Late and light. These two words often come up when California winemakers describe harvest 2010, now underway.
Late is due to an unseasonably cool year, especially the summer, which many now call the summer that never was.
2010 is considered one of the coolest summers on record. Winemakers tell me it's the coolest year they can recall in decades. Yesterday I heard winemakers comparing it to both 2000 and 1998, two cool, challenging vintages.
Light refers to the crop, which is small this year.
Zinfandel, which thrives on heat, may have suffered the most. A heat wave followed the cool summer in late August, scorching vineyards everywhere, but Zinfandel growers appear to have had the biggest losses. Some vineyards lost all or nearly all of their grapes. One reason: Many vineyards had their canopies opened to allow more sunshine. But then temperatures soared from the 70s well into triple digits.
Pinot Noir appears to be in good shape, according to winemakers I've talked to. But the crop is very light. Sauvignon Blanc was a month behind normal. Chardonnay appeared to come in easily: "All the early stuff is in at good sugar; what’s left in deep Russian River and the Sonoma Coast is 20 to 21 Brix now," said winemaker David Ramey.
The Napa Valley Cabernet harvest is just getting into a gear. Many valley floor vineyards are still a week or two away from ripeness. This crop also is light. Mountain vineyards, and many Syrah vineyards, particularely those in the coolest sites, are going to be even later. It rained in parts of the state earlier this week, which never makes any vintner with grapes on the vine happy.
Nicholas Morlet, winemaker for Peter Michael Winery, in Sonoma's Knights Valley, described how their new Napa vineyard, the former Showket Vineyard on the east side of the valley, suffered.
Temperatures went from 75° F to 115° F in the vineyard, which is located on a west-facing hillside, near Dalle Valle. Eighty percent of the Cabernet crop was lost, Morlet said. "The temperature extremes were too much," he explained.
This condensed harvest puts pressure on wineries to make room for all the grapes and wines that arrive at the same time. "Everything has to be orchestrated," Morlet said.
One gauge I use in assessing how the harvest is going: looking at winemakers' hands. When they're stained red, you know they're in the midst of picking.
Most of the hands I've seen lately have been pretty white and clean.