this regard.”
Sowalsky reports that the past four vintages could be considered cool vintages, which will be reflected in the balanced acidity. However, each has had a very different temperament—based on other aspects of the weather during their respective growing seasons. The 2012 vintage was the driest and sunniest of the four vintages, and as such has the most typical “Napa Valley” profile, with full flavors and plush rich textures.
Dry years usually produce low yields since water is one of the factors that drive berry weight (high levels of water in the soil essentially puff up the grapes). But Sowalsky says 2012 is a healthy “normal-plus” sized crop that is maintaining excellent concentration and ripeness despite the size. He attributes this to two factors: small previous vintages and an elevated number of seeds per berry. Both 2010 and 2011 were small vintages, allowing the grape vines to store energy reserves to be released in subsequent years. In many varieties, the number of seeds per berry was elevated, and hormones secreted by these seeds led to increased berry size and more cells per berry.
Napa was not the only region producing high yields in California. Chris Donatiello, owner of C. Donatiello winery in Healdsburg, Sonoma, says he was expecting 105 to 110 grams per cluster, but the gapes were coming in at 120 grams per cluster. “It’s not uncommon for the quality to drop when you have high yields,” he says. “But for 2012, you can expect wines that the winemaker wants to make because the weather was cooperating with them. Winemakers have a lot of options, whether they want to let the grapes hang on the vine longer or harvest early to maintain high acidity. For us, we’re going to have higher acid, good finishes, and lush fruit with moderate tannins.”
According to Thomas Perez, winemaker and Sommelier of Kristi-Lynn Wine Group, LLC, based in Santa Maria Valley, the Central Coast was great across the board. “It was a warm summer that ripened things pretty quick, but the vineyards being so close to the water benefitted from morning fog and cold nights,” he says. “Most reds were ripe and picked before the heat wave came in, which actually was good for whites.”
Perez predicts that 2012 is one of those vintages where you can drink now or save. “It was a year where the flavors were there with lower brix maintaining the acid,” he concludes.
Between ideal weather, and higher yields balanced with good fruit sets, 2012 is a winemaker’s vintage. From Calistoga and Napa to Healdsburg, Sonoma, and further south along the Central Coast, 2012 is a textbook vintage in California.
by Amy Payne