Dry Creek Valley might be the ‘sweet spot’ for growing Zinfandel grapes but Humboldt County is a cool spot for making the wine.
Sonoma County’s popular wine growing region is famous for those gnarly, 100-year-old vines that produce the inky, chewy zinfandels that are almost a meal within themselves, and the finicky Zinfandel requires just the right growing conditions. Even though the crop was down about 15 percent this year, John Pedroncelli, winemaker at Pedroncelli Winery said the 2007 vintage is very encouraging, “possibly the best in the last 60 years.”
With the unusual weather pattern alternating from warm and cool, winemaker Bill Knuttel, from Dry Creek Vineyard, called it a “Jekyll and Hyde crush.” An early burst of spring in March preceded an ideal summer of warm days and cool nights. Total rainfall was only 23 inches, about half of normal. Then, in late August and early September, a heat wave settled in for about 10 days followed by a cold heavy fog that brought a rapid cooling trend. This on-again-off-again weather pattern necessitated a bifurcated harvest, with some fruit ripening early, and some late.
Winemaker John Olney from Ridge Vineyards Lytton Springs summarized the year 2007 Zinfandel harvest: “Sugars in the fermenter were somewhat higher than expected but with excellent pH. The wines have exceptional concentration with full but supple tannins. So far, 2007 appears to be a vintage that balances power and finesse.”
But Sonoma County has to cool their grapes once they’re off the vine. That golden sunshine that ripened the fruit becomes an enemy during the fermentation process, requiring cooling facilities during fermentation, bottling, and aging to keep the proper temperature.
Not so in Humboldt County. With an average yearly temperature of less than 60 degrees the grapes can stay on their skins during fermentation up to 30 days. That’s over twice the amount of time allowed in warmer climes according to Dave Brown, one of the winemakers of Curtis and David. “We take advantage of the cool weather to have long fermentation times,” he said. Their wines have won multiple awards at the Humboldt County Fair.
Steve Garrett, of Old Growth Cellars, explained why it helps to have long fermentation times. “The longer fermentation process allows the grape to extract more color and flavor. This is the last time the grape will see the skins and seeds, and as long as the numbers are right we’ll keep punching down the caps to get as much out of the grape as we can.”
Humboldt County is a relatively new addition to the California wine industry and it’s growing fast, with over 20 local wineries producing high quality wines. The local vintners and wine makers have formed the Humboldt Wine Artisans Guild, and local wine tasting is rapidly becoming a favorite pastime.