Countdown to harvest

In the Napa Valley veraison, the onset of ripening when grapes begin to take on color and accumulate sugar and flavor, normally begins in July, with different varietals starting the process a few days or weeks apart. In contrast to last year, 2016 seems to be pretty normal in both ripening and crop load.

In 2015 veraison started early, resulting in one of the earliest harvests on record in the Napa Valley, the first grapes picked for sparkling wine on July 22 and the last for most vintners and growers in the valley by mid-October. People wondered if 2015 represented the new normal, with record temperatures and the effects of climate change cited as possible causes.

The biological process of grape maturation is complicated, and we are still just figuring out all the causes and sources of influence. Temperature certainly has a major impact on ripening and flavor development, but there are other factors, as well. Recent studies have shown that the mix of microbes in the vineyard environment seem to play a significant role, too.

I grew up in the Napa Valley, but when I moved to Boston for my postdoctoral fellowship, I was delighted at the dramatic changes of weather and the wonderful colors associated with the fall foliage. I was always pleasantly reminded of my childhood when the trees around New England took on the red-orange hues and the smells of wet earth and dried leaves reminiscent of the vineyards back home.

But in the Napa Valley, unlike many other places in the world, each year that passes does not fade quickly into the reccurring and repeating pattern of the seasons, but is instead captured in the wines of the vintage, each one encapsulating a moment in time.

I was reminded of this while drinking wine the other night with famed winemaker Heidi Barrett as she hosted a wine-tasting event at Solage Calistoga. I was lucky enough to be a guest at the event that included a menu created by Michelin-star-rated Chef Brandon Sharp. The wines we tasted were those of Barrett’s personal brand, La Sirena, and included a selection of small-lot wines from rarely encountered varietals in the Napa Valley.

Of particular intrigue was the tropically perfumed 2014 dry white La Sirena Moscato Azul ($30 a bottle) that came in a stunning cobalt-blue bottle. Barrett explained that she’d been intrigued with the idea of making a dry-style wine from muscat canelli grapes but without the sugar of a traditional moscato.

“There were dry rieslings and dry gewurztraminers in the U.S., but no dry muscat,” she said. “I asked myself, ‘Why doesn’t anyone make this?’ I finally decided to try it myself.”

It’s a wonderful thing that she did because she’s created a wine that the influential wine critic Robert Parker Jr. calls “Unbelievably fun. A wine that Heidi Barrett does better than just about anyone else.”

For the pairing, the Moscato Azul was served with a Hawaiian hamachi with mole amarillo, pole bean salsa and spiced almonds over which all those in attendance raved.

The 2014 vintage has often been heralded as a “perfect weather” vintage, with a long, dry, steady growing season. But 2011 was a different story, with many wine critics panning the 2011 vintage, believing that the cooler-than-average growing season and early rains resulted in thin wines with little character. Yet another of Barrett’s wines tasted that night showed how a fine winemaker, coupled with a hands-on vineyard management team, can result in stunning wines that represent the unique and specialness of any year.

We tasted the 2011 La Sirena “Le Barrettage” ($80 a bottle), a Rhone-style blend that is an homage to the L’Hermitage wines in France, containing syrah grapes from Barrett’s hillside vineyard. The wine was thick in the glass, with aromas of smoky bacon mixing with concentrated pomegranate juice and truffle. In the mouth, dense flavors of ripe blueberry blackberry and molasses finished with lingering flavors of duck confit. The wine was served with hardwood-smoked and seared hen-of-the-woods mushrooms, accompanied with cured egg yolk, sunchoke soubise, toasted farro and earthy marjoram.

“Each year brings with it its challenges and opportunities,” Barrett said. “My goal is to create wines that are pure expressions of place, varietal and vintage, each bringing with it something special.”

Many, many wine lovers, me included, are very happy she does.

--

Originally published in the Napa Register, July 2016