Harvest is off to an early start in California, with the perennial early birds—North Coast sparkling-wine producers—leading the way. Though the early start may have caught some by surprise, most vintners insist the timing is nothing out of the ordinary.
Carneros-based Gloria Ferrer kicked off the season Aug. 1, picking Pinot Noir grapes from a Glen Ellen vineyard further north in Sonoma Valley. "We were a little surprised," said winemaker Bob Iantosca of the early start. "But it's really nothing that unusual." This year, their crop so far is lighter than usual—3.5 to 4 tons per acre as opposed to their usual 5. The lighter crop along with relatively warm temperatures caused grapes to ripen quickly. However, not every vineyard is far ahead of schedule. Iantosca doesn't expect to begin picking the majority of grapes from cooler Carneros properties until next week.
Other sparkling-wine producers, including J Vineyards in Sonoma and Napa's Domaine Chandon, also began harvesting this past week, while Mumm Napa, Schramsberg and Domaine Carneros plan to start this week. Many still-wine producers have weeks to go before starting their harvests, but a few Sauvignon Blanc producers have begun picking, including Cosentino, which harvested Sauvignon Blanc from a Pope Valley vineyard last week.
The 2008 growing season started out erratically for farmers, with an April frost that many vintners believed was the worst in 30 years, followed by intense heat, winds and rain in some places during flowering. For much of the summer, though, conditions were idyllic, with 80° F temperatures, dry weather and few heat spikes, which can cause vines to shut down and stop ripening. Overall, vintners are optimistic.
Many agree that the recent fires, which ravaged California all summer, won't have an effect on the flavors of the grapes. At worst, some vineyards were impacted by a lack of sunlight for a few days when a haze of smoke covered the sky.
Yet volatile weather during bloom did bring some problems. The sporadic weather during flowering created loose, uneven clusters with tiny "shot" green berries that haven't matured. This has been especially problematic for delicate varieties such as Merlot. Winemakers will have to pay special attention to avoid picking underdeveloped berries. Vineyard crews may have to make additional passes in the vineyards as grapes ripen unevenly. Sorting out unripe grapes after picking will help avoid green acidic flavors in wines for those willing to face the extra time and expense.
The biggest weather story of the year remains the April frosts that ravaged vineyards throughout California. "The difference this year is not north and south, but did you get frosted or not get frosted, and how even or uneven is the ripening," said Adam Lee of Siduri. "Vineyards that didn't get frosted are moving at a good clip, but if they did get frosted they're moving a good bit behind, about three to four weeks." Early-ripening grapes like Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, which were further along in their bloom when the frosts hit, were among the worst affected.
Lee, who produces Pinot Noir under the Siduri label and Syrah and Zinfandel under the Novy label, noted that although Pinot Noir isn't ripening very early, some late-blooming varieties such as Syrah and Zinfandel are. That means some vintners might get slammed and be forced to pick all their grapes around the same time.
Even in areas most impacted by the frost, such as Napa's Howell Mountain, which dipped down to 19° F at one point during April, vintners remain hopeful. "It depends on the quality of the vineyard," said Aaron Pott, who consults for several Napa Valley wineries including Quintessa, Blackbird and Seven Stones. "Some people will get great quality crops, if not quantity, in those areas."
Jeff Cohn of JC Cellars echoed this sentiment. "Obviously we had some damage from frost," said Cohn, who lost Marsanne grapes from vineyards in both the Dry Creek Valley and Santa Barbara County. Although many of Cohn's vineyards have about 10 to 20 percent less fruit than normal he's happy with the quality of the grapes on the vines. "The vineyards look healthy," he said. "It's just Mother Nature's way of thinning."
Though most estimates place vineyard yields down 10 to 20 percent on average, some may be down as much as 60 to 70 percent, and estimates are even higher in places without frost protection. The Clos Pepe and Cargasacchi vineyards in Santa Rita Hills were among the worst hit, with a few winemakers estimating that yields may only be one-half to two-thirds of a ton per acre. From other hard-hit areas in the Russian River Valley, winemakers expect to get only 1.25 tons per acre due to the frost.
"This is a year that takes a lot of discipline," said winemaker Merry Edwards. "People who accept smaller yields are going to be successful."
Even in areas that weren't impacted by frosts, winemakers have noticed lower cluster weights, a partial result of the poor weather during bloom. In the Santa Lucia Highlands, the Garys' and Rosella's vineyards, which were unscathed by the frost, are expected to have healthy yields of 2.5 to 3 tons per acre. Even in those vineyards, vintners have noticed smaller berries, which is not necessarily a bad thing. "We adore the 'peas and pumpkins,'" said Lee. "The tiny little berries have tons and tons of flavor but if you get really hot [weather] they tend to dry up and go away."
The small crops and warm temperatures, which caused grapes to ripen quickly, have triggered some concerns among winemakers that the more complex flavors of the grapes may not develop as fast as the sugars rise. "We're working with canopy management to try to slow it down because we really want to get more physiological ripeness," said Cohn, who doesn't expect to begin picking until the middle to end of September, when he will start with Syrah grapes from Alexander Valley.
Although the majority of harvest is still several weeks away, many winemakers anticipate harvesting 10 days to two weeks earlier than usual.
Brian Loring, who purchases grapes from 14 different vineyards for his Pinot Noir, has another hypothesis. "It's potentially the tale of two harvests," he said. He predicts he may begin picking from warmer vineyards in Monterey's Chalone AVA, Paso Robles and San Luis Obispo County as early as Aug. 25, with a break before he picks from the slower developing Santa Rita Hills area.
But most winemakers caution that it's still too early in the season to tell. From this point forward it depends on how the weather holds. "It all can change fast," said Loring. "With yields really low … a heat spike could move things pretty fast. It could be kind of a scary harvest with heat."
"It's hard to say at this point," agreed Pott. "It's sort of like asking someone who's falling off a building how they're doing past the seventh floor. Anything can happen at this point."
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