Harvest. For winemakers, no other word is loaded with so much potential and anticipation. After a long growing season of endless work in the vineyards, it's time to see what nature delivered. On the West Coast in 2013, most vintners are reporting a great year, a twin to the promising 2012. In many parts of Europe, however, it's another year of challenging conditions and low yields.
In the first of five 2013 vintage reports, California winegrowers up and down the coast are celebrating a long, sunny year. After last year’s high quality and high yields, 2013 offers more of the same. The one lingering concern is persistent drought conditions that could mean trouble down the road. As for final quality in the bottle, it's too early to know, but here's a sneak peek.
The good news: 2013 was nearly an ideal season, with moderate temperatures and no rain or heat extremes.
The bad news: Acidity levels in some wines were elevated, requiring special care.
Picking started: Aug. 20
Promising grapes: Pinot Noir, Gewürztraminer
Analysis: “It was one of those rare vintages where any complaints come across as ungrateful or nit-picky,” said Goldeneye winemaker Michael Fay. Most of his colleagues in Mendocino County’s Anderson Valley agree—2013 was an ideal year.
The growing season started early and remained about two weeks ahead of most previous years all summer. Water for irrigation was scarce after a dry spring, but that triggered few problems and two small rainstorms in September caused few headaches. Pinot producers had the luxury to allow the grapes to hang and reach optimum maturity. “There were some racy acidities at harvest, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but certainly something to work with as wines go through malolactic fermentation and aging,” said Navarro winemaker Jim Klein. Nothing worth complaining about, certainly.
The good news: An ideal season—dry conditions and a long, sunny summer.
The bad news: Sugar levels soared, but patient growers could produce balanced fruit.
Picking started: Aug. 9
Promising grapes: Cabernet Sauvignon shined brightest, but everything excelled, from reds to whites.
Analysis: Assessing harvests is a process that extends from the actual picking, to fermentations, to barrel aging and then selection—separating the best lots from lesser ones. But so far, Napa Valley winemakers are unanimous in their enthusiasm for the just-finished 2013 harvest, a drought year and worthy, if not superior, successor to 2012.
Josh Wadaman, winemaker at Lewis, described a largely uneventful, early harvest marked by warm weather and no threat of rain. “The challenge of 2013 was to be patient and weigh the pursuit of ripeness versus the reality of increasingly high sugars.” In essence, he said, “vintage '13 broke conventional thinking and certainly our conventional planning, but I think we are going to see wines with great personality as a result.” At this stage, with rich midpalates and muscular tannins, “the wines seem bigger and more concentrated than in 2012.”
Laurie Hook, winemaker at Beringer Vineyards, said 2013 had plenty of surprises, even if quality is very high. “We had a lot of mountain Cabernet ready before our Cabernet [on] the valley [floor],” she said. “Cabernet Franc on Howell Mountain, often the very last fruit we pick, was ready before the early-ripening Merlot on the same ranch, and a number of blocks really outperformed themselves.”
Harvest was the earliest in more than 25 years, said Hook, running from Aug. 9 through Oct. 22. “Quality across the board was outstanding. The whites are bright, vibrant and balanced. The Indian summer provided ideal weather to finish up harvest allowing us to pick each block at peak flavor levels and phenolic maturity. The color in the red varieties was over the top and the season allowed us to match that with rich ripe tannins, the result being big reds with a lot of opulence and complexity.”
“The fruit was amazingly clean,” said Jeff Ames, winemaker for Rudius and Tor. "The clean fruit allowed for some more whole-cluster fermentations on the Syrah, Grenache and Mourvèdre-based wines, which I always like for the spice.”
Vintners are divided on which of the past two vintages is superior. “I prefer the quality [of 2013] to 2012,” said Aaron Pott of Pott wines. “The wines are more dense and rich and the tannins are more ripe. It is more of a bountiful ‘California’-style harvest with abundant richness and density.”
“For 2013 I can honestly say it was the best raw material I have ever seen,” said Thomas Brown, owner of Rivers Marie and a consulting winemaker for several top wineries. "Given how cooperative the weather was, you could basically achieve anything you wanted from the grapes this year.”
Harvesting Chardonnay in Santa Barbara County for Lincourt Vineyards.
The good news: Early, dry year with low yields
The bad news: Yields were low because of another drought year.
Picking started: Aug. 28
Promising grapes: Grenache, Mourvèdre, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon
Challenging grapes: Zinfandel, Roussanne
Analysis: “The 2013 harvest looks like it’s going to be a classic in Paso Robles,” said Tablas Creek’s Jason Haas, and many vintners echoed this sentiment.
The growing season went smoothly, without any heat spikes or cool stretches. “No major ups and downs this growing season,” reported Jordan Fiorentini of Epoch. But it was a dry year, with low yields and small berries. The dry year also meant an early harvest—the earliest on record for some vintners. Said Daniel Daou of Daou Vineyards, “The lack in precipitation caused budbreak to happen three weeks earlier this year.”
It wasn’t just an early harvest, it was a fast one. “At each marker point—flowering, veraison, first pick, last pick—we were ahead of ,” said Haas. Those early markers gave some vintners mixed signals. Scott Hawley of Torrin said vintners needed to be patient. “Sugars spiked early and may have possibly convinced some to pick too early. Those that were able to hold off for maturity should be rewarded with some outstanding wines with enough texture and weight to balance alcohols.”
Yields were down about 20 percent for many vintners, adding intensity to the grapes. “The wines exhibit a savory complex with fully mature tannins. When your vineyard, cellar or office crews are [unconsciously] eating the grapes nonstop while picking or sorting, that’s a good sign,” said Matt Trevisan of Linne Calodo.
Though the verdict on 2013 is good, vintners are concerned about the drought, now in its third year. Eberle winemaker Ben Mayo pointed out that there is salt buildup in the soil because of no rain. “Water availability will continue to morph farming practices, because when you have no water, you lose the tonnage option and can only chase quality,” said Trevisan.
Pinot Noir is ready to come off the vine at Foley Estates Vineyard & Winery in Santa Rita Hills.
The good news: Second year of near-ideal growing conditions
The bad news: Another big harvest and another year of drought
Picking started: Aug. 14
Promising grapes: Grenache, Mourvèdre, Pinot Noir
Challenging grapes: Syrah
Analysis: The 2013 vintage looks like it will go down as a great one in Santa Barbara County. Following a dry winter, there was early budbreak and a large fruit set. Winemakers saw many loose clusters with small berries. Some vintners thinned fruit, as much as 60 percent. The growing season was even and warm, flowing into a moderate, dry fall.
“It was a near-perfect harvest,” reported Craig Jaffurs of Jaffurs Wine Cellars. But many vintners are glad the fast-paced harvest is over—what typically takes three months took about seven weeks. Vintner Jennifer Tensley said that the quick harvest and above-average yields created logistical challenges for wineries to find enough tank and storage space. “The flow of grapes was almost constant,” said Tensley. “It took long hours of hard work to stay on top of all the fruit coming in. This was one of the only times we started picking Syrah and Pinot Noir at the same time.”
So far the wines are impressive for their power, concentration, deep dark colors in the reds and bright and flavorful whites. “The young wines in barrel show great richness, depth and balance, even in their infancy,” said Wes Hagen of Clos Pepe.
The worry in Santa Barbara is about the drought. “We have received less than 4 inches of rain in all of 2013 so far,” said Brandon Sparks-Gillis of Dragonette. “The lack of rainfall may have actually had positive quality implications for the 2013 harvest, but we certainly could use winter rains to recharge our aquifers and cleanse our soils.”
A worker carries a full bin to a waiting tractor at Summerwood Winery in Paso Robles.
The good news: The region often struggles with low yields, but 2013 marks the second year in a row with large production thanks to good weather.
The bad news: A dry winter affected the soils, stressing some varieties, leading to rapid sugar accumulation.
Picking started: Aug. 18 for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay
Promising grapes: Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon
Analysis: Santa Cruz is often a tale of two harvests: Because the region has two diverse microclimates, the warm eastern side and the cooler, western coastal side, a variety of grapes grow in the region. But overall, there seemed to be no complaints from vintners on either side.
"The vintage was just shy of great,” said Marty Mathis, winemaker for Kathryn Kennedy, whose focus is on Bordeaux varieties in the mountainous, eastern part of the region. If he had one grumble, it was regarding the lack of ground moisture in spring, “Extreme vine stress and high sugars prior to complete maturity will give wines a flashy, higher-alcohol style.”
Kevin Harvey of Rhys Vineyards on the coast said the mild weather at the beginning of harvest made it easy to pick his Pinot Noir and Chardonnay at optimal ripeness. “Like 2012, the quality was extremely high and the fruit was in perfect shape, requiring minimal sorting,” said Harvey. “2013 will compete with 2012 as the best recent vintage in the Santa Cruz Mountains.” Overall, there was no significant rain or heat, allowing winemakers to pick their harvest date based on their winemaking style.
One winery staff member inspects whole clusters while a colleague crushes grapes the old-fashioned way in Paso Robles.
The good news: A long and moderate growing season offered both good quality and quantity.
The bad news: Too much of a good thing—large crop meant space was at a premium at many wineries.
Picking started: Aug. 11
Promising grapes: Pinot Noir, Zinfandel and Syrah
Analysis: Across Sonoma’s varied appellations, the 2013 season got off to an early start and ran early all the way till harvest. “We saw even flowering, veraison and very uniform ripening for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay,” said Benovia winemaker Mike Sullivan. The same was true for most varieties, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc.
While summer offered an abundance of sunshine, temperatures rarely spiked above the mid-'90s. And except for a few sprinkles, the early fall rains that plagued so many recent harvests never arrived. “The only challenge we had was finding enough space to put all that nice wine,” Porter Creek winemaker Alex Davis said.
Tasting the grapes at Brecon Estate in Paso Robles while the crews prepare to pick.