The weather is never the only story of a vintage, and although it was not a minor part of the 2014 vintage, earthquakes and market forces were felt just as strongly. Although my diet of Grower Champagne has become even more diverse, as importers are bringing in mono-varietal Pinot Blanc or the revival of the historically significant style of pale rosé known as Oeil de Perdrix, I've spent more time thinking about wines from here in the United States than ever before. Sure, we took the wine list all-American at The Dutch, but it's not just professional interest. Meeting the winemakers from the North Fork of Long Island to visiting the westerly edge of the Willamette Valley has made me more excited than ever about our country's potential. With that, here are the things to keep in mind about the 2014 vintage:
1. EVERYTHING'S EARLY ON THE WEST COAST
Everyone I’ve spoken to on the West Coast, from the Willamette Valley in Oregon down to Santa Barbara, has been surprised by one thing: how early they were picking grapes. For most of them it was the earliest harvest ever. I visited Santa Barbara in September, feeling guilty that I could potentially be robbing winemakers of their time at a crucial juncture, but only Syrah and some odd clones of Pinot Noir were left on the vine at my first stop, Melville. I helped punch down some of the estate Pinot Noir, which was already fermenting, while Chad [Melville] joked that this was the first year since he got married that he would be able to go to his in-laws’ for Thanksgiving.
Up the road in Lompoc, Gavin Chanin, of the eponymous winery (as well as his collaboration with Bill Price, Lutum), already had his wines pressed and in barrel, and had plenty of time to eat tacos, barrel taste the unblended ‘13s, and talk about art. Despite the unprecedented harvest dates, most agreed that the quality was great, if not ideal.
Rajat Parr, super-somm-turned-winemaker of projects from Oregon to Santa Barbara, was less sanguine than most. The intense drought had him worried about the long-term health of vines that weren’t properly irrigated over the winter, but my impression was that “thoughtful” producers would be fine. If rain doesn’t come eventually, though, we can expect some difficult vintages ahead.
His comments reminded me of something a Sonoma vineyard manager spoke very frankly to me about: the short life span of vines in the New World. In Europe a vine wouldn’t be considered “old” until it was at least in its forties, but the expectations and stress put on his vines meant that they needed to be replanted after twenty-five or thirty years. The reasons are varied, including previous generations’ selection of root-stocks and clones, but after a third consecutive year of drought, the potential of many Californian vines surviving to forty, let alone one hundred seems slim.
Drought isn’t all bad, though, as the dry climate forces the vines to struggle and produce more dense, complex wines, and keeps them safe from the rot and mildew associated with rain. The French would kill for the string of rainless summers most have had in California.
The bizarrely early harvest and the drought weren’t the weirdest part of 2014 in the Napa Valley. The earth really shook things up on August 24, but, in some ways, it couldn’t have come at a better time. No one would ever ask for an earthquake, but that this one came at a time when most people were asleep certainly saved lives in downtown Napa, let alone at wineries and other business that would have been full of staff. If it had come a bit earlier or later in the year, more wine would have been at risk, but in August vintners are bottling wines to make room for the juice coming in from the new harvest. Even those, like Trefethen and Steve Matthiasson with chais that looked like a game of pick-up-stix for barrels, will still release 2013’s, not to mention wines from the delicious ’14 fruit that perfectly safe on the vine when things got shaky. In the former winery’s case, though, things are still propped up by an iron girdle, and perhaps the biggest casualties of the quake were the area’s historic buildings.
It was easy to get dismayed about the state of things in the region that has long been the source of the most coveted wines. At recent auctions prices for estates that often took second billing to names like Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, went for much more than even the houses’ top estimates (e.g. Dujac and Chablis from Raveneau and Dauvissat), not least because the most recent vintages have been characterized by low-yields, exacerbated by incredibly destructive hail-storms. This year was no different, but after talking with Frédéric Magnien, who makes wine from 120 different appellations between his family’s estate and his own wines, it seems like the damage was more isolated. Although certain sites in Volnay and elsewhere may have taken a beating, the wines will generally be charming in their youth, and as importers often characterize a tough vintage: “Great for restaurant wine lists.”
One can’t discuss the year, though, without mentioning the loss of Hubert de Montille, whose contributions to the region are hard to enumerate. In addition to running a successful Domaine, he was a lawyer, as the de Montilles had been for generations. His greatest achievement, though, may have been reminding a generation of winemakers that great wines are made in the vineyard, with as little influence as possible from the vigneron. According to his son Etienne, “Hubert passed away today being surrounded with his closest friends. His heart simply stopped during a great lunch and while tasting his Pommard Rugiens 1999. It goes beyond doubt that he would have chosen this way to go if he had the choice.” If anyone has any ’99 Rugiens lying around, bring it to The Dutch and your corkage will be bit of a taste for the sommelier, and a handicap of Champagne while I get the cork out.
5. OLD IS NEW IN THE REST OF FRANCE
In Bordeaux, it seemed like a “normal” vintage — not the opulent ease of the warm ’03, ’05, or ’09 — but something more like the very traditional 1996, when an occasionally stormy summer was followed by what might be best described in North American terms as an “Indian summer.” These wines are not likely to cause a stir on release, except among those like myself that enjoy lively acidity as it portends multi-decade potential. Sauternes had objectively ideal conditions, though, and could produce some of the most exciting wines of the year, in any country.
In Provence and the Southwest, things were practically Californian: warm and easy. This isn’t the first vintage like this, though, and the increasingly easy conditions have made winemakers, like Daniel Ravier of Domaine Tempier, interested in replanting varieties that may have once been tough to ripen. Clos Cibonne had already proven the success of what was once a favorite variety of Julius Caesar, Tibouren, which had fallen out of favor when Grenache and Mourvèdre arrived in the region, but Ravier is looking as far back as he can, using the help of the conservatory that the French government runs just to the west (in Vassal, near Montpellier) that has nearly three thousand varieties planted, with at least three times as many individual clones. Look out for Carignan (AKA Carignane, Samsó, Mazuelo), whose comeback looks to be as big in Southern France as in Mendocino.
In true global weirding fashion, while Californians were suffering through a drought, Northern Italy was seeing some of the most intense precipitation vignaioli have seen in their lifetime. Silvia Cappellini, of the esteemed Chianti Classico producer Castello di Verrazzano (yes, that Verrazzano) in Tuscany, complained that she had "never seen so much rain in the summer.” They will not produce their top cuvée, but, although her family has no investment there, she was looking forward to tasting the wines from the South.
Piedmont and the Veneto had similar issues to Tuscany, but like in Burgundy, my suspicion is that the wines will be immediately likable on their release, which is a relief amidst the frenzy over some of the more cellar-able wines hitting the market now.
When I visited in June things were looking pretty good along the Danube, but like in Italy and France, there has been some inclement weather since then. Although there is likely to be some delicious wine produced, it was a difficult process, involving meticulous picking and, as such, yields are low. To the east, though, in Burgenland, things have been relatively peaceful, and the increasing quality of Blaufrankisch and Zweigelt with packaging and attitude that preempts other medium-bodied red wines from the rest of Europe may change the perception of the nation as the Sour Patch Kids’ source of white wine. Look out for Hannes Reeh, Strehn, and all the members of the Pannobile, a sort of "Special Club," especially Preisinger, Nittnaus, Heinrich, and Pittnauer.
Contributor Chad Walsh writes about wine and other beverages. He is also beverage manager for The Dutch in NYC.