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 second of five 2013 vintage reports, American winegrowers in the Pacific Northwest are reporting a long, pleasant growing season. The only dim spot was Oregon’s Willamette Valley, where late rains threatened the Pinot Noir. On America’s emerging East Coast, a wet spring and summer gave way to a sunny fall, salvaging the harvest. As for final quality in the bottle, it's too early to know, but here's a sneak peek.
The good news: Riesling, the area’s lead grape, performed well despite a less than perfect season.
The bad news: Wet weather throughout the year resulted in higher-than-usual disease pressures.
Promising grapes: Riesling was able to ripen through the latter stages of the harvest, though producers note alcohol levels are lower than usual.
Challenging grapes: Red varieties struggled to ripen fully and will likely show a lack of concentration.
Analysis: “At the beginning of September, ripening was a bit behind typical, but to our advantage September and October were in my book, perfect,” said Dave Whiting, owner and winemaker at Red Newt Winery on Seneca Lake.
Growers reported that with the consistently wet weather early on, canopy management was critical and spray regimens to ward off mildew had to be adhered to. Crop levels were high as vine vigor was spurred by the excess moisture, so growers that kept yields low through green harvesting were able to get more evenly ripe fruit. Riesling generally relished the late-running harvest. Thin-skinned Pinot Noir took up more of the water than some other varieties and looks to be on the more dilute side. Late-ripening Cabernet Franc is also variable.
“The season dragged on much longer than usual, which we could consider a godsend,” said Mel Goldman, owner of Keuka Lake Vineyards. “There was also some botrytis, the good kind, which should add complexity and flavor to the Riesling.”
“I definitely heard some horror stories this year, where powdery mildew just took over some vineyards,” said Tom Higgins of Heart & Hands Winery on Cayuga Lake. “But with the good weather through September and October we were able to pick when we wanted rather than being forced to in inclement weather. We worked physically harder this year to keep up with weed growth and mildew pressure. But in the end, it was worth it.”
Bringing in Pinot Noir in Oregon's Willamette Valley.
The good news: After a rocky start, August, September and October were warm and virtually cloudless, allowing even the late-ripening varieties to develop full fruit flavor.
The bad news: A cold, rainy season through June hindered vine development, but near-flawless weather through harvest rescued the vintage.
Picking started: Sept. 1
Promising grapes: Later-ripening reds got a longer spell of sunshine. Look for Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot.
Analysis: Rich Olsen-Harbich, winemaker at Bedell Cellars, dubbed 2013 on Long Island's East End, "The ultimate comeback season.” The year started inauspiciously, with a chilly, rainy spring leading to a later-than-average budbreak—not a disaster for a maritime climate. But the cold and rain extended well into June, at which point the weather about-faced, with a hot July and occasional downpours.
"By the end of August we were looking at a potentially good harvest. A truly great vintage seemed like a long shot but there was still a slight chance," said Olsen-Harbich, if clear skies and warm weather could hold through October. Fortuitously, the rest of the season sailed by as smoothly as anyone could have hoped. "Lots of sun and virtually no rain for two months; a magical run to the finish line," said Olsen-Harbich. "One of the best vintages the North Fork has ever had."
David Page, co-owner and winemaker at Shinn Estate concurred. "Perfect harvest conditions. 2007, 2010, 2012 and 2013 all had similar ripeness—however, the overall fruit quality has never been better than 2013."
Harvesters for Bergstrom move through the rows at Oregon's Silice Vineyard.
The good news: A warm summer, sunny and mild, boded well as grapes matured along a normal ripening curve. Early picked grapes could be outstanding. After late-September rains (see “the bad news”), mostly sunny skies meant that those grapes that had not suffered too much from more than a week of rain could produce good to excellent wines.
The bad news: It was gray and rainy from Sep. 22 to Oct. 3, interrupting what had looked like a terrific vintage. More than 4 inches of precipitation fell on the heart of Willamette Valley.
Picking started: Sept. 10
Promising grapes: Pinot Gris and earliest-picked Pinot Noir in Willamette Valley. Chardonnay seemed less seriously affected by the late moisture. Southern Oregon saw much less rain, and warm temperatures should benefit its roster of grapes such as Cabernet, Syrah and Tempranillo.
Challenging grapes: Anything picked in Willamette Valley after Sept. 22.
Analysis: Many vintners are calling 2013 a “tale of two vintages.” Those vineyards picked before Sept. 22 benefited from an idyllic summer, fully ripening without high sugar levels, making delicious and generous wines.
After the rains, all bets are off. Temperatures remained cool and some healthy grapes were picked. Some vintners say their wines are surprisingly fine. “We see no issues in the resulting wines,” said Ken Wright, who makes wines from all over Northern Willamette Valley at his eponymous winery. “They are in fact showing very well—clean, balanced and full of fruit. Amazing how resilient the fruit can be with attentive farming and cellar practices.”
Syrah awaits a trip to the winery in Washington's Columbia River Valley.
The good news: The sun finally came out in August. Dry conditions throughout harvest meant lovely whites and good reds.
The bad news: A very wet spring and early summer; late ripening reds had trouble catching up before harvest.
Picking started: Aug. 20
Promising grapes: Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Roussanne, some Cabernet Franc, Nebbiolo
Challenging grapes: Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot
Analysis: “When in Italy they ask me what kind of weather we have in Virginia,” said Gabriele Rausse, the Italy-born winemaker many call the father of Virginia’s wine industry, “I just tell them that I don’t know because it is different every year.” Thankfully, the state’s vintners are learning to adapt to their promising but challenging terroir.
For 2013, the obstacle was seemingly nonstop rain throughout spring and early summer. “I'm pretty sure it was the wettest spring and summer I've seen in a very long time—things were starting to look pretty grim,” said Kirsty Harmon of Blenheim Vineyards near Charlottesville. “It seemed like we had suddenly been transported somewhere tropical where the rain starts every afternoon at the same time.”
Jim Law of Linden Vineyards reported similar conditions in the Northern part of the state. “You had to stay on your toes to protect the vines and grapes from mildew.” But thankfully the sun came out in early August and stayed out until mid-October. Whites were able to ripen beautifully. “This is definitely one of the best vintages we’ve had for white wines,” said Law.
Reds were more challenging. Because there was so little sun in July, the reds had trouble ripening enough before more rain arrived in mid-October. Harmon reported high acidity in her more concentrated reds like Cabernet and Petit Verdot. Law says his Merlot and Cabernet Franc were balanced if not concentrated, but his Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot failed to sufficiently ripen. But Rausse is happy with most of his reds, like his Nebbiolo, because he thinks high acidity will keep them balanced and help them age.
Sorting Pinot Noir at Panther Creek Cellars.
The good news: The warmest vintage since 2003 cooled off just in time for harvest. The resulting wines were less likely to tip over into overripe flavors or high alcohol levels, and picking proceeded at a normal pace. Total tonnage was up about 5 percent over 2012, a record for the state.
The bad news: The abrupt change in mid-September from hotter-than-normal to cooler-than-usual temperatures led some wineries to pick before grapes were fully ripe.
Picking started: Aug. 22
Promising grapes: Syrah looks like the star, although Bordeaux varieties did very well too.
Analysis: Growers learned from both 2003 and 2005, hot vintages that pushed the ripeness curve. They let canopies spread a bit more than usual and adjusted crop sizes to achieve the kind of balance they wanted. With that cooling trend starting in mid-September, the red wines should come with ripe flavors, moderate alcohol levels and vivid acidity.
“About the time the Chardonnay harvest was slowing down, Riesling kicked in,” said Doug Gore, chief winemaker for Ste. Michelle Wine Estates. “Same for reds. Merlot slowed down, and then Syrah and Cabernet cranked up. All of this makes for a spread-out harvest with varieties not running into each other so we can really take our time and pick when we want.”
Ripe clusters await picking in Washington State.