WHILE CALIFORNIA wineries try to correct initial reports that their fall crops were decimated by unseasonal rainstorms, news from Europe indicates that the 1982 harvest -- completed this week -- is large and could produce wines of exceptional quality. In addition, prices are not expected to rise dramatically.
In Bordeaux, where good growing conditions permitted an early -- and possibly a record -- harvest, comparisons are already being made to past great vintages such as 1947, 1953, and 1959. Although quantity seldom begets high quality in grape growing terms, the 1982 clarets are reported to be better than the smaller 1981 crop, with fruit of good color and intensity.
"The harvest at this early stage seems to be history making," said Alexis Lichine last week at a Les Amis du Vin tasting in Washington. Proprietor of Chateau Prieure-Lichine, he noted that the grapes have high sugar, dark color, deep body and fine tannins.
While Lichine believes it is premature to compare 1982 with earlier vintages, his neighbor in the Margaux commune -- Roger Zuger of Chateau Malescot-St. Exupery -- likens the vendage this fall to that of 1929, an extraordinary year. At an October 27th tasting in Washington, Zuger said that he had never witnessed such a great harvest.
"It was ideal," he said. "We picked longer than usual because the weather was so warm and the grapes were so healthy." Zuger believes that prices for the 1982 vintage will increase about 15 percent from the 1981 levels. "A small amount, to cover inflation, and of course because of the quality," he added.
David Milligan, vice president of Seagram's Chateau & Estates Wine Company, believes higher prices for 1982 claret are unjustified in view of the large crop and because prices for the 1981 vintage were up sharply from previous years. "There will be a lot of maneuvering in Bordeaux and attempts to get higher prices," predicted Milligan last week in New York. It is unlikely that there will be higher prices, except in the case of the finest wines.
Milligan also believes that a bumper crop in Champagne may help stabilize escalating prices for the French bubbly. Volume is expected to top 260 million bottles, a 12 percent increase over 1979. "And the quality is excellent," said Epernay producer Christian Pol Roger last week in New York. "There are smiles again on the faces in Champagne," he added, while comparing the vintage to 1970.
Elsewhere in France--and in Italy and Germany -- quantities are good but quality is inconsistent.
The 1982 beaujolais, while attractive, is not as intense as last year and will mature early. A large crop in the Burgundy region apparently will result in red wines that lack great concentration, similar to the copious 1973 and 1979 vintages. The prospect for white wines from the Cote d'Or is more promising.
In the Barsac/Sauterne area, October rains apparently have blunted earlier enthusiasm for this year's crop of sweet wines. At Chateau Y'Quem, where a third selective picking was scheduled to end this weekend, only half the normal crop was harvested.
In Germany, two conditions contributed to a higher proportion of drier-style wines (kabinett) than sweeter ones (spatlese and auslese). In August and September there was not enough rain. When the rains finally came in October, the juice was diluted and the sugar levels never properly recovered.
In northern and central Italy, intense summer heat produced an early crop of white wine grapes that is 20 percent greater than last year, even though in Orvieto and Vernaccia di San Gimignano earlier hailstorms reduced the harvest. Because of lower acidity, the wines should be less long-lived, however. The large harvest of Italian red wine grapes was punctuated by intense rains and dramatic drops in temperature. Of the 80 percent of the grapes harvested after the rains, most had regained adequate sugar levels. A vintage of average quality is forecast.
Meanwhile, in California--which has developed an enviable reputation for routinely perfect harvest conditions -- the probable record size of this year's crop has been overshadowed by an ongoing meteorological melodrama. Don't tell the Class of 1982 that it never rains in California.
"It was not a lot of fun," said Tor Kenward of Beringer Vineyards, who conceded that his winery had abandoned entire blocks of diseased chenin blanc and riesling grapes in a vineyard near Yountville, Calif. Beringer's veteran winemaker Myron Nightingale said he had not witnessed as much botrytis mold since 1957. However, he insisted that the 1982 chardonnay would be outstanding and that his cabernet sauvignonwould be surprisingly good. "It is amazing," said Kenward, "the way those damn storms skipped through the valleys."
The first rains fell on Sept. 15, accompanied by a hailstorm in northernmost Mendocino County. Even though the cool growing season delayed the harvest somewhat, early maturing grape varieties such as chardonnay had already been picked in some areas. Winegrowers worked feverishly throughout the next week to hand-pick sound, ripe grapes.
On September 23, tropical storm Olivia surged through California's wine regions dumping several inches of rain in certain spots during the ensuing two days. Reports circulated that, like other great viticultural areas, California had finally experienced a disastrous harvest.
"I got a call from my brother in Chicago," said David Stare of Dry Creek Vineyards. "He had been watching one of the network newscasts about the 'disaster' and wanted to know if I was still in business." Stare, who arrives in Washington tomorrow for a series of tastings, believes that reports reaching the East Coast have been exaggerated. He predicts that the wines produced from carefully selected grapes will be "a helluva lot better than average."
Still, it was an ulcer-inducing season for most producers, especially the harvest of late-maturing grape varieties such as cabernet sauvignon. Bob Travers of Mayacamas Vineyards described it as "the most eventful harvest since 1972." Because of good drainage in his hillside vineyards and sufficient intervals of sun and wind between the five rainstorms that continued until last weekend, Travers chose to leave his cabernet grapes on the vines to achieve optimum sugar levels. "We had virtually no loss in quality," he said. "Things finally ripened. We just lost time."
Not all growers were that lucky. About 10 percent of the total crop appears to have been lost in the wine-producing regions north of San Francisco Bay. The chenin blanc and riesling crops may have been reduced as much as 30 to 40 percent.
There were reports of large blocks of mold-infested zinfandel being left in the fields. "It was just too expensive to selectively handpick the good grapes, so we abandoned them," said Bernard Portet of Clos du Val. He insists, however, that growers and producers who carefully select their grapes will further demonstrate the integrity of California wine making. "Some growers discarded as much as 20 to 30 percent of their crop to maintain their reputations for quality," he added.
While wine makers in France, Germany and elsewhere have long demonstrated that sound wines can be produced under less than ideal conditions, their California counterparts will be put to the task this year.
Dick Arrowood, wine maker at Chateau St. Jean in the Sonoma Valley, believes the rains may have been a blessing in disguise. The fact that his vineyards received almost three times the normal rain for October means that sugar levels (about 23.5 Brix) are not as high as usual. The resulting wines -- particularly the white varietals such as chardonnay and sauvignon blanc -- will be lower in alcohol, less "hot" on the palate, and arguably more compatible with meals. Although Arrowood worried more during this harvest than ever before, he believes that resulting acid levels will produce superior chardonnay.
Forrest Tancer, winemaker at Iron Horse Vineyards in Sonoma County, agrees that these lower-sugar grapes will not affect his style of making crisper, less opulent chardonnay, although he wonders whether any great cabernet will be made in 1982. "It is a year to separate the good farmers from the mediocre ones," Tancer said.
The successful California growers in 1982 will be those who, like the Europeans, carefully select from among their variable crops