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2005 Vintage Report Card: Part 3

A preliminary look at quality in the wine regions of Europe and the United States

Posted: December 28, 2005

Another harvest is over, and the newest wines are aging in winery cellars. Although it's too early to thoroughly assess quality, Wine Spectator's editors have provided a snapshot of the conditions and expectations in key regions and given each of them a preliminary grade.

• California - Central Coast
• California - Napa Valley
• California - Sonoma
• New York - Finger Lakes & Long Island
• Oregon
• Washington

United States

Region: California - Central Coast
Grade: Santa Barbara (A), Paso Robles (B)

The prevailing sentiment following harvest was relief, since the vintage turned out not to be the meltdown that loomed in midsummer, when ripeness lagged way behind schedule. Though it's too soon to say if the finished wines will live up to the industry predictions, many varieties fared well, with lower alcohol levels and significantly larger yields than normal.

After heavy winter rains, the weather was mild and dry, with little wind or frost. Conditions were nearly ideal during budbreak and flowering, which led to a large crop set. Perhaps the most significant element was the absence of dramatic heat spikes during the summer.

In western Paso Robles, Justin Smith, owner of Saxum and a vineyard consultant for six other area growers, said the wines will deliver a stylistic changeup compared with the previous five vintages, which featured a more overripe character. Paso Robles growers are particularly excited about their Syrah and Grenache.

Farther north, in the Santa Lucia Highlands of Monterey, Talbott winemaker Sam Balderas said that both the Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes were healthy, with little mildew or rot. Despite the mild weather, acid levels were relatively low at harvest due to the long hang time.

Farther south, in Santa Barbara County, Byron winemaker Jonathan Nagy, who works with 380 acres of vineyards in the Santa Maria Valley, likes the ripe tannins, dark fruit flavors and floral character he sees in the Pinot Noir. Chardonnays have yet to finish malolactic fermentation, but in the vineyard they showed spicy tropical fruit flavors.

Brian Loring, owner of Loring Wine Co., makes Pinot from eight Central Coast vineyards, including two in Santa Barbara's Sta. Rita Hills appellation. His yields were up a modest 10 percent over last year, an increase he attributes primarily to the lack of dehydration in the grapes. The long hang time softened the tannins, but cool weather preserved healthy acidity, and both flavors and concentration look good. He said, "There's nothing I'm worried about so far."

—Daniel Sogg

Region: California - Napa Valley
Grade: A

Once again, Napa Valley vintners were dancing in their cellars over the prospects for 2005, with some predicting that it could be one of Napa's finest vintages, based on the quality of the young wines. Yet, the long, drawn-out harvest provided plenty of anxious moments and surprises.

Cool weather prevailed for most of the season, and as of September, the red grapes were hanging but not developing flavor. But vintners' trepidation was eased as the fall brought a steady supply of sunshine and heat.

Though the harvest came very late, winemakers described it as nearly perfect, thanks to spectacular weather. Many vineyards weren't picked until November, which is unusual, but they were picked in a much shorter period than in 2004. The extended hang time allowed for greater flavor development, winemakers said, and in the end that's the most important factor.

The red wines-Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah-"were incredibly dark," said Colgin winemaker Mark Aubert.

The Chardonnay and Pinot Noir crops from Carneros were also impressive, vintners said.

The harvest was bountiful, with yields that caught growers by surprise. Mark Neal of Neal Family Vineyards said the big crop came as a result of heavier berries, not from a lack of thinning. Many wineries ran out of fermentation tanks, leaving some vineyards unpicked.

—James Laube

Region: California - Sonoma
Grade: A

From the soggy beginning to the cliff-hanger ending, 2005 tested the nerves of even the most seasoned veteran in Sonoma County. Despite the challenges, the crop was one of the largest on record, and quality appears good.

Winter was unusually cold and soggy, but a mid-March heat spell started the growing season early. Rain continued on and off through June, and summer temperatures seldom rose above 90° F. The threat of mildew and botrytis was constant, and growers had to trim diseased fruit and frequently use sulfur and other treatments. Old-vine Zinfandel and Pinot Noir in western Sonoma County were particularly hard hit, resulting in small crops.

As September came to a close, growers nervously watched the sky, but the rain held out until late October. Ultimately, the vineyards got the sun and heat they needed. Simi winemaker Steve Reeder said Chardonnays will be elegant, emphasizing pear and citrus instead of tropical fruit flavors. The Cabernet Sauvignons, particularly in Alexander Valley, are showing good structure but are not expected to be powerhouses. Similarly, 2005 will not produce ultraripe monster Zinfandels, while the year's Sauvignon Blancs will be particularly crisp and distinctly herbal. Though the Pinot Noir crop is small, winemakers say the early wines seem rich and intensely structured.

—Tim Fish

Region: New York
Grade: Finger Lakes (B+), Long Island (B-)

The Finger Lakes and Long Island are usually like night and day. The former is cooler, wetter and more hilly, while the latter is warmer and drier, with a maritime climate. However, the 2005 growing season in the two regions was very similar-hot and dry-up until October.

"It was the sunniest, warmest summer since 1991," said Peter Bell, winemaker for Fox Run on Seneca Lake. "Because it was so hot we have lower acids than normal," said Standing Stone owner Marti Macinski. The lack of rain caused some concern, she added, but "Riesling and Chardonnay, the earliest grapes picked, have some nice fruit flavors and balance." The reds are rich and show more exotic fruit flavors than are typical for the region, Bell said, while the Pinot Noirs are especially dense and well-balanced.

Things were much the same for the whites on Long Island until October, when a weeklong storm dropped up to 17 inches of rain. The region's signature reds, Merlot and Cabernet Franc, were still hanging on the vine, and some crops were decimated. Other producers, though, such as Wölffer Estate and Bedell Cellars, report that they managed-with heavy sorting-to get healthy, ripe fruit into the winery after the skies cleared.

"The Merlots are as good or better than what I was making in California," said Bedell's new winemaker, John Irving Levenberg. He rushed to pick after the rains, as his grapes hadn't swollen that much and the sugar levels hadn't dropped substantially. But Wölffer winemaker Roman Roth waited for the vineyards to dry out, the Brix to rise and the flavors to become concentrated again. "If you weren't fast enough, I think there was a danger you could lose it as well at the end," he said. But before the rains, he added, "the ripeness was all there," so with resilient grapes and the right picking decisions, "the wines will speak for themselves."

—Eric Arnold

Region: Oregon
Grade: B+

After four years of unusually warm growing seasons, Oregon experienced what winemakers are calling a classically styled vintage for the state, with wines that are crisp, low in alcohol and elegantly fruit-forward.

The 2005 season began with one of the driest winters and wettest springs on record. While the cool, rainy spring was a relief for drought-stricken parts of the state, the grape set was uneven. Therefore, yields varied, with some regions and varieties taking more of a hit than others.

The summer was mild in the Willamette Valley, with only a few days that reached the 90s, while temperatures in southern Oregon were slightly above normal. By late September, cool temperatures and showers began to settle in. "We were hoping for a few more weeks of warmth to get more sugar development, but the fall cycle kicked in," said King Estate winemaker Bill Kremer.

In early assessments, Pinot Noirs from the Willamette Valley and Chardonnays from around the state were described as elegant, food-friendly wines. The cool growing conditions were suited to producing crisp, delicate Pinot Gris. Scott Shull, winemaker at Raptor Ridge, called the vintage's wines "delicious, balanced and nuanced."

—Tim Fish

Region: Washington
Grade: B

The year turned out to be good for all of Washington's key wine appellations. Sweating out a hot summer, winemakers worried that their grapes would ripen without fully developed flavors, but they caught a break when temperatures cooled in September and October.

"That really saved our bacon, particularly for the white varieties," said Doug Gore, who oversees winemaking for Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, which harvests grapes from around the state. "Chardonnay is dynamite," he said, "and the floral white wines like Riesling and Gewürztraminer and Chenin are very good, and so far Sauvignon Blanc is looking pretty good."

For the red varieties, Gore was encouraged by the quality of Syrah and Merlot, but noted that Cabernet grown in cool regions may not have received the late-season heat needed to reach full maturity.

DeLille Cellars winemaker Chris Upchurch harvests much of his fruit from the Red Mountain appellation in Yakima Valley, and he said red wines such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot may rival the highly regarded 1994 vintage. "We had really concentrated and extracted fruit."

Overall, the crop was slightly smaller than last year's.

—Tim Fish

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