It seems like they all are. After the intense early September heat of 2004 and the extreme cold of 2005, we’ve seen our share of recent physiological peculiarities in California fruit. But Nature continues to find new motifs with which to toy with us and test our mettle.
To be sure, vintage variation in California occurs within a much narrower range than the wild fluctuations typical of France and Germany. We do not follow the Eurocentric philosophy of planting varieties at the northern extreme of ripening potential, nor are we much subject to the dilution and rot associated with autumnal rainfall.
On the other hand, we do irrigate. Our European friends warn us that this keeps roots near enough to ground level that vines appear to be more subject to climate proclivities. Here and there, California vineyardists have eschewed irrigation. Besides all those old vine zinfandels, we see more contemporary successes (Christian Moueix forbids it at Dominus, for example), but by and large the yields from irrigated vines barely permit Napa growers to pay their mortgages on ridiculously overpriced real estate. In Europe, more often the place is already paid for.
So in July of 2006, California got hit with merciless heat -- in excess of 100oF for three solid weeks. This was actually the best possible time in terms of fruit condition, well after berry set and well before veraison. Foliage was sufficiently developed to shade these nascent clusters, and little sunburn is apparent. Most vineyards seemed outwardly to have dodged the bullet.
But now we are seeing some odd manifestations as the fruit begins to mature. Some are quite variable across the State – in some Lodi vineyards, brix seems alarmingly retarded, perhaps because a portion of the fruit, falling prey to the stress of July, stopped maturing altogether. In other Lodi cabernet vineyards we see 26 brix while acid remains high and flavors undeveloped. In one North Coast Viognier picked in late August we saw such low acid that the pH was 4.5 – almost impossibly high.
These variations are probably explained by the differences in timing of the hot spell vis a vis the maturity status and water availability in various plots. But there are three bizarre effects which are repeated by everyone I talk to: Low tannin, Low vegetal flavors, Blandness
The third is probably an artifact of the first two – fruit aromas do not develop until nearer to harvest. Tannins do not increase during maturity, and are critical for color extraction, so smart winemakers will be getting out their bag of tricks, each with a different strategy: “seigné,” (bleeding off juice), co-fermenting with tannic varietals like Carignane or even the skins of tannic whites like Chenin Blanc, various oak products in the fermenter, and above all, trying to solve the riddle of proper hang time.