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California’s Vintage Variation Debate

California’s Vintage Variation Debate

At the 2015 IPOB seminar in San Francisco in March we were invited to showcase our wines in a panel discussion regarding vintage variation. We tasted the Bien Nacido Chardonnay from 2010, 2011 and 2012 vintages. Below is wine writer W. Blake Gray’s recap of the event.

Does vintage or vineyard have the greater say in Californian wines?
By W. Blake Gray | Posted Wednesday, 18-Mar-2015
Everyone accepts that French wines have vintage variation: it’s not a bug, it’s a feature. But what about California wines? The Golden State is famous for consistency. What happens when that’s not true?

“The French are more successful at saying: ‘We’re going to lower the price on this vintage to move it,'” Failla proprietor Ehren Jordan told Wine Searcher. “In California, the price is non-elastic. The assumption is that it’s going to be good.”

“As the modern Napa Cabernet business has expanded, there’s an impression of no margin for error,” Jordan added. “All these invasive winemaking techniques are brought in and the wines all taste the same. Big-deal Cabernet, there’s so much money in it, people feel like they can’t deviate from this tiny norm. It’s taken all the artistry out. It’s a science project.”

Jordan spoke on a panel at industry event, In Pursuit of Balance in San Francisco on Monday, which attempted to address the virtues and/or pitfalls of vintage variation, using three consecutive vintages of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay that were about as different as any in California history: 2010, 2011 and 2012.

In 2010, most of northern California was cool all summer until a heatwave arrived at the end. Famously, 2011 was cold, rainy and troubled by mildew in many areas. And 2012 was warm and sunny, the California weather everyone expects.

The diverse growing conditions have created very different wines from the same site. The seminar included a tasting of the 2010, ’11 and ’12 vintages of Chanin Bien Nacido Santa Maria Valley Chardonnay. Master Sommelier Andrea Robinson compared the trio to “a Chassagne [-Montrachet], a Puligny [-Montrachet] and a Chablis Grand Cru.”

“The winemaking stayed exactly the same,” winemaker Gavin Chanin said. “I like to say I can write the formula for Chardonnay winemaking on half of one side of an index card.”

This is the sort of thing a Burgundy producer might say. When Chanin brings his wine to market, does he have some explaining to do?

“Most people don’t notice [vintage variation],” Chanin told Wine Searcher. “The wines taste more like the vineyard than the year.”

Chanin was the most extreme of the panelists in saying he doesn’t change his winemaking or vineyard management to accommodate different climate conditions. Jordan said the big difference in his winemaking style is the yield, which can be much larger in a year with more forgiving weather.

Ross Cobb, winemaker for Hirsch Estate, turned the accepted California vintage paradigm on its head, saying that the Hirsch Vineyard in the western Sonoma Coast had one of its best years weather-wise in 2011, without the rain and mildew pressure that lower-elevation vineyards that troubled most of northern California.

“It was one of the easiest vintages I’ve ever had to deal with,” Cobb said, and the 2011 Hirsch San Andreas Fault Estate Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir was one of the standouts of the IPOB tasting.

“We don’t try to create a wine that’s similar vintage to vintage,” Cobb said. “People are excited when they taste our wine and there is some variation.”