Wine Harvest Report 2016: Napa Valley's Cabernet Run Continues

Once again, California's drought kept yields low, vintners report, but quality is high
Wine Harvest Report 2016: Napa Valley's Cabernet Run Continues
Harvesting before dawn, a picker collects Cabernet bunches for Larkmead. (JBH Photo)
Nov 11, 2016

For many Napa Valley vintners, 2016 extends a run of exceptional years for Cabernet Sauvignon to five in a row. Their only regret is that there wasn't more fruit.

"Most of the vineyards I work with saw slightly below–normal crops both in terms of the number of clusters per vine and cluster size," said Celia Welch of Corra, who is also an advisor to a handful of Napa wineries. Almost every year from 2013 on has seen lower yields for Cabernet, and many believe drought is a factor, impacting the overall health of the vines.

"With better conditions in May than we saw in 2015, the amount of berry shatter was much reduced this year," said Welch. "But the reduced cluster count and the slight reduction in cluster weights meant that, overall, we saw about a 20 percent reduction in expected yields."

The year swung from hot to cold and hot again. September was good, but as harvest wound down, Napa had one of the wettest Octobers in decades. Those abrupt rainstorms put a quick end to the harvest. Most winemakers say they harvested their crops by then and were pleased by the quality and volume, but everyone would have liked a little more juice.

"Some lots taste so good they could be enjoyed without barrel aging," said Caymus Vineyards owner Chuck Wagner, who's been making Cabernet in Napa since the 1970s. The even temperatures throughout the growing season pleased him. "For the entire 2016 season Napa had none of the terrific heat spikes our valley is known for—this held back vine stress."

For Welch and others, harvest was more of a roller-coaster ride. While there weren't severe heat spikes, the periods of hot days followed by runs of cooler days meant that the fruit ripened in waves. Vineyards on rocky sites, with dry soils, or on west-facing slopes ripened first.

"We worked carefully to get the fruit completely ripe as the sugar levels rose faster than the overall maturity of the fruit," said Welch. "Several of my clients employed shade cloth for the first time this year, in order to protect the skins from desiccating or getting sunburned during the late season heat spells."

Fermentations are the first time winemakers can accurately assess quality, and she and others reported the results at this early point were very encouraging. "I think this will be a vintage where we dearly wish we had more fruit," she said. "But will be very happy with the overall quality of the wines."

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