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2011 Vintage Report

2011 Syrah being machine harvested at vineyard in Languedoc2011 Vintage Report

People have been asking me about how the vintage is going to turn out since back in August.  I’m always hesitant to guess at quality that early in the game, and this year is a perfect example of why we shouldn’t be too confident in our speculation.

All year, the vines were ahead of schedule and carrying a pretty bountiful crop of grapes.  But in the last stretch, conditions changed drastically and how winemakers responded to those changes will lead to  a wide spectrum of results.  I think that quality of 2011 Languedoc wines will vary wildly depending on yield, microclimates, and harvest strategy.  While this variance is always something to consider, it’s especially crazy this year.

O’Vineyards 2011 Vintage

The grapes were tasting great since mid August which is unusually early.  We taste them daily with the tour groups that come through to visit the vineyard.  Normally they don’t start tasting good until closer to harvest.  As I explained to the tour groups, the flesh of the fruit tasted good but the seeds were still green.

As we continued tasting, I felt confident that the ripeness would be there by the second week of September.  Muse the dog was also eating grapes in the second week which is usually a good sign!   The lab was telling us to wait and was predicting that the grapes would be ready late in the third week or fourth week of the month.  I thought that was ludicrous and we went ahead and started harvesting on the night of the 14th.

Grapes came in very well and very ripe.  In retrospect, we sort of look like genius wine wizards.  People who followed the textbook guidelines on how to harvest may have been taken off guard by several of the unusual circumstances this year.

Unusual circumstances of 2011 harvest

It was a very late summer with tshirt and shorts weather through most of September and part of October. This had an incredible effect on the late ripening period for the grapes in my area.  Lots of shriveling and therefore less water and higher sugar content.

There was also a special kind of late season mildew which knocks out the youngest leaves on the plant.  This wasn’t a problem for us because we had low to moderate yields and lots of healthy leaves.  But if you had a lot of grapes on the plant, you might have needed those young leaves in the final stretch.  Then again, most of the producers that really push yield also treat more against mildew and it seemed like my neighbors weren’t much affected by this.

It seems like there were less pips this year.  We didn’t really notice this until decuvage, but it seems significant.  2-3 seeds per grape instead of 2-4.   The grapes also stained our equipment a lot less than usual which might be related to the fewer seeds observation.

It’s also worth reminding you that the vines were very far ahead of schedule earlier in the year.

All this combines for a crazy late season.  Winemakers who harvested later might be facing extreme concentration levels.  The grapes started shriveling very quickly in the record-breaking heat we had at the end of September.  Judging by the dates some people were harvesting, I imagine some of my neighbors were bringing grapes in at 17% and 18% potential alcohol.  These concentrations are obviously TOO high to be making typical terroir wines.  Independent wineries can counter this by illegally adding water (although that’s not an alternative that fills me with joy).  And this sort of cheating can be harder to pull off in larger more public wineries like cooperatives (depending on the visibility and honesty of the winery).

On the other hand, winemakers who brought things in early might face some other issues.  For example, if you prune for high yields, you were looking at exceptionally high yields this year.  But exceptionally high yields can mean it takes longer for the seeds to ripen.  So if you brought in your harvest early, you might still have green seeds.  But if you waited too long you might have ripe seeds but you’ll also have huge sugar levels.

Anyway, we hit some kind of magical middle path.  We pruned for low yields.  The bumper harvest just meant a normal amount of grapes on our vines (floating around 40 hectoliters/hectare).  So we got seed maturity early enough that we could bring the grapes in at a reasonable 14-15% potential for the most part.

And there are lots of other variables I’m probably not noticing or forgetting to mention.  Components like surface area of foliage, depth of roots, deep water reservoirs, and so on.  And there are much finer variables that people hardly mention like leaf attrition, cane width, migration of African swallows carrying coconuts by the husk, etc.  ;)

Hopefully this has been helpful and gives people some insight into the 2011 vintage.  Should be a fun one. ;)

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