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Chappellet: An American Vintage

Chappellet: An American Vintage

Chappellet Wintery (photo by C.S.)

Carrie Strong | Chef's Blade

One of the more challenging aspects of my job as a Beverage Manager is to make purchasing decisions on wine vintages (vintage being defined as the year of the growing season and when the grapes were picked) and their appropriateness for the restaurant wine list. Will the wine change with each vintage or can I expect consistent flavor profiles from year to year? If a company has sold out of the current vintage I’ve been serving, is it ok to just purchase the following vintage? Addressing wine vintages can be confusing. Why does a wine change from year to year? Why are some wines consistent from year to year? Just how much does a vintage matter when choosing wine?

Weather is the main concern when addressing a wine vintage; winemakers are rendered helpless to alter their wine during the growing season. Steven Tamburelli, General Manager of the family-owned Chappellet Winery on Pritchard Hill in St. Helena, CA, explains that vintage will have a large impact in terms of wine quality and characteristics across the spectrum of wineries in a given area. For example, winemakers fear an early season frost, inclement weather during flowering, or growing seasons that are too warm, too wet or too cool. Typically favorable growing seasons include a moderate spring, an early bud break (the time when buds come through the vines), and preferably 85º-90º F through the harvest. Steven explains, “In California, we have the luxury of lots of sunshine and warmth, which alleviates ripeness concerns in most years.” Of note, the vineyards of Chappellet are perched on Pritchard Hill 1,200 feet above the Valley floor. Therefore, even if the weather in the Valley is particularly hot, temperatures for Chappellet are still relatively cool.

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Running through the Chappellet winery. (photo by C.S.)

Many wineries however, have acclimated to poor weather conditions by scientifically altering the wine after the growing season during the wine making process. According to Anthony J. Hawkins, “Modern wine science, where practiced, ensures that every year’s growth will produce a drinkable wine. ‘Off’ years may require ‘chaptalization’ – the addition of some sugar to bring the wine to optimum alcohol content – or perhaps the addition of crystallized tartaric acid recovered from previous vintage wine-barrels to increase desirable acid content.” Keep in mind, however, in an effort to maintain certain regional standards, members in the European Union must abide by laws that regulate such alterations to wine. For example, the legal use of chaptalization differs by country, region, and even type of wine. This is similarly the case in the US where chaptalization is not legal and using blended wines (or wine from other years) to produce vintage-labeled wines is limited by Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) regulations. If a wine is labeled with a vintage, at least 85% of the grapes used must be from the labeled vintage unless the wine is designated by an AVA (American Viticultural Area) (e.g. Napa Valley). Then, 95% of the grapes must be from the labeled vintage.