Remembering the 2011 Vintage

At Epoch, we have just had our online release of our 2011 Syrah-based reds, and so I have the ‘11 vintage on my brain and palate.

2011 was a controversial vintage in the eyes of many wine writers, and there are many varied opinions on the 2011 wines coming out of California.  I fully admit that I am a biased parent of Epoch’s 2011 wines, however, I am also their biggest critic.  I honestly feel that while they aren’t the most powerful Epoch or West Paso wines you’ll ever drink, they are some of the most nuanced and elegant, and they are my most favorite vintage to drink so far.

Having watched these wines grow up in our cellar, I feel I cannot send them off into the world with the stigma of a difficult vintage because for some producers 2011 was not so much difficult as it was game-changing and special.

I had moved down to Paso Robles from fog-covered Sonoma County in 2010, a vintage considered Paso’s coolest until 2011 rolled around.  I was expecting the weather to be more intense than moderate and was surprised to find my first two vintages in Paso cool and mild.  Along with every winemaker I know, I have thus far reflected on 2011 as the coolest in my 13 vintages in the wine industry.

How much cooler was 2011 than normal? I just geeked out and tried to prove to myself that 2011 was much, much cooler than any vintage I had ever experienced.  I wrote and erased 3 snoring paragraphs about Growing Degree Days and how we kind of use them to compare vintage conditions.  But let me just sum all that up to say I was wrong about 2011.  On a strict temperature basis, 2011 was not that different than 2010, in fact it was slightly warmer than 2010!

So, what else was going on in 2011 to make us think the vintage was so much cooler and different than anything we’d ever experienced?

One of the most dreaded growing season events occurred on April 7th and 8th of 2011, which left a lingering mark on the 2011 vintage, an intense advective frost.   A large mass of cold arctic air covered our vines and their newly developed growth, sparing no part, top, middle, or bottom of the hillside vineyards.  There was no warm air layer on top of the cold (no inversion layer we say), so wind machines were not useful.  The frost lasted for 10+ hours, starting as early as 11 PM at night and lasting until past 6 AM the following morning.  Even the vineyards with overhead irrigation for frost protection knew they would run out of water before the frost receded, so they had no line of defense. Then the night of April 8th rolled around and we had the same experience all over again.

We all had to wait several weeks after the frost event to see how/if our vines would bounce back.  Luckily, grapevines are fighters and survivors and are equipped with an insurance policy in the form of secondary and tertiary buds.  However, with the primary buds smoked by the frost, we did not know how fruitful the seconday or tertiary buds would be.  Lucky again, Rhone varieties (especially Grenache) have relatively fruitful secondary buds.   These buds began to awaken from the vines about two to three weeks after the frost, meaning our growing season re-stared two – three weeks later than normal.

Although shocking on many levels, the frost meant very low yields, which is very important to achieving ripe fruit in a cool vintage.  The majority of Epoch’s 2011 grapes were harvested between the end of October and beginning of November.  This is somewhat late compared to other vintages, however we had the ability to hang the fruit as long as we needed without the threat of inclement weather.  The well-drained limestone-studded hillsides of our Paderewski Vineyard yielded fully mature grapes at slightly lower brix than normal, with great acidity and a soft tannin backbone.

So in summary, 2011 was not only a cool vintage, like 2010, but it was one in which the vines experienced an intense frost which set their clocks back two – three weeks.  We were able to hang the fruit until ripeness, but it was in no means a long growing season.

In the winery, the 2011 grape chemistries were text-book perfect.  Sugars on the reds ranged from 25 to 27 brix and acids were beautiful.  Native fermentations went off without a hitch as did native malolactic fermentations. The wines have always shown an incredible freshness and soft, subtle complexity.

I have tasted and retasted the 2011s next to their predecessors and love the layered intricacy and subtlety of these wines.  Don’t get me wrong, these wines are unmistakably Paso, however they show the many different gears Paso has as an unabashedly unique growing region.  And guess what? Paso can play the cool climate act very well indeed!

Laced with a substantial tannin backbone and great acidity, I firmly suspect the 2011 wines to age beautifully in your cellar.  Mother nature continually shows us who is boss, and at Epoch, I love that we can capture her essence through vineyard focused winegrowing and winemaking.

I ask you now, are you ready to add some subtle nuance and a bit of introversion to your palate for Paso wines?