Most conversations about the weather are simply polite small talk — a way to break the ice at a ball game or cocktail party.
However, ask a Temecula Valley winemaker, “How are you dealing with the heat?” and a real conversation ensues.
The question came up recently at the Winemaker’s Roundtable at CRUSH.
Palumbo Family Vineyards & Winery owner Nick Palumbo’s first response was, “What heat?” which brought chuckles from the group just in from the 102 degree weather.
Palumbo took a break from harvesting grapes later in the week to expand on his answer.
“The thing about all good wine regions is that they are hot,” said Palumbo. “Tuscany shuts down every August and heads to the beach. Why? Because it’s too hot to do anything else.”
California wine regions follow suit. The Napa Valley forecast for Tuesday, Oct. 2 is 94 degrees and Paso Robles expects 103 degrees.
“People are always shocked to hear that the other winemaking regions are almost as hot as we are, but the heat is what we need to make great wine,” Palumbo went on to say.
Ask most winemakers in the region and they will agree that 2010 and 2011 were almost ideal winemaking years. Mother nature cooperated with a temperate summer: 95° days and cool nights.
“This year, the real challenge was that the nights never did cool down,” said Palumbo. “What happens in the tricky years is that we have to do our jobs –all the farmers and winemakers have to think a little more and work a lot harder.”
“The heat demands that we become more diligent in the vineyards. We start paying more attention to what is going on with all of the individual blocks of grapes,” Palumbo explained, noting that the various blocks react and ripen differently in the heat.
Judicious amounts of water will buy time if the mercury soars and the vines are not mature enough yet. Yet, too much water creates an alternate problem. Summer thunderstorms were another surprise of nature that had to be dealt with.
“Zinfandel is really temperamental, so when we had all that rain, the wineries that grow that varietal were really sweating it,” said Palumbo. “Many of them had to drop clusters to deal with the bunch rot that comes from too much moisture.”
“Farmers are not afraid of heat,” said Palumbo. “The heat produces ripeness, or to be precise, phenolic maturity. It not only provides the right sugar levels, but balances pH and acidity. The grapes, skins and seeds contribute flavor, character and mouthfeel to the wines. They all need time and heat to produce exceptional wine.”
To hear more of Nick Palumbo’s thoughts on sustainable farming and winemaking, attend TEDxTemecula on October 13.
Corie Maue is a local writer and regular contributor to SWRNN.