It’s already happening, everyone is talking about the weather. Being farmers, we talk about the weather all the time; every day, all year long. But when the weather has the potential to increase the price of a bottle of wine, it broadens that conversational circle.
The 2011 winter in California was cold and rainy, the summer was cool and humid, and then it rained the first week of October – right at the beginning of harvest for a lot of growers. Crop levels were down and then those early rains ruined much of what was left on the vine at the end of the season. Growers were scrambling to fill the grape contracts they had and there was virtually no supply of excess fruit for wineries without contracts. In the short six months from February to August, we saw the price of coastal fruit skyrocket. The cycle has officially turned: it is now a growers market.
When you are both a grower and a winery, these market cycles aren’t really a part of your world. The grapes cost what it takes to grow them and that doesn’t change much year after year. And if you are in the Dunnigan Hills bubble, the 2011 growing season was pretty ideal. Cooler weather to us meant a summer of balmy days in the low 90’s and nights in the mid 50’s. We had a long mild growing season with a dry summer and a harvest that ended the day before the October rains.
The 2011 Matchbook wines will mirror what we harvested for the 2010 vintage: intense flavors from the long hang time. The fermenting Chardonnay already shows pronounced honeysuckle, melon and tropical flavors; the Tempranillo, its characteristic combination of espresso spice and dark berries. The Syrah had time to develop exceptionally deep color and robust tannins.
Wines from the coastal regions will be a different story and the weather will be the story of the vintage. There will be shortages and there will be price increases. But for those of us on the east side of the Coast Range Mountains, 2011 was pretty much the same and it was pretty wonderful.
There is a well-known saying in the wine industry that Wine Begins in the Vineyard. As with most well known sayings, there is a whole lot of truth in this. But to most people this relates strictly to the vintage year, the year the grapes were picked. At wine tastings we are often asked about the weather or the sugar levels at harvest or the tons per acre. These are all important, of course, but every farmer knows that the story starts well before the current harvest.
The Matchbook wines began in 2001, when we found this barren, abandoned sheep ranch and saw our future. The rocky soils and hardy grasses told the story of well-drained, loamy soils. The hills, a natural protection against frost. Then we had to make the huge decision about which clones to plant; they would determine the style of wines we produced in the Dunnigan Hills.
A chardonnay vine may look very generic. Indeed, it looks a lot like the syrah vine planted in the next row. But there are many different clones of chardonnay and the style of our Matchbook Chardonnay is in much part a blend of the carefully selected vines we planted in 2002. The most widely planted clone in the state and in our vineyard is clone 4. Not a very romantic name, but this is the “workhorse” California chardonnay clone because it produces good quality fruit at good yields; always important to grape growers. It also produces the rich, tropical and stone fruit flavors that are a trademark of our Matchbook Chardonnay. We call clone 17 the Robert Young clone, because – as you may have guessed – it originated in that vineyard in the Alexander Valley. We love this clone for its fleshy, full-bodied juice, and those bright green apple flavors as well as its amenability to malolactic fermentation. We planted three different Dijon clones with the unromantic numeral names of 76, 95 and 124. We harvest these at lower sugar levels to capture the natural minerality of the grape that adds the steely, crisp finish to our Old Head Chard. Every winery tour seems to come to a screeching halt at clone 809. Everyone loves it and just wants to stop right there and drink this wine with lunch. Aptly called Chardonnay Musque, this clone produces muscat-like characteristics that are highly aromatic and flavored with natural fruit sweetness. This is where the lovely floral honeysuckle and orange blossom aromas come from and the musky undertones that add a nice layer of complexity to our Matchbook Chardonnay.
There is a reason we print the term Blended for Greater Flavor on the back label of our 100% varietal Matchbook Chardonnay. It starts with the diverse characteristics of the six different clones in our vineyard that were planted nine years ago.