Lower volumes and a lack of rain at harvest could be a boon for California winemakers.
By W. Blake Gray | Posted Tuesday, 08-Sep-2015
What might be the earliest winegrape harvest in California history is well underway. Reports are that yields are way down; estimates seem to be about 30 percent lower than last year. That might be a good thing for the wines.
Most white grapes have been picked already, and a surprisingly high percentage of Pinot Noir as well. But almost all of the Cabernet in Napa is still hanging on the vines, ripening away in a continuing stretch of hot, dry weather. No matter how much great wine of all kinds is being made all over California, many people still judge the vintage by the quality of the Napa Cabs.
One thing an early harvest means for Napa, and for the state as a whole, is that there is little danger of impending rain before the harvest finishes. This means that winemakers are not being forced to pick grapes earlier than they'd like. While climatologist Greg Jones cautions that Pacific typhoons could possibly send rain into California in the next two weeks, that hasn't happened yet. El Niño, which everyone is rooting for as a savior from the 4-year drought, hasn't happened yet. Instead, it's just one warm, sunny day after another, with temperatures this week expected to approach 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38C) in some parts of wine country.
"People are letting their reds hang to the place where they want to bring them in," Napa Valley Vintners communications manager Cate Conniff told Wine-Searcher. "They have the option to bring them in as their stylistic preferences dictate."
Elizabeth Vianna, winemaker for Chimney Rock in Napa, said, "It will be a good year for Cabernet with concentrated flavors and ripe tannins if things continue to progress as they are. We expect a heat spike this week, which is not scary for Cabernet with its sturdy thick skins. The fruit quality is reminiscent to me of the 2004 vintage. I predict we will be finished harvesting Cabernet on our estate by the first week of October or the last week of September."
Farmers have known from the beginning of the year that this harvest would be early. The vines started budding early and the process has been ahead of historical norms every step of the way.
"It was our earliest start to harvest by 12 days," Siduri winemaker Adam Lee told Wine-Searcher. "It isn't just an early start either, it is looking like it is going to be an early end. I am guessing that everything will be in during the month of September, something that has never happened before."
The effects of California's 4-year-drought are finally showing up this year in both the harvest schedule and the yield.
"The early arrival of ripeness may be due to the cumulative effects of several years of drought," said Bob Tillman, winemaker at Alta Colina in Paso Robles. "Vines are seed ripening machines and they may be worried about getting the job done, so they’re pushing harder than usual. I am also seeing most berries with only one seed. Usually there are three to five. Again, a sign that mother nature is anxious to get the job done."