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2006 Vintage Report Card: Part 1

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

Posted: December 12, 2006

Another harvest is over. Some vintners are breathing sighs of relief and others are looking forward to bottling already, excited about what they have in their 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: B+

For the second consecutive year, cool weather inhibited vine and grape development throughout much of the growing season in California's Central Coast winegrowing region. Producers are optimistic following a warm October that accelerated ripeness, but they say there's little consistency from site to site.

The vines crawled out of the starting block. January and February were, for the most part, unusually cold, and March was very wet. Peter Cargasacchi, owner of Cargasacchi Vineyard in the Santa Rita Hills of Santa Barbara, got his latest start ever, with budbreak occurring at the end of March. "We started off one month behind," he said. But that ended up working out for the best. The July heat wave that hammered the North Coast also struck the Central Coast, but with less force. And the grapes, still green and thick-skinned at that stage, suffered little damage.

However, the weather then remained cool until October, when it finally began to warm up. Greg Brewer, who makes Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Syrah at Melville and Brewer-Clifton in the Santa Rita Hills, said his crop is relatively small, but the wines "seem very dense and saturated. We're really excited about them."

In western Paso Robles, where Saxum owner Justin Smith focuses on Syrah, Mourvèdre and Grenache, 2006 was a bumpy ride. "[Following] rain in early October, I was quite depressed about the season, worried about rot and things never ripening," he said. "But then it cleared up, with temperatures in the high 70s for two weeks. The Indian Summer really saved the year."

Sam Balderas, winemaker for Talbott Vineyard in Monterey, started harvest Oct. 11, about three weeks behind. Although yields of Chardonnay and Pinot were about one-third less than normal, the grapes were healthy, with nearly all of the wines still fermenting at the end of November. "Flavors are very, very good, with slightly higher acidity due to the cool weather," he said.

Jeff Pisoni, winemaker at Pisoni Vineyards in the Santa Lucia Highlands of Monterey, also had some anxious moments, but likes the final results. Yields of Pinot and Syrah are above average, he said, and he sees wines with soft, ripe tannins. "It worked out great. Because of the cool weather, everything could develop on the vine without sugars getting too high," he said.

—Daniel Sogg

Region: California: Napa
Grade: B+

For some Napa Valley winemakers, 2006 is one of the top vintages of the decade. But only if the winemakers were on their toes and used all their talents, because the season offered one challenge after another.

"For me, the Cabernets of 2006 are the best we have seen since 2002," said Etude winemaker Tony Soter. "They have compelling concentration and a very expressive personality [with] fine-grained tannins and long finishes. I am very happy with the wines from each of our sources, ranging from Napa to Calistoga." Craig Williams, winemaker at Joseph Phelps Vineyards, also said that 2006 went smoothly and he was pleased by the quality.

Still, the cool, wet spring led to early botrytis and slowed ripening, forcing adjustments in the vineyard. And heat spikes in July sunburned berries. Then it turned cool near harvest, and rot was evident in many vineyards, some of which were not even picked. It was, winemakers agreed, an expensive year to farm.

"I was dismayed to see so many vineyards not being picked and maybe some being worse for the consequence of waiting too long," Soter said. "[It's] hard to understand how so many people could lose sight of the sense of the moment to pick. It isn't true that fruit just keeps getting better even if to a large degree it does improve with hang time."

Weather had a similar impact on the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir harvest in Carneros. "I don't think anyone anticipated how much botrytis pressure was already present in the clusters due to the wet spring," said David Graves, co-owner of Saintsbury. The Carneros Chardonnays have lots of charm, Graves added, but said, "things won't really sort themselves out until the wines have finished malolactic and been put to bed for at least a few weeks or even months."

For Napa in general, Graves perhaps put it best: "My summary reaction is that this was not one of the vintages where 'the wines make themselves.'"

—James Laube

Region: California: Sonoma
Grade: B-

With a cool and soggy spring, a scorching July heat wave and a rainy October, winemakers and growers in Sonoma County witnessed everything from heat stroke to bunch rot in the vineyards this year. Despite the challenges, however, vintners report that the good ultimately outweighed the bad in 2006.

"This was the year of the vineyard manager, and you really had to be on top of your vineyard," Christine Hanna, owner of Hanna winery said.

The growing season got off to a late start, which turned out to be a good thing when temperatures rose above 100 degrees for a few days in July. The grapes were still hard and green, so sunburn was kept to a minimum. But because of the wet spring, botrytis and mildew were a threat throughout the season. Growers in cooler regions like Carneros, Sonoma Coast and Russian River dodged the bullet if they managed to ripen and harvest their Pinot Noir and Chardonnay before the October rains. Others weren't so lucky.

Fortunately, thicker-skinned grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon generally survived the early rain and managed to achieve good ripeness thanks to the temperate weather that followed. Cabernet and Merlot, particularly in Alexander Valley, are showing dark colors. "Not only are we getting the elegance you'd expect, but there's also power and weight," said Nick Goldschmidt, executive winemaker for Beam Wine Estates, which includes wineries such as Clos du Bois, Geyser Peak and Gary Farrell. Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Zinfandel varied widely by subregion but will generally be more crisp and elegant.

The bright spot is that vintners agreed that 2006 was a top year for Sauvignon Blanc. Consistent sun and a long, cool growing season combined to build complex flavors, whether the wines are tart and citrusy or tropical fruit bombs.

—Tim Fish

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

After an atypically hot, dry 2005, New York's two top wine regions experienced wet weather in 2006. That served up a whole new set of challenges for ambitious winemakers.

Growers in the Finger Lakes were just happy to avoid any damaging frosts, since spring chills in 2004 and 2005 killed buds and lowered yields. This year saw no frost, but the summer was warm and humid on the shores of the glacial lakes. "Normally we have either cool and wet or hot and dry," said Red Newt Cellars winemaker David Whiting. "I haven't seen a summer like this." The weather required vigilance against signs of rot and excessive vegetative growth.

September turned cold and remained damp. Hoping to get more ripeness, many wineries left their grapes hanging two to three weeks later than normal. Atwater Estate winemaker Vinny Aliperti left his Riesling and Gewürztraminer on the vine until the third week of October. "We waited it out," he said. The white wines don't have the lush tropical fruit flavors of the 2005s, but the zingy acidity is more typical of Finger Lakes wine. The reds reached sugar levels slightly lower than normal, but the tannins were ripe.

Long Island winemakers played a similar waiting game during a damp September and October on the North Fork, with some wineries harvesting their red varieties the second week of November. Russell Hearn, winemaker at Pellegrini Vineyards, believes his Chardonnay and earlier-ripening reds—Merlot and Cabernet Franc—did well, but the Cabernet Sauvignon proved trickier. "I'm happy with it, but it's not a showy wine," said Hearn. "There's no astringency, but I'm not going to work the wine too hard during fermentation."

One unexpectedly helpful factor was a large amount of shatter during spring flowering, which shrank yields and helped the remaining red grapes ripen more fully. But the summer was just as wet as in the Finger Lakes, and wineries had to spray aggressively to prevent rot, lest their grapes die on the vine.

—Mitch Frank

Region: Oregon
Grade: B+

After several years of small crops, 2006 was a boon year for growers and winemakers in Oregon, who brought in a harvest that was 15 percent to 20 percent above normal. Quality remained high thanks to a generally cooperative Mother Nature.

"I think we have made some of our best wines ever," Eric Lemelson, owner and winemaker of Lemelson Vineyards said. "We had good weather at bloom, which is something we haven't had the past few years."

That favorable spring weather led to good berry set and warm temperatures prevailed through the summer and fall, with only brief heat spikes in June and September. Just as sugar levels were soaring, cooler and slightly wet conditions arrived throughout much of the state in late September, allowing the grapes time to develop more mature flavors.

"Pinot Noir harvested before things cooled off are on the fruit-bomb end of things," Lemelson said. "For those who waited, the wines remind me of 2002, which was a very ripe year but the wines were still balanced."

Winemakers report that the best Pinots from Willamette Valley will be darkly colored and generally softer, fruit-forward but still well-structured. As for whites, Chardonnay will be generous and fleshy, and 2006 is a promising year for Pinot Gris—particularly in southern Oregon—as long as winemakers picked before flavors became too ripe and flabby.

—Tim Fish

Region: Washington
Grade: A-

Even jaded winemakers had little to complain about when it comes to assessing the 2006 vintage in Washington.

The weather was nearly ideal. A mild but rainy spring helped produce tight bunches of small berries on the vines, adding to the potential for well-structured, deeply flavored wines. Summer fell into a consistent pattern of dry weather, hot days and cool nights, and just when growers in the state's warm regions worried about sugar levels soaring while the flavors lagged, cool and slightly damp conditions arrived in September.

"That brought things to a screeching halt," said David Forsyth, general manager of Hogue Cellars. "We kind of sat on our hands for seven or eight days."

Doug Gore, who oversees winemaking for Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, said Riesling was "solid" but called Chardonnay "the star of the whites," offering a range of flavors from green apple to sweet tropical fruit.

Cabernet Sauvignon that managed to get ripe before temperatures dropped in September show excellent potential, winemakers said, but cooler-region Cabernet will generally be more lean and herbaceous. "We had to be very patient with Cabernet," Forsyth said.

Syrah and Merlot, the state's bread-and-butter red varieties, had a banner year. "No wimpy Merlots this year," Gore said. Winemakers used extended maceration sparingly with Merlots, fearful of tannic, overly extracted wines. "If you were careful, the Merlots are very supple and nicely balanced," Forsyth said.

—Tim Fish

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