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Wine Harvest 2015: Sonoma Vintners Are Optimistic After an Early Harvest

Yields are down, but a sunny summer produced ripe Pinot Noirs, Chardonnays and more
Benovia staff members sort through Pinot Noir bunches before they go into fermentation tanks.
Photo by: Courtesy Benovia
Benovia staff members sort through Pinot Noir bunches before they go into fermentation tanks.

Tim Fish
Posted: October 19, 2015

Across the Northern Hemisphere, winemakers in many regions are reporting one of the earlier grape harvests they've seen. They're scrambling to pick fruit and find tank space. Wine Spectator will be providing snapshot looks at harvest in major wine regions, providing an early preview of what wine drinkers can expect.

Up first, the varied appellations of California's Sonoma County, where some well-timed rain kept the state's record drought from hurting too much. Yields are down in some regions, but the quality looks good.

Region: Sonoma County

The Good News: An early harvest negated rain issues; overall quality shows promise.

The Bad News: Poor grape set in the spring led to uneven ripening, decreasing the crop size by as much as 40 percent from average.

Promising Grapes: Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in Russian River Valley; Cabernet Sauvignon in Alexander Valley.

Challenging Area: The Sonoma Coast, which produces many of the top Pinots and Syrahs in the county, had an extremely small crop because of unusually cool weather in April and May.

Picking Started: July 29

Analysis: "Because of the drought, the worry early in the season was that the vines wouldn't have enough water for the vegetative cycle, never mind ripening fruit," Benovia winemaker Mike Sullivan told Wine Spectator. Now in its fourth year, California's drought was in the back of every Sonoma vintner's mind throughout the 2015 growing season.

But thanks to nearly 3 inches of rain in February and more than an inch in April, the vines managed to thrive, said Mike Crumly, vice president of vineyards for Gloria Ferrer. That rain, along with some cold spring temperatures, lead to some problems at flowering, lowering yields in some areas, particularly the Sonoma Coast. Early estimates project that the Sonoma County grape crop could be 30 percent smaller than last year’s harvest, according to Sonoma County Winegrowers.

Thankfully, summer was sunny and fairly warm, particularly September and October, when temperatures regularly approached 100° F. Winemakers who often take a brief vacation a few weeks before harvest quickly changed their plans. By August harvest was on. "Never before have we started harvest so early nor have we ever finished harvest so early," said Adam Lee of Siduri.

Despite the lower yields, winemakers are impressed so far with their Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. "The Pinots have explosive aromatics, great concentration and very fine-grained tannins," said Sullivan. Others report that reds like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Zinfandel are showing plush and ripe flavors so far. And despite this year's promising results, many winemakers are hoping for a wet, snowy winter.

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