Harvest 2011 is ending up more labor than labor of love in most parts of California.
"What a crazy year," Helen Keplinger of Keplinger and Bryant Family Vineyard, both based in Napa Valley, wrote in an e-mail yesterday. "Indeed it has been very stressful and those rains were less than ideal, but not all has been lost and there will be good wines made this vintage. "
Keplinger said she ended up refusing the Kingpin Row Rhône red grapes she buys from Knights Valley due to botrytis. "But everything else has been in very good condition, thoroughly sorted, and has good flavor and ripeness."
She described 2011 as "a year of critical decisions, strict sorting where needed, and patience. I still have more than half the Bryant vineyard hanging and the flavors are good but haven't peaked yet so I'm waiting."
Adam Lee of Siduri breaks down 2011 for the North Coast appellations into three categories. Ripe grapes picked before the rains are solid, he said, while those picked after the first rain are good to very good. Those after the final rain were hit by botrytis.
"Some of our Pinot Noir, our Sauvignon Blanc, and some of our Zinfandel fell into this [first] category," said Lee. "This stuff is really good, perhaps outstanding."
"One of the real problems was the second rain we got Oct. 10," Lee added. "This second rain was what put the fruit that was teetering on the edge over and caused real rot issues."
One other thing to point out: Sugars at harvest were lower. "That was true before the rains and after the rains. Acids on some stuff were higher, but much of the stuff after the rain was diluted and that also dilutes the acids, making the grapes lower in sugar but also lower in acid," Lee said. "Not a great combination. Oh, and yields are down … even down from 2010 which was down from 2009."
It has been warm in Napa during the past few days, but very cold at night. Once the ground gets cold then grapevines start to shut down, said Chris Pedemonte of Colinas Farming Co., a vineyard management firm with clients in Napa and Carneros.
It has been a year that has tested winegrowers throughout the state at just about every turn, from a cold, wet spring, a late fruit set, through a mild summer and harvest that has dragged on longer than anyone hoped for.
This is a year where location matters more than most years. Quality will vary site-by-site, row-by-row and even barrel-to-barrel. For all the grief growers have faced, there will be some excellent wines made. But certainly far less volume and grapes picked at lower sugar levels, which in turn translates to lower alcohol levels. Between a small crop to begin with and thinning to ensure ripeness, tonnage will be way off.
In some vineyards in cooler areas, there are still grapes hanging, notably mountain Cabernets and Syrahs. Dave Guffy of The Hess Collection on Mt. Veeder in Napa Valley said earlier this week that the Cabernet harvest had just begun. On the valley floor, botrytis is evident in many vineyards. In Sonoma, there have been widespread reports of rot, prompting some to call it the worst vintage in years, maybe decades.
For all its apparent unevenness, 2011 turned out fine for some grapes, most notably North Coast Pinot Noir. Winemakers say they picked their grapes under very good to excellent conditions. Rain earlier this month though came at a critical juncture for the thin-skinned Pinot berries still on the vine, leading to the spread of botrytis in many vineyards.
Winemakers will have a better idea about overall quality once fermentations are finished.
But 2011 is not a year they would like to see again anytime soon.