I've talked about vintage before, but as harvest time hits in the Northern Hemisphere (remember it's in March/April in the Southern Hemisphere) I've got an opportunity to discuss it again in a useful way.
In the last month or so, the wine press has been going nuts, excitedly reporting on weather, like they were reporters being blown down in the midst of a coastal hurricane. It's amusing to see folks geek out on this, but besides the sideline spectator fun, there's a useful purpose to it. This is an annual event that as wine lovers, we can leverage: here is our opportunity to jump on the train and start learning about vintages. This is NOT so we can parlay with the snobs of the wine world -- it's so we can be good shoppers and get the best stuff from the best years when we see it.
As we know, wine snobs love to recite vintages for high end wines and talk about the extraordinary years for this one and that one, never acknowledging the super boring fact that this is almost identical to me talking to my grandma about how the weather was this year versus last year.
Ruthie (that's her name and I LOVE her!) and I will often discuss how hot the summer was in Brooklyn (where she and much of my family live) or how much rain or snow they've been receiving and how that compares to the last few years. If my grandma and I took it one step further, and related the fact that she needed her umbrella every day she went out in September, to the vineyards on Long Island being waterlogged to the point that mildew and rot were going to start growing on the grapes, we'd be just like the wine rags.
To put it simply, if you can make a note of what you read about the weather in wine areas each year, you'll know a lot about vintage.
The good thing is, you get a chance to start on this project each year. 2011 can be the first time you note something about weather/farming/vintage in wine. Below I've played weather girl and given a quick summary of how vintage 2011 is looking for some of the big places the Northern Hemisphere so far (sources below). Hope this helps!
Yuck! Most of Europe had crazy fluctuations in weather which means bad things for grapes. In general it was a hot, dry spring, so grapes got riper earlier than usual. Then it got cold and wet, so the berries kind of slowed in their ripening. Following that lovely period, it got ridiculously hot but it also rained again in August and early September so there was a big threat of mold and rot ruining the vines. All over the continent, winegrowers are picking early to minimize the loss of the grapes to rot.
Bottom line: It's going to be the winemaker who determines whether or not the wine is any good. Mother Nature wasn't that kind this year. It looks like 2011 won't be a banner year to collect wines from Europe. This year, pay attention to the producer...the better ones will have selected the best fruit. The not-so-good ones will throw in the crap too.
In Burgundy, Bordeaux, the Loire, and the Rhone, the story is much the same. The crop will be smaller than in previous years (like 10-30% smaller). Across France they're harvesting early to try to fight the growing issue of mold. This means the wines will have lower alcohol than usual and in some cases, less fruit flavor.
Burgundy is probably going to have much better whites than reds, since Chardonnay is heartier/healthier/less susceptible to rot than Pinot Noir.
Bordeaux is having a tough go of it, with the exception of Sauternes, home of sweet wine, where they are going to have a great year because of the proliferation of mold that is used in making the wine (botrytis).
The Rhône is going to be patchy -- producer will really matter this year in both the northern and southern Rhône, so don't buy 2011 unless it's from a reputable brand.
In Italy, heat and drought in the summer sunburned the crop. The Piedmont (home of Barolo) and Tuscany lost a lot of grapes to weather and are experiencing the same issues as France. Sicily, whose grapes, like Nero d'Avola (Planeta is an amazing Sicilian producer, FYI), need heat and dry conditions is going to make great wine this year.
SPAIN and PORTUGAL
In Spain, every place with the exception of Rias Baixas (REE-ahs BY-shuss, home of Albariño) had hot August/ Septembers and low rain, which reduced the crop by 30% in many places. The grapes will have lots of fruit, high alcohol, and low acid. It's not going to be a very balanced vintage unless the winemaker can work magic.
In Portugal, it should be a great year for Port, since they had hot weather but lower rainfall.
The United States
California is having a rough year. Heavy rains in the spring killed off a good portion of crops in Sonoma, Napa, and Mendocino. Then a cool, wet summer didn't really help the grapes get ripe. It's raining right now in these areas, so winegrowers are picking frantically to prevent grapes from becoming moldy. It will be a smaller harvest than in previous years and quality is anyone's guess.
Oregon had a warm September and should have a great year!
In Washington, they are waiting for the weather to warm up. Without that stroke of luck, they aren't going to get a lot of fruit flavor and the wines may be light on flavor. The jury is still out.
In the Eastern US, Hurricane Irene and the excessive rain up and down the coast mean winegrowers harvested really early to prevent the whole crop from rotting. In many cases, from Virginia to New York, the precaution is going to mean wines with less fruit flavor. Not a great year for the East Coast.
Let me know if this is useful by commenting here or on Facebook. If so, I'll do updates as more info becomes available about how the wines in these areas are shaping up!