Thursday, April 14, 2011

Outlook from Europe

Every March, I head overseas to get a read on the previous vintage from the two regions most important to our clients: Burgundy and Tuscany. We sell a good deal of wine from across France and Italy, but those two appellations are clearly the show ponies of our international portfolio. Visiting the producers in the spring following harvest is far from an exact science, however, as many of the wines are going through various stages of malolactic fermentation and maturity in general. A taster basically has to look at the wines in barrel like a photograph that’s in the initial moments of development in its chemical wash. You can see the vague outline of the image, but the details are certainly blurry. That said, one can get a pretty good sense of the overall character of the vintage by conducting due diligence in the cellar as the young wines evolve in tank and barrel.

Burgundy dodged a serious bullet early in the year as an unusually severe frost settled into the region for several days following budbreak. A significant amount of emerging growth was irreparably damaged, effectively acting as a natural “green harvest” by limiting yields. The result was that most domaines were down around 30%-40% in production (though the quality is significantly above average and then some). In a few instances, the vines themselves froze to death. As we drove north through Vosne-RomanĂ©e on the N74, I asked about two barren plots next to the highway that I assumed had been replanted by design. It turns out that the 2010 frost had settled heavily into the gentle swale next to the highway and laid waste to several acres of prime vineyards. Forget the loss of crop for 2010 and the cost of replanting for that house… it’ll be at least three years before that grower’s vines show a harvestable yield. It was a grim reminder that grape growing is a high-stakes game of poker with Mother Nature. As a result of this icy hand, we’re unlikely to see any downward price pressure. There just wasn’t enough wine made to create anything resembling a glut, nor would the quality warrant a fire sale mentality. Our enduring dream of Burgundy as a bargain remains fleeting.

The vines surrounding the village of Montalcino
The weather didn’t have such a significant impact in Tuscany, and the quality looks to be high across the board for the bellweather varietals. My visits were concentrated in and around Chianti and Montalcino, so the jury’s still out on the coastal homes to the “aia’s” and other big name super-Tuscans. The young Sangiovese samples I tried from barrel were impressive – 2010 should be a banner year for labels bearing Chianti, Rosso and Brunello di Montalcino by the time everything comes to market. It’s very early in the game to declare a final score for these wines given their infancy, but I suspect it’s going to hold up as a very solid vintage.

More thoughts to come as we see these wines land on American soil... let us raise a glass to research!

--Rhett Gadke, Wine Director

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