For the men and women who make wine, perhaps no word is more packed with nervous anticipation than "harvest." After months of spending time, sweat and money in their vineyards, it's the moment to see what nature delivered. For California, 2014 brought another year of record-breaking drought. For America's East Coast, winter brought a deep freeze. For much of Western Europe, 2014 was unpredictable, with sun, clouds and plenty of hail in some unfortunate spots.
In the second of five 2014 vintage reports, American vintners report good harvests on both the East Coast and the Pacific Northwest. In Washington and Oregon, sunshine was abundant and harvest came early. In Virginia and New York state, winter was brutal, but most vines survived and produced good fruit.
As for final quality in the bottle, it's too early to know, but here's a sneak peek.
The good news: Despite a harsh winter, cold spring and wet summer, a warm, sunny autumn allowed Riesling, the region’s signature grape, to pull through. It's showing great potential.
The bad news: Record-breaking low temperatures during last winter resulted in vine damage that has decreased overall production for the region. A relatively cool and wet growing season made ripening, especially for red varieties, a challenge.
Picking started: The majority of producers started picking the last week of September, but some varieties, like Riesling, were not picked until mid- to late October.
Promising grapes: Riesling was able to fully ripen at the end of the growing season thanks to a warm September and October, resulting in wines that will have a racy acidity that is expressive of the cool vintage.
Challenging grapes: While September and October allowed many varieties to catch up on physiological ripening, red grapes in some areas struggled to find balance. Pinot Noir should show well for producers who didn’t overcrop.
Analysis:: Due to a very cold spring, budbreak didn't arrive in the Finger Lakes until mid-May. Summer was also slow to warm up and delivered an abundance of rain in August. Relief was right around the corner, however. “The autumn that transpired was a godsend—long, sunny and moderate, ripening the grapes slowly and beautifully,” said Melvin Goldman of Keuka Lake Vineyards.
The warm, dry and sunny weather in September and October gave grapes the opportunity to catch up on ripening. As long as they used good vineyard management practices in the first half of the year, producers were able to maximize the benefits of the ideal, late-season weather.
Riesling, which now occupies 900 acres in the region, was able to successfully rebound from the lackluster growing season. “We are very excited about the potential quality of Riesling, as the sugars were relatively high and the acids are up a bit compared to the past few years," said Shannon Brock of Silver Thread Vineyard. "This will lead to some very racy, mouthwatering, ageable wines the likes of which we haven’t produced in the Finger Lakes since 2009.”
As for the region’s red grape varieties, Pinot Noir shows the most potential. “While there won’t be much 2014 Pinot," said Tom Higgins of Heart & Hands, "we are really pleased with the quality of fruit that we brought in: dark and ripe with a great intensity and weight on the palate; minimal disease pressure. This is certainly a testament to good vineyard management techniques during a challenging early season.”
The good news: A sunny but cool summer, combined with an unusual scarcity of rain, allowed all varieties to ripen at a leisurely pace with sugars, acids and phenolics in balance.
The bad news: Heavy fruit set early on and intermittent rain in October meant growers had to remain vigilant about pruning and disease pressure.
Picking started: Sept. 7 for sparkling wine varieties, Sept. 11 for whites, Sept. 14 for Pinot Noir, Oct. 10 for the region's more common reds
Promising grapes: Cabernet Franc, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir
Analysis:: "This one truly has no comparisons in terms of similar weather," said Bedell winemaker Rich Olsen-Harbich. "Making wine on the North Fork [of Long Island] is like jazz. It's different every time we play a song."
The 2014 season, growers said, was extra-different. In a maritime climate where frequent, unexpected rains are an accepted occupational hazard and temperatures soar in the summer, Long Island experienced drought conditions, low humidity and cool temperatures from June to October this year. "Over the course of the summer everyone's tomatoes withered and grass turned a crisp brown," said Brewster McCall of McCall Wines. But conditions that burn out other crops merely stressed the grapevines and resulted in grapes of greater concentration.
After the typical May rains ended, the sun came out, but the heat did not—on the North Fork, it only hit 90° F once—so grapes had time to develop intense colors and aromatics without losing acidity. With little humidity, grapes dodged disease and rot. Grapes that struggle on Long Island, like Pinot Noir, shined. Whites and grapes destined for bubbly and rosé were equally hassle-free.
"October saw rain at three- to four-day intervals, which was the only reason that 2014 did not surpass the best-ever 2013 vintage," said longtime Wölffer Estate winemaker Roman Roth. Thankfully the cold snaps kept disease and rot to a minimum. Roth even let some Chardonnay hang into November. "The growing season was under a lucky star," he said.
Riesling is ready to be picked at Heart & Hands Wine Company in New York's Finger Lakes.
The good news: A warm spring and summer with no heat spikes produced an early vintage with no significant rain at harvest. No disease pressure.
The bad news: Finding enough fermenting vats wasn't easy.
Picking started: Early September
Promising grapes: Pinot Noir in Willamette Valley
Challenging grapes: Maybe a bit warm for ideal Pinot Noir and Chardonnay
Analysis: One of the earliest vintages on record for Oregon Pinot Noir was almost entirely picked by Oct. 1, avoiding any significant rain events after a warm summer that ripened nearly everything. Alcohol levels remained moderate from most vineyards, with intense flavors.
“2014 is so clean,” said Jacques Lardière, the former winemaker for Louis Jadot in Burgundy, making his second vintage in Oregon for the French négociant's new project there. “There was very little left on the sorting table.”
The problem in some wineries was finding space to ferment the grapes. “We left fruit out on the vines,” said Stewart Boedecker of Boedecker wines. “The huge yield was more than we could handle.”
The big yields did not produce weak wines, however. “If you’re looking for power in your Pinot, 2014 is it,” said Rollin Soles of Roco, and still a consultant with Argyle. “It’s more powerful than 2012 but not as overpowering as 2009 could be.”
Fresh Pinot Noir heads into a bin at LatchKey Vineyard in Oregon's Dundee Hills .
The good news: A cool, mostly dry summer allowed most growers to bring the majority of varieties to optimal ripeness while maintaining high acidity.
The bad news: A bleak winter killed buds on some varieties. Merlot failed to ripen for many, and mid-October rains forced hard choices on when to pick.
Picking started: Aug. 21 for sparkling, Aug. 22 for whites and Sept. 9 for reds
Promising grapes: Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc in Monticello, Chardonnay, Petit Verdot
Challenging grapes: Merlot, Viognier, Tannat
Analysis: The year was “obviously not without its challenges or we wouldn’t be Virginia,” said Rachel Stinson of Stinson Vineyards in Monticello. But on balance, many Virginia winemakers say 2014 has been the best season since 2010. “A lot of my colleagues are gushing about what they have in their cellars,” said Stephen Barnard, winemaker at Keswick Vineyards.
It didn’t start that way. Last winter’s brutal cold didn’t hit Virginia as hard as other U.S. wine regions, but Viognier and Tannat, two widely planted varieties, suffered bud damage and produced minuscule crops. Spring rains gave a late start to the growing season, but the weather cooperated after that, for the most part. A cool, dry season kept the usual mildew and disease pressure to a minimum, affording most grapes plenty of time to ripen.
What varieties did well depended on which appellation you were in. “Merlot was the real headache this year,” said Stinson. “It just did not want to ripen!” That was Monticello. In Loudoun County to the north, Merlot excelled while Cabernet Sauvignon and Franc struggled to ripen.
Monticello growers faced a week of rain at a critical time: the middle of October. “Ideally I would have liked five to eight more days of ripening on Cabernet Sauvignon, [Petit] Verdot and Nebbiolo,” said Luca Paschina, winemaker at Barboursville Vineyards. Others, like Barnard, were more content; he called Cabernet Sauvignon the “wine of the vintage.” Still others waited out the rain and were rewarded with sun on the other side.
Most felt the year’s positives outweighed the challenges. “This vintage I think is one of transparency, freshness and a true expression of site,” said Jordan Harris, winemaker at Tarara Winery in Loudoun.
Sorting grapes on the table at King Family Vineyards in Virginia.
The good news: Warm temperatures and an abundant, early crop produced picture-perfect grapes with soft tannins in the reds.
Picking started: Aug. 18
Promising grapes: Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot have vintners most excited.
Analysis: With no rain, no early freezes and a harvest that was mostly done by Halloween (about two weeks ahead of usual), Washington vintners are smiling. With no heat spikes and cool nighttime temperatures, the acidity balances in the young wines look to be ideal.
“With the lovely Indian summer, it was very pleasant to be working outside, crushing and pressing through the end of harvest,” said Kerry Shiels, winemaker at Côte Bonneville. “We were finished before the days got too short and cold.”
“We are still energized,” said Doug Gore, chief winemaker at Ste. Michelle Wine Estates. “All the winemakers are reporting rich, ripe flavors. Even though it was a warm harvest, generally the whites are super quality and the red tannins are elegant. One would expect bigger tannins in such a warm year. Not the case in 2014. This is key.”
There was even a frost in the second week of November to make ice wine from any Riesling left on the vine.
Tasting freshly picked grapes at Kerloo Cellars in Washington's Walla Walla Valley.