Friday, September 12, 2014

Winemaking During a Drought

Virginia winemakers often talk about the challenges of making high-quality wine in the state. Indeed, from unexpected frosts, to rapidly-changing weather conditions and from pests like stink bugs to pests like deer, Virginia's winemakers are face with many challenges from the vineyard to the bottle. The optimists say that these challenging conditions really highlight the art - rather than the science - of winemaking. 

In California, the challenges are even more pronounced. The state is experiencing one of the worst droughts in recent memory. Despite the dwindling water supply, California's winemakers are similarly upbeat about what their most recent vintage will look like. 

Below is an update from Sonoma County Winemakers and Sonoma County Vintners. 

Sonoma County’s 2014 harvest season started earlier than normal with the     first grapes being picked on July 29 for sparkling wines.  Since then, winegrowers and winemakers throughout Sonoma County have been holding a steady pace on grape picking for still wine varieties, such as Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, and Pinot Noir. With the moderate, cool climate weather and typical Sonoma Coast fog patterns throughout most of August, fruit maturity on the vines has slowed down and allowed the grapes to ripen at an optimal pace.  This slower pace has also allowed this harvest season to resemble the timing of previous vintages with many of the AVA’s reporting that 2014 is now only approximately 7-10 days early.

Harvest activity is anticipated to increase throughout September as most varieties, whites and reds, will reach full maturity and ideal flavor profiles. Winegrowers are also predicting an average crop size with quality looking good across the region with some calling the fruit “clean,” “sound,” and “excellent.”  
Despite the challenges we’re facing as a result of the drought, we are still anticipating another successful harvest season here in Sonoma County. Throughout the season, the vines continued to stay healthy with moderate weather conditions creating an ideal growing season. Yields are expected to be lower than the last few years, while quality is looking exceptionally great.  It’s still early in the season, with only about 20-25 percent of harvest completed throughout our region, but winegrowers and winemakers are thrilled with how the fruit has developed on the vines with great flavors, colors, and sugar and acid levels. There’s a great energy building right now since we know our winegrowers will be working tirelessly day and night over the next 30-45 days to bring in the remaining fruit.  The race is on!”   - Karissa Kruse, President of the Sonoma County Winegrowers
Here are some quotes from the “front vines” of several of our AVA’s:
Alexander Valley
This growing season has been filled with concern about water.  From the lack of rain during the winter, to the spring rains which are always of a concern, to the curtailments in Alexander Valley, it has been a whole season of water worry.  All of that said, we have made it to less than a week from our first pick, and the fruit quality looks amazing.  All of the Chardonnays and Sauvignon Blancs are starting to develop their harvest time flavors, with sugars within a couple of points to go.  Even our Merlots are up in the mid 21’s.  This recent cool weather might have applied the brakes just a bit to sugar accumulation, but still has us on a 5-10 day earlier harvest schedule.  We started hand-harvesting Sauvignon Blanc on Thursday, August 21.” – Bret Munselle, Munselle Family Vineyards.
We have started picking a little bit of Sauvignon Blanc on Westside Road in the Russian River Valley. Quality has been very good and the flavors are there. We are about 10 days ahead of when we picked that same block last year. As for the rest of the varieties we are about two weeks away from starting. We have Cabernet Sauvignon in Alexander Valley that is running 18-21 brix right now. Zinfandel is running a bit behind that. With the foggy mornings and warm afternoons the fruit has been ripening nicely. The fruit is in great shape with no shrivel and very little if any sunburn from the hot weather several weeks ago. We are looking forward to a great harvest with what appears to be excellent quality and tonnages that are average.” – Brad Petersen, ‎Vineyard Manager at Silver Oak Cellars & Twomey Cellars, and Sonoma County Winegrowers Chairman
Dry Creek Valley
“It looks like we have the potential for another high-quality harvest.  Ripening is earlier than average, and we've been able to cherry-pick the riper sections of a few Sauvignon Blanc blocks with almost no picking tying up harvest crews at other vineyards so far.  This early harvest should help us get fruit ripe and picked before any rains come along in the late fall….Quality is looking very good. Sauvignon Blanc is developing very nice flavors early, so we are really having to keep on top of our vineyards to harvest when flavors are peaking.  Zinfandel is looking potentially early and delicious.”  – Tim Bell, Winemaker at Dry Creek Vineyards.
Pine Mountain-Cloverdale Peak
“Given the elevation of Pine Mountain-Cloverdale Peak vineyards, where we usually harvest from early to late October, it is nice to see the possibility of picking Cabernet Sauvignon in the month of September, though likely late September. Most of our vineyards are tracking 2-3 weeks early… looks to be a very nice quantity and quality year for us.” - Barry Hoffner, owner of Silverwood Ranch.
Sonoma Valley
Harvest is off to a medium-paced start.  The moderate temperatures the last few weeks have allowed for more ideal fruit maturation conditions.  Pinot Noir for sparkling wines is finishing up and we are seeing yields off between 10%-30% from last year. Chardonnay for sparkling wines is just beginning so it’s still a little too early to get a read on yields but expected to be lower than last year.” – Steve Sangiacomo, 3rd generation winegrower at Sangiacomo Family Vineyards
Russian River Valley
“Three pinot noir vineyards sampled in mid-August were between 19.5 and 22.1 brix. Seeds seem to be ripening nicely but the flavors are still developing. Nice juice color. Much darker than we usually see at these bris levels. I think that we have another week, maybe 10-12 days…Even the Syrah and our little bit of Cabernet Sauvignon (which usually comes in at the end of October or early November) are tasting really nice. The vines are holding up well with very little loss of leaves in the fruiting zone so we should have a nice window in which to pick if the cool weather continues.”  Rod Berglund, Winemaker at Joseph Swan Vineyards
Despite the drought in California, most of those quoted are excited about the early ripening leading to an early harvest. Some varietals - like Cabernet Sauvignon - are anticipated being picked a full month earlier than usual, though with lower yields.
While we all enjoy drinking and discussing wine, this harvest update from Sonoma reaffirms that wine is - ultimately - influenced by the weather. Between California's drought this year, and the Finger Lakes being under a State of Emergency last year because of the sustained cold temperatures that decimated grape crops, the changing weather patterns means that wines from different regions may start to take on very different characteristics in the coming years... Or not. Only time and tasting will tell.