The 2011 Vintage

This was a strange and hard vintage. Everything about it from beginning to end required an extraordinary amount of effort. More time, more labor, more money was expended growing the grapes and making the wines this year than anyone can remember. In the end, more people than not are very happy with what they have in the cellar, and I for one look forward to sharing many delicious, expressive wines that offer immense gratification to the consumer for their inherent quality and to the professionals who know firsthand how much work it took to get there. But that is what we always say, right? Every vintage has something outstanding to offer, and the winemakers are always pronouncing how great the wines will be when they are still in barrel maturing or even earlier when the are still fermenting in tank! So instead of talking with the folks in the cellar, who always seem to have a cheery outlook and who have a way to go before their work is done, I solicited some thoughts from some growers whose work has culminated with harvest.
I want to share two points of view. The first is more measured and academic. This is to be expected coming from the astute and invaluable Alice Wise, who runs the viticulture research program at Cornell’s Long Island Horticultural Research and Extension Center (LIHREC). Alice had this to say:

The 2011 season was warmer and wetter than the long-term averages. This afforded growers the luxury of a slightly earlier than normal harvest. The frequent rains and tropical storm after véraison [the onset of ripening] forced vineyard managers to be vigilant with canopy- and fruit-management practices. Many growers elected to hand harvest, which facilitated more careful sorting of fruit prior to crush. Across the board with all varieties, brix and acids were moderate and balanced, allowing clear expression of varietal flavors. It was gratifying to taste delicious fruit after such a labor-intensive season.

The other, blunter, dirty-boots-on-the-ground version comes from the uber-talented and awesome grape grower Sam McCullough. Sam is the vineyard manager for Lenz Winery and also grows some of the best and most sought-after grapes at his home farm in Aquebogue. This is what Sam shared:

The 2011 vintage has been the most difficult I can remember short of 1985 when Gloria pretty much wiped out the crop. 2011 was a year marked by lack of sunshine and continual intense fungal pressure from start to finish. I’ve never experienced such difficulty with downy mildew. It just wouldn’t go away. Excessive moisture in August, September and October got a lot of botrytis and sour rot going. All grapes required careful (aka really tedious, slow and expensive) hand harvest. By the time we finished chardonnay I was beginning to think that I knew what the dinosaurs felt like when they got stuck in tar pits. When we started with pinot noir for sparkling and it was messy at 19 brix, I knew right there that this was going to be a fight to the end. When we finished with cabernet on 11/11, my suspicion was confirmed. Fortunately the wines are good. After this year I need a drink!

Both of these, taken together, paint a realistic picture of the vintage. Sometimes the most telling observations come from outside eyes, and in the midst of harvest Mark L. Chien the viticulture educator at Penn State Cooperative Extension visited the region and wrote a wonderful 17-page summary of his visit for his blog. It is a befitting summary to end with his thoughts…

We visited in the midst of a difficult vintage, yet the level of optimism and the quality of juice and wine samples we tasted bespoke of a mature industry that understands how to deal with adversity…. Some of the winemakers have almost 30 vintages under their belt and say this is the strangest vintage in memory, not the worst, just odd. I concur. Despite the weirdness, there was little sense of urgency or aggravation on the crush pad or in the vineyard, only a singular determination to do the best they possible can with the fruit that is available. Not that it matters one bit, but a California winemaker would be thoroughly confused by a vintage like this. A low brix, low pH, low acid wine? What’s up with that? I say this only because I believe that these are among the most agile, creative, talented, patient, persevering and unflappable winemakers in the world.

James Christopher Tracy is the winemaker and partner at Channing Daughters Winery in Bridgehampton, as well as a student candidate for the Institute of Masters of Wine.