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2007 Vintage Report Card: Part 1

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

Posted: December 18, 2007

The 2007 harvest is over, to the delight of some, the relief of others and the dismay of an unlucky few. Though it's too early to assess overall wine quality, Wine Spectator's editors have analyzed the season's conditions in key regions and given each 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+

Many Central Coast producers wish that crops had been larger in 2007, but few are disappointed by the wines. Vintners are pleased with the region's three major varieties—Pinot Noir, Syrah and Chardonnay—and claim to have harvested consistently healthy, small grapes with concentrated flavors and lively acidity.

The winter was cold, delaying the onset of budbreak and flowering by one to two weeks. The winter and spring were also exceptionally dry, with about half the usual rainfall, so berries at many sites tended to be small, as were the cluster weights.

In the Santa Lucia Highlands of Monterey, Jeff Pisoni, winemaker at Pinot Noir specialist Pisoni Vineyards, said he likes his 2007s, even though the yields were only about 1.5 tons per acre, down 40 percent. "I see great density, great color. They're really beautiful," he said of the wines.

Justin Smith, owner and winemaker at Saxum Vineyard in Paso Robles, had just one significant heat spell, in mid-August—too early to force him to pick, he said. Syrah and Grenache strike Smith as the standouts this year. "The wines are not as tannic as the 2005s, and more concentrated and intense because of the drought [we've been having]. The grapes were not desiccated, there were just little berries," he said.

Siduri winemaker Adam Lee makes three Pinot Noirs and three Syrahs from the Santa Lucia Highlands, and two Pinots from the Santa Rita Hills AVA of Santa Barbara County. He said that the small berries presented some risk of tannin over-extraction, but nothing experienced winemakers couldn't handle. "The wines are more concentrated than '05 and '06 and fairly tannic, but the tannins are not overwhelming because of the concentration," he said.

Four Vines owner Christian Tietje started picking his Santa Barbara Chardonnay in mid-September, two weeks earlier than usual. "It's a great acid year. I think these will be gorgeous, very crisp and with better aging potential than usual. They might not have the big tropical fruit character, and could be a bit more austere," he said.

Santa Rita Hills winemaker Greg Brewer also said he got vibrant acidity in the Pinot Noir and Chardonnay he makes for Brewer-Clifton, Melville and Diatom. He started harvest with Pinot on Oct. 1, a month later than usual, but finished his Syrah Nov. 4, three weeks early. "There's not one variety that outshines the others," he said. "Across the board it's good."

—Daniel Sogg

Region: California: Napa
Grade: B+

Depending on their locale, Napa Valley vintners experienced at least two and sometimes three different phases of harvest in 2007. "I am very pleased with the quality [of the wines]," said Genevieve Janssens, winemaker at Robert Mondavi Winery. "It's still too early to say if it's a great vintage, but it's a very, very good one, especially for Cabernet. The tannins are so sweet and delicious."

After a dry winter and a warm, dry spring, the grapes got off to an early start, with a smaller crop—and great anticipation. White varieties came off the vines early. "We had a quick start for Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir," Janssens said. "When temperatures cooled in mid-September, the maturity slowed down. We anticipated a compact harvest, which ended up as a nice-paced harvest, focusing on one single variety at a time. We had time to wait for maturity for each variety. We saw very little sunburn, dehydration or collapsing of the fruit, which can be considered exceptional."

Carneros Pinot Noir had an extended harvest, ending in October. "Some [wineries] picked early," said Anna Moller-Racke, winegrower for Donum Estate in Carneros, which made her wonder "What's wrong with our vineyard?" The wait paid off with good quality, she said, and nice breaks between picks.

The year didn't have the usual heat spikes in August or September, except for a Labor Day blast, and the weather turned cool and even chilly in September, followed by periodic rainstorms. Cabernet vineyards were harvested with ease throughout September and October in warmer spots, such as Oakville and Rutherford. The coolest sites are always the most challenging, and those who waited to the bitter end said they were pleased by the harvest. Some winemakers said they were on the verge of "panic picking" in mid-October as a storm front headed inland, followed by several days of rain and mild temperatures.

Most winemakers described 2007 as mixed, but with a crop load smaller than in 2005 or 2006. They also said that alcohol levels were lower again, more along the lines of the previous two years rather than some of the hotter vintages, such as 2001 and 2002.

"If I had to compare with another vintage I would compare it to 2001," said Janssens. "In 2004, which can be close, we had four heat waves in September which we did not have in 2001 and 2007."

—James Laube

Region: California: Sonoma
Grade: B+

Harvests are rarely more laid back in Sonoma County than in 2007. "This was the longest harvest we've ever had. It was almost three months," said Erik Olsen, vice president and winemaker of Clos du Bois, which sources grapes from throughout the county. "It was slow and it was really great because you could take your time and be deliberate in your decisions."

The winter was unusually dry, which led to an early budbreak. The growing season was generally moderate and even, with only a few heat spikes in early summer, but they hit when the grapes were still hard and green, not having yet entered veraison, so quality wasn't affected.

Harvest got off to an early start when warm weather arrived in mid-August, and white grapes like Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay suddenly flooded the wineries. But that hectic pace was short-lived, as unseasonably cool weather followed in early September. Despite the early start, the first wave of grapes showed surprisingly good quality since the growing season was already long due to the early budbreak.

The rest of the season remained cool until rains in mid-October more or less began a slow end to harvest.

"I like the '07 wines," Williams Selyem winemaker Bob Cabral said. "It wasn't a big Pinot crop. 2006 was such a large vintage. If that vintage was the feast, then 2007 was the famine. But that can also concentrate the wines. The Pinot Noirs are going to be much bigger tannin-wise."

Chardonnay followed a similar pattern, Olsen said, with crisp, elegant but not overly ripe flavors. "I think it was an outstanding vintage," Olsen said.

Carlisle winemaker Mike Officer said Zinfandel will generally be lower in alcohol and higher in acid. "The cool period seemed to help flavors develop and the sugars didn't go crazy." Russian River and Sonoma Valley Zinfandel fared slightly better than Dry Creek, where spring's low rainfall and the August heat spell combined to dehydrate old, dry-farmed Zin vineyards.

—Tim Fish

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

All of the challenges that New York winemakers routinely confront—frost, humidity, a short growing season—decided to take a vacation this year. "Put bluntly, 2007 was so ideal it was actually somewhat boring," said Richard Pisacano, owner of Long Island's Roanoke Vineyards and vineyard manager for Wölffer Estate. No one is complaining too much, though, since the wines—particularly the reds—look very promising.

Upstate in the Finger Lakes, winter and spring passed by frost-free, giving producers solid yields after several years with few grapes on the vines. The summer was warm and sunny—hot and dry, in fact—which was good for the reds and a relief after a very cloudy, wet 2006. Several winemakers are raving about the dark colors in their Pinot Noir and Cabernet Franc. "The reds will surprise many Finger Lakes wine drinkers," said Thomas Laszlo, winemaker at Heron Hill Winery. "The Pinot Noirs will be displaying a New Zealand or New World style."

But the region's most acclaimed varietal, Riesling, may be a bit more uneven, thanks to the warm, dry weather. Drought-like conditions hit the area for most of the summer until some scattered showers in late August and September. "Many of the younger vineyards shut down at some point because of lack of water," said Johannes Reinhardt, winemaker at Anthony Road Winery. Acidity levels dropped in many of the white varieties while sugar levels rose. Some producers chose to add some acid in the tank, and most say this year's Rieslings will show more tropical fruit flavors and less bracing acidity, as a result.

On Long Island's North Fork, weather conditions were similarly warm and dry. "We received less than 5 inches of rain during the growing season," said David Page, co-owner of Shinn Estate Vineyards. "We normally receive 16 to 18." Many producers were harvesting grapes at over 24 Brix, rare for this cooler region. Temperatures cooled down slightly beginning in August, allowing producers to stretch the harvest and pick fruit at a leisurely pace.

Without much humidity, mildew and rot were never a concern. "The skins of the red grapes were so ripe that they were dissolving readily at the crusher—the wines are quite seductive," said Charles Massoud, owner of Paumanok Vineyards. Several winemakers left their wines on the skins longer, extracting riper tannins—and are hoping these wines will age gracefully.

—Mitch Frank

Region: Oregon
Grade: B

On paper, not much went right for Oregon's Pinot Noir growers during the harvest season. Rain fell just as the grapes were reaching ripeness, and continued off and on for more than a month, dumping 6 to 8 inches during that time. So why are so many Oregon vintners smiling?

"With the weather we had, you would think that the wines would be light, washed out and not very interesting," said Josh Bergström, proprietor of Bergström Vineyards. "The truth is that I have some of the darkest, most perfumed and exciting wines I think I have ever made."

Acid levels are higher than usual across the Pinot Noir growing areas, and alcohols are lower, making for lively, fragrant wines, according to several winemakers. One reason, most agree, is that temperatures remained cool during the rains and between them. There was little mold or rot.

"The wines in the barrel taste just fine," said Tony Rynders, winemaker at Domaine Serene. "What we learned is that rain, in and of itself, is not necessarily a deal breaker. It's the conditions surrounding it. In 2004 we saw much smaller amounts of rain, and earlier, but it caused more problems."

The growing season started with a warm spring, which turned cooler during the summer. There were no heat spikes of 100° F or so, which often disrupt Oregon's growing seasons, and the grapes were sound going into the harvest—and then it rained.

Some 30 percent to 40 percent of the crop was picked early to get it in before the rains, and not all of it was really ready. More grapes were harvested between the rain events, as vintners hoped for some usable grapes even if they had not fully ripened. But those who stood their ground and waited report that they fared best in the end.

Southern Oregon, which focuses more on Bordeaux varieties and Syrah, suffered less from the rain and produced generally sound wines.

—Harvey Steiman

Region: Washington
Grade: A

Hot summer weather gave way to cool conditions in mid-September, allowing Washington grapegrowers and winemakers to harvest grapes under ideal circumstances. When temperatures remained cool through October under clear skies, 2007 became a vintage when hang time counted for flavor, not alcohol.

"Sugar levels were perfect," said Dave Hanson, the grower partner in Cougar Crest Winery in Walla Walla. "We brought in a lot of stuff at 24 or 24 and a half [Brix]," which converts to less than 14 percent alcohol in the finished wines.

"The wines have great balance already," added Debbie Hanson, Dave's wife and the winemaker. "They have full-bodied mouthfeel and flavors, but no aspect of the wines overpowers the others. It's just what we want."

Bob Betz, who gets grapes from Columbia Valley, Red Mountain and Yakima Valley for his Betz Family Winery in Woodinville, characterized the 2007 vintage as one with "generally fine ripeness and purity of fruit," pointing to Cabernet Sauvignon as the best performer. "We could wait for the grapes to lose their green, herbaceous flavors and not worry about them developing too much sugar," Betz explained. "The wines have that fresh fruit character without going toward pruny or raisiny, even though they hung out there on the vine for an extra week or two."

The summer started out warm across the state and had several heat spikes, which stopped the ripening process temporarily, several growers said. When the weather turned cool in September, sugar levels remained slightly below normal right through to the end.

"This was a year when you had to base your picking decisions on taste," Betz noted. Most vintners reported low pH levels, a measure of acidity. That would suggest very tart wines, but most of the extra tartness was malic acid, which softened in the winemaking process as the wines underwent malolactic fermentation.

As a result, vintners say, the wines have neither excess tartness nor excess alcohol, and tannins are smooth. "It took a long time for the grapes to develop their flavors," Betz said. "But once they started to flavor up, they galloped."

—Harvey Steiman

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