Ok so the title of this post is obviously sarcasm, but there is some truth to it. Especially in the Willamette Valley. Wine grape growing in Oregon is a challenge. The single biggest factor to affect the quality of the wine is the quality of the grapes in it. It is an often repeated saying, but good wine is made in the vineyard. That is not to put the entirety of the growing season on the vineyard manager though, weather is what determines the baseline of a growing season. Not everyone in Oregon will choose to use organic chemicals, or to machine harvest, but every region will be subjected to similar weather patterns. Freezing in April, rain in July, rot in October, these are all things that can and will happen to event the most manicured vineyard.
Winemakers typically track 4 things during maturation of grapes; the pH, titratable acidity, degrees Brix, and eventually the taste and feel of the berry. The challenge in Oregon winemaking and grape growing is hitting your picking window perfectly. A grapevine is intentionally stressed, a lot of vineyards in Oregon choose not to irrigate and instead let the taproots do the work. This is because the happiest grapevine is not necessarily the best wine producing one. The plant must be scared into thinking conditions aren't ideal and reproduction is a necessity. This causes a very thirsty plant by the end of ripening.
Winemakers must base there pick time off three factors, physical ripeness, crushing schedule (big wineries must sometimes pick early or late simply because they have no other time to process the fruit), and weather. No one wants the weather to determine the pick time because then the winemaker is out of control and must begin to gamble. Will more rain come? The second rain hits the ground it is absorbed by the vine and sugar and acidity levels begin to dilute. This will set off a chain reaction of actions and decisions which are designed to mitigate the fact that we live in a very hard place to grow grapes.
Why would dropping sugar levels be concerning to a winemaker? Yeast ferment sugars into carbon dioxide and ethanol, less sugar means less alcohol, more sugar means more alcohol. We try and achieve a balance between acid, sweetness, and bitterness in the wine. Bitterness can be controlled by the alcohol level, and there is a base alcohol that needs to be present in order for the wine to taste like a wine. It is therefore essential that we achieve a minimum sugar concentration within the grape juice before it becomes wine.
This post is geared more towards American wine in general, so California must enter the discussion. Some of the more revered regions in California enjoy completely different weather patters. While our cool and mild climate is conducive to Pinots, the dry heat and long summers of California are great for bigger reds like Cab and Syrah. Californian winemakers have the opposite problem that we do: too much sun. This is reflected in laws about what can be added to grape must. In Oregon, it is legal to add sugar directly to the must the increase degrees Brix before fermentation. In California, they must do the opposite and dilute the must down to a more agreable level (both for the yeast and the consumer). Huge, ripe crops are almost a guarantee in California, and part of the reason that Napa vineyard land is some of the most expensive in the world.
So why does all of this matter?
I received a comment to a post talking about giving up on American wine due to our usual problem: too much excess. Over sweet, and high alcohol were some of the typical descriptors used to describe American wine, and that hurts. I do not feel that this problem is linked to American wine in general, just certain regions and certain techniques that have been glorified to a point of distaste. I also have faith in economics, if American wine was being held back by over ripening and excess sugars, the market should have naturally compensated. Perhaps it is beginning to?
In most of the regions in Oregon, 15% alcohol is simply not achievable in a normal year. Based on recent trends, we are more likely to be under ripe. This leads to a berry which is higher in acid and lower in sugar. Our pinot gris should have a sweetness to it, but what really drives it home with consumers is the well balanced acid. That is no accident, we use the tools, or terroir, that the region gives us. So if you are in search of a different style of wine, I would recommend looking at a different region. As the industry grows winemakers are trying to explore every possible climate and soil they can offer to their vines, and with some excellent results.