Genevieve & I were minding our own business last night, sipping a gorgeous artisan red vermouth on the rocks, watching the brilliance of Hugh Laurie on House, when she asked the question that every winemaker and winegrower dreads hearing during Harvest. “Is that rain?” Yes, indeed-ee, Ma’am. It was pouring down like it hadn’t rained hard for months….Wait. It hadn’t rained hard for months. We have had the traditional Northern California dry summer, right after a very dry winter. It was time for a good rain.
Unfortunately, many growers still have fruit on the vine. Usually by the time the first hard rain hits, most of us have picked our grapes, gotten them through their first fermentation, and had them safely tucked away for their “long winter’s nap.” How does this affect the grapes? How does this affect the wines yet to come? Well that comes with more Depends than a keg party at the Old Soldiers’ Home.
Depends on what? When we are patiently waiting for wine grapes to finish ripening, we are waiting for a number of factors: flavors, acids, sugars, and pickers. Rain can adversely affect all of these factors. The plant sucking up a lot more water will cause the grapes to swell, thinning their skins. Rain will also dilute flavors, lower sugar levels, lower acid levels, and make it very hard to pick the fruit. Is that the end of the great wine the vintner had planned on making? Depends. Maybe the sugars were already too high and the plant can process the water, restore the flavors and balance the acids before the sugars soar again. How fast can pickers get into the vineyard so the plants don’t move all the water into the fruit? Depends. If you had a lot of rain on a very steep clay slope, the pickers can’t safely climb up and down the hill until the ground dries out. If your vineyard is on a valley floor, it may be prone to flooding and the tractors following the pickers can’t get in to haul the fruit out. If you have a small vineyard and rely on a vineyard management company to pick for you, guess whose phone was ringing off the hook last night and early this morning for every client left to get picked? Whole lotta Depends here.
Another extremely important factor is mold and rot. Sweet grapes have already attracted all sorts of creepy spores that are just waiting for conditions to be right to them to populate, grow, and do the nasty on your PHAT bunches of grapes. What are the right conditions? Wet, warmish, still air, tight bunches, thin skins, and a little time all contribute to grapes rotting away. You don’t need a CSI team ducking under yellow tape to analyze this. These grapes look and smell Yucky! You wouldn’t want to get these anywhere near your mouth. In a very small number of select instances, the dominant fungus will be Botrytis Cinerea as “Noble Rot”. In some varietals, this will produce magical flavors that drive many of us to a maddened neurotic passion that is brought on by the great dessert wines resulting from a proper handling of this icky fruit. If you are not already a convert, you MUST try Sauternes, Baumes de Venise, Tokay Aszu, Trokenbeerenauslese, Amarone, and a new bunch of late harvest or “Botrysized” dessert wines from North America.
For the most part, winegrowers are working themselves into a frenzy today and winemakers are getting ready for fruit. We are all watching the weather to hope that we get a strong breeze to dry out the grape bunches. We also hope that it gets hot and sunny enough to speed things along, not just gets warm and humid to make the rot spores feel right at home. Is the 2007 vintage in danger? Get real. We are SO past the days of stuffed-shirt pundits making broad swath declarations of quality that have no meaning on reality. Every Grower and Vintner will do their best with what they are given to get you the best wine that they can possibly make. Let’s wait to unscrew some caps and pop some corks in a couple of years to see what the Rains of October 9, 2007 meant to Northern California wine country.