Today finds us approaching harvest in the third year of a drought in California. While these conditions do not lend themselves well to producing pasture for our cattle, the dry soils help bring about optimal conditions in the vineyards for low-vigor vines with small clusters and small berries-good for concentration in the wine.
Following the 2007 and 2008 vintages, where rainfall averaged 8 inches (20 cm) for each year, the 2009 winter was more generous, with 14 inches (35 cm) of rainfall. Light rain scattered across December through April produced adequate grazing in the hills, but did little to replenish subsoil moisture or aquifers.
Pinot Noir budbreak in 2009 began in Santa Barbara County around the second and third week of March in the shallowest and earliest-to-warm soils. While some frost kissed a few leaves lightly in April, there was no damage to the emerging shoot tips or flowers. Some growers were concerned about a possible carryover effect from the dramatic frost damage much of California saw in the 2008 vintage. But the "grand" period of rapid shoot growth in April and May produced a high number of clusters and healthy canes, so it became clear that there was no impact on 2009 from the freezes of 2008. The tiny crop of 2008 allowed the vines to store energy and emerge in 2009 with excellent health and a very high number of flowers.
In 2009, many vineyards began to flower in the third week of May, though my own vines began to flower around May 27. I remember the last week of May vividly: Although early May had been warm, calm and beautiful, as flowering approached, the weather turned cool, with marine fog hanging into the afternoon and temperatures in the 60s F (less than 20 degrees C). The days would clear in mid-afternoon, and two hours later the fog would return. Then on June 5, it rained in the middle of bloom-less than a half-inch (1 cm), but enough to adversely affect the bloom.
In the face of disaster, Bacchus and the Elementals could not have been more kind. The result of the poor weather was to produce very loose and small clusters-ideal characteristics-and a balanced amount of fruit. As many of the loose clusters contained smaller-than-normal berries, sunlight was able to penetrate to the interior of the clusters, for better ripening, until well after veraison!
During the summer months, the weather remained very cool, in the low 70s F (low 20s C). Despite the dry winter and relatively dry soils, the vines remained in a vegetative growth phase through the summer, although they grew very slowly. (By vegetative, I mean that the vine shoot tips remained active into August, when typically the tips disappear in July.) My concern was that-despite the perfect cluster characteristics-green flavors might remain in the grapes if the vines did not feel stressed by some heat and greater water deficit. In early August, I pulled more leaves from the fruiting zone in an effort to help reduce potential vegetative character.
Prayers were answered Aug. 27-29 when temperatures reached the mid 90s F (35 C). Similar temperatures followed on Sept. 2 and 3 for a perfect little kick to the vines. These conditions were similar to the 2004 California vintage when temperatures around the same time of year exceeded 105° F (40° C). In 2004, I irrigated the vines before and during the extreme temperatures. This year, given the condition of the vines and the not-quite-as-hot temperatures, I waited until several days after it cooled off to provide each vine with two small irrigations: 3 gallons, followed two days later by 2 gallons or less depending on soil depth and apparent stress.
Irrigation is a dirty word in some minds, but given the absence of summer rainfall here, it is an important tool used to influence wine quality. With grape sugars approaching 22 Brix and color developing nicely, the skin and seed tannins remain grippy and astringent due to the cool summer. A measured amount of water applied to the vines allows them to continue to photosynthesize and for the tannins and other phenolics to further mature.
Here, I believe we are a week to 10 days away from harvesting Pinot Noir. The weather looks good and next week's forecast of higher pressure inland suggests another period of warmer days. We will see things more clearly in the next few days. Good luck to everyone for a safe and happy harvest!
Fred Brown — Maryland — September 18, 2009 7:10pm ET
Sandy Fitzgerald — Centennial, CO — September 18, 2009 8:07pm ET
Peter Cargasacchi — Sta. Rita Hills — September 19, 2009 2:40pm ET
Eldon Lauber — Omaha, NE — September 19, 2009 4:01pm ET
Peter Cargasacchi — Sta. Rita Hills — September 22, 2009 1:30pm ET
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