For the men and women who make wine, perhaps no word is more packed with nervous anticipation than "harvest." After months of spending time, sweat and money in their vineyards, it's time to see what nature delivered. For California, 2014 brought another year of record-breaking drought. For much of Western Europe, 2014 was unpredictable, with sun, clouds and plenty of hail in some unfortunate spots.
In the first of five 2014 vintage reports, California winegrowers up and down the coast are breathing a deep sigh of relief. While the state still suffers from drought conditions, which lowered yields in many spots, well-timed rains kept vines growing and a sunny summer and fall meant ripe grapes. Growers do fear what 2015 will bring, however—if the drought continues, shrinking groundwater could mean a horrible new year.
As for final quality in the bottle, it's too early to know, but here's a sneak peek.
The good news: A long growing season with moderate weather lead to an early harvest, allowing growers to avoid damaging fall rains.
The bad news: Continued drought conditions meant that the crop size was smaller than usual in many vineyards.
Picking started: Aug. 14
Promising grapes: Pinot Noir
Analysis: Mendocino County's Anderson Valley had little to complain about in 2014. Winter was exceptionally dry—part of California's long drought—and just as growers and winemakers were about to panic, the rain arrived in abundance in February. A warm spring laid the groundwork for early budbreak, and the growing season ran ahead of schedule all year. “Being an early vintage is always advantageous in Anderson Valley, where it’s almost certain to rain by Oct. 15,” said Goldeneye winemaker Michael Fay.
Anderson Valley built its reputation on Pinot Noir, and vintners report that the 2014s show an agile balance between ripe fruit and lively acidity, thanks to abundant sun and cool evening temperatures. Harvest itself was unusually condensed, with grapes such as Gewürztraminer, Chardonnay and Pinot arriving at the winery at the same time. “It felt like everything was ripe all at once—because it was,” said Roederer Estate winemaker Arnaud Weyrich.
The good news: 2014 was a dream vintage, with quality along the lines of 2012 and 2013.
The bad news: Not much to complain about, though drought conditions and small crop size did prove to be minor irritants.
Picking started: Everything was ready to go in early- to mid-August, even Cabernet Sauvignon, which usually ripens much later.
Promising grapes: Cabernet took center stage, but all grapes—including Chardonnay, Merlot, Syrah and Zinfandel—and regions fared well, under ideal weather conditions.
Analysis: Napa Valley's harvest was unusually early this year, not surprising given the state’s ongoing drought, which was so extreme that the cover crops in many vineyards never took hold. Substantial rain in late February and early March relieved most of the stress and set up the vines for a vigorous start. "Early" was the key word all season, from budbreak to veraison to harvest. Thankfully, the hotter months proved milder than most expected.
Summer weather was perfect for the grapes, said Elias Fernandez of Shafer Vineyards. “We didn’t see any extremes or surprises—no 100° F days, no humidity trouble to speak of, no sunburn. We enjoyed a lot of days in the 90s, with somewhat warmer nights than the year previous, more often in the 60s than the 50s. Everything just rocked along beautifully.”
Andy Erickson of Favia recalled this being the earliest harvest on record for him, with picking beginning in St. Helena Aug. 19. “But the quality of the fruit was outstanding," he said. "Dark color, intense aromatics, great fruit character. I told my team to forget the calendar and to get into sampling and tasting vineyards in earnest. Overall, I’d say we were two to three weeks earlier than last year for most vineyards, and with above-average yields.”
Quality seems to be excellent, according to Erickson and other vintners. “I’d say the vintage is somewhere between 2012 and 2013, with 2013 being the darkest, most powerful wines I’ve seen in Napa, and 2012 not far behind, but with softer, more luscious tannins,” said Erickson. “2014 at this point seems to be darker and a bit more concentrated than 2012s, but perhaps with some earlier appeal than the tightly packed wines of 2013.”
A vineyard worker harvests Grenache Blanc at Epoch Wine Estates in Paso Robles.
The good news: Notable concentration and depth across the board
The bad news: Low yields—down as much as 25 to 30 percent—and a condensed, hectic harvest
Picking started: Aug. 14, two to three weeks earlier than normal
Promising grapes: Grenache, Syrah and Adelaida appellation Cabernet Sauvignon
Challenging grapes: Roussanne, Zinfandel and Mourvédre
Analysis: The third year of drought dominated conversations about the 2014 growing season in Paso Robles. “The 800-pound gorilla in the room has been and continues to be the lack of water,” said Brian Brown of Onx. “Driving through various parts of the county, one could see the severity of drought by how stressed the vines were. Vineyards without adequate ground water or the ability to irrigate had vines shutting down by the middle of September, a phenomenon I had never seen before.”
The drought contributed to the dramatic cuts in yields across the region. “Those growers that have access to ample water and were able to supplement the meager rainfall over the past few years saw normal crop loads of perfect fruit,” said vintner Terry Hoage. “Those growers that didn’t have access to enough water during the season saw quality fruit, but in diminished crops,” he added.
Outside of drought talk, it was a relatively uneventful growing season, with a dry, mild winter and vines getting off to an early start in spring, a pattern that followed through flowering, set, veraison and harvest, where there weren’t any memorable heat spikes. Epoch’s Jordan Fiorentini said that even though the harvest was early, budbreak was even earlier, resulting in more grape hang time than in 2013.
Most vintners reported a compressed, fast harvest. The Farm’s Santiago Achával explained, “We picked 15 tons in five days! That’s 95 percent of our harvest in less than a week."
Drought conditions are bittersweet for Paso Robles vintners—low yields, small clusters and tiny berries should result in concentrated wines, but not much of them to sell. “The concentration of flavors is unreal,” said Nick Elliott of Nicora. "And the berries were so tiny that I often wondered if there would be any juice to press out after fermentation."
“These wines will require a lengthy aging before becoming truly approachable,” suggested Jason Joyce of Calcareous. “It was a tough year to bring out the elegance.”
Winemaker Jordan Fiorentini inspects grapes fresh off the vine.
The good news: Another solid crop, with good color and intensity
The bad news: A shorter growing season and compressed harvest left vintners scrambling. Continued drought conditions have made them concerned about next year.
Picking started: Aug. 6, the earliest harvest ever for some vintners, as much as three weeks earlier than typical
Promising grapes: Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah and Santa Maria Pinot Noir
Challenging grapes: Grenache
Analysis: Most Santa Barbara County vintners are calling 2014 the third in a string of excellent vintages. A mild winter, normal to early budbreak and a mild summer lead to an early harvest. But it was a shorter growing season. “The fruit had a very short hang time,” said vintner Jim Clendenen of Au Bon Climat. “2014 had normal budbreak, normal flowering time, but picking was three weeks early.”
Drought concerns continue, with reservoirs and wells getting lower and salt content in the soil increasing, stressing the vines, forcing some vintners to irrigate before veraison. “This pre-veraison irrigation, we think, caused berries to swell and cluster size and crop levels to increase above expected levels,” said Brandon Sparks-Gillis of Dragonette. “As a result we dropped a significantly larger amount of fruit than we would have liked.” Some vintners who didn’t irrigate expressed the opposite: extremely low yields, down as much as 50 percent, particularly with Grenache.
Some winemakers report moderate to low acidity levels in the wine that will be a distinctive feature of 2014. “It will make for really stable wines, really rich and hopefully richly textured," said Gavin Chanin of Chanin Wine Company.
Harvest was a scramble. “When you get two-thirds of your entire vintage into the cellar in one week it really taxes your staff, your destemmer, your forklifts," said Herman Story’s Russell From. "A winery's ability to receive barrels and press and sort and bottle all at once while maintaining quality and focus will be one of the unspoken litmus tests of the vintage for sure.”
But the outlook on the wines is positive. “The wines should be fruitful and balanced, with a few bottlings leaning toward being big and powerful,” said Craig Jaffurs.
Two sorting table workers look for any sub-par grapes at V. Sattui in Napa Valley.
The good news: 2014 marks the third straight high-quality vintage thanks to near-perfect weather throughout the season.
The bad news: Some saw lower yields than normal. An early harvest presented space problems for wineries that were trying to bottle last year's wines before the next vintage went into barrel.
Picking started: Aug. 4, about two weeks earlier than normal
Promising grapes: Pinot Noir and Chardonnay
Challenging grapes: Syrah and Grenache. Rocky sites struggled with the drought conditions but still produced high quality, despite low yields.
Analysis: Despite the drought, this growing season presented few challenges for Santa Cruz winemakers. High winds during the onset of the growing season lead to lower yields than the previous two vintages, as much as a 25 to 35 percent drop for some wineries. But the rest of the season was warm and even, and low yields lead to high quality across the board.
Bradley Brown of Big Basin Vineyards reported good phenolic ripeness at low alcohol levels with great color. While Pinot Noir and Chardonnay seem primed for another solid year, Brown also sees promise in Rhône varieties from the region.
Harvest started early for everyone. Ridge Vineyards started and finished early, with nearly all their vineyards picked by the end of September. Jeffrey Patterson of Mount Eden Vineyards said their picking kicked off Aug. 4, the earliest going back 70 years for the vineyard. But he believes that, much like previous dry years, this year’s quality appears great and will showcase the kind of elegance Mount Eden is known for.
Kevin Harvey of Rhys Vineyards said that despite the low yields the quality is exceptional. “In a few years it should be quite interesting to compare 2012, 2013 and 2014,” said Harvey, “I wouldn't be surprised if 2014 is the best of these three great vintages.”
Freshly picked Cabernet Sauvignon heads into the winery at Justin.
The good news: An easygoing growing season got off to an early start and was moderately warm all year.
The bad news: Continued drought conditions stressed some vineyards, creating long-term concerns for vineyard health and production.
Picking started: July 31
Promising grapes: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir and Zinfandel
Analysis: “Slow and steady wins the race seemed to be the mantra of the year,” said St. Francis winemaker Katie Rose Madigan. An early, long and modestly warm season in Sonoma County allowed most winemakers the luxury of picking at the optimum time.
Sebastiani winemaker Mark Lyon called 2014, “an excellent Cabernet year.” Morgan Twain-Peterson, winemaker of Bedrock, said, “There will be some pretty dense, concentrated wines coming from the 2014 vintage, but not in the volume of the abundant 2012 and 2013 vintages.”
Some vintners in regions like Alexander and Dry Creek valleys worried by midsummer that sugars were ahead of flavor development, but cool weather in September stalled ripening. “We'll be seeing some higher alcohols,” said Ferrari-Carano winemaker Sarah Quider, “but overall quality is great, with nice, ripe aromas and flavors with average yields.”
Pinot Noir is showing excellent potential, although some regions fared better than others. Acids are generally softer, Siduri winemaker Adam Lee said, “and that makes me think it will be a fairly showy vintage right off, as opposed to 2012.” Benovia winemaker Mike Sullivan agreed. “ The young wines are exhibiting intense aromatics with ripe but fine tannins and amazingly intense color.”
With many varieties ripening at the same time, Sullivan said tank space was at a premium. Carlisle winemaker Mike Officer said 2014 was the earliest and most-condensed harvest he had experienced. “Had it not rained a little in the latter half of September, our harvest would have been over before Oct. 1. Some years we don’t even get our first fruit until Oct. 1,” he said.
Ripe Grenache is waiting to go at Tablas Creek Vineyard.