Harvest In Wine Country Report

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by Courtney Cochran

istock_harvest.jpgHarvest is always a nail-biting time for winegrowers, but never more so than in a cool, late year like this one. Why? Early autumn rains can wreak havoc on fruit left on the vine to ripen long into the season, but low sugar levels in cooler years necessitate doing just that.  As a result, this year brought fretting throughout wine country over when to pick versus when to roll the dice and hope for the best.  

In some instances, grapes - especially whites and lighter reds - were harvested a bit behind schedule with little incident, while in others, rain fell on crops that were awaiting that extra bit of sunshine that never came. Here are insights from the harvest trenches on the peculiarity of the 2011 season. 
jordanWineryHarvest.jpgJordan Vineyard & Winery
Lisa Mattson of Jordan Vineyard & Winery explained that rot was a real concern after the North Coast suffered a second blast of rain in less than a week, with the first major storm occurring October 4-6 and the second touching down just days later.  "We weren't as concerned about the first rains as we were with the second.

Our winemaker thinks our Cabernet wines are better when we get one quick sprinkling of rain before we pick the grapes.  The variety wears well with rain...as long as it is not prolonged."

But a second storm meant too much moisture for too long - even for thick-skinned Cabernet - and mold pressures started to rise, prompting Jordan to begin picking in earnest.  "Our winemakers worked quickly...to identify blocks that were ready to pick and got them to the winery before mold could become an issue.  The teams worked around the clock Thursday, Friday and Saturday.  We were harvesting more hillside Cabernet Sauvignon in Alexander Valley Sunday morning [the 16th] at sunrise."  The Jordan team had already harvested their Chardonnay and Merlot before the first storm.  

jordanWineryHarvest2.jpgWhat's the outlook for the Cab?  Mattson shares, "the grapes we harvested...were full of flavor, ripe with nice acids and had ideal brix for our more European style of red wine."  She added, "This is the kind of year where decades of experience were key in our ability to react to all Mother Nature's curveballs and still harvest high-quality fruit."

Vineyard29_Harvest.jpgVineyard 29
According to Vineyard 29 winemaker Keith Emerson, you can look for European style wines coming out of Napa for the 2011 harvest, too.  The vintner related, "my number one observation from the field is that seed browning, skin tannin development, color and mature fruit flavors are coming around at lower sugar levels while maintaining ideal acid and pH balance."  Critics of California's so-called "overblown" style of high-sugar, high-extract reds should find solace in words like Emerson's.  He continued, "we will produce lovely, full-bodied, age worthy wines with most likely slightly lower alcohols than typical vintages. We're actually in great shape."  

Emerson's insights underscore an ongoing phenomenon: the last several years have trended cool for North Coast winegrowing, prompting global warming skeptics to posit there could be an inverse climate trend occurring here. That hardly seems likely, but this much does seem certain:  a series of cooler vintages means we have had to adapt to a more perilous harvest psychology, one that mirrors the nail-biting end-of-season considerations European vintners have grappled with for many years. 


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