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Excellent quality for California’s 2017 wines
California’s 2017 wine harvest wrapped up early this fall following summer heat spurts and a growing season that saw significant rain throughout the state ending a five-year drought. While October wildfires in North Coast wine communities made international headlines, the state’s vineyards and wineries were not significantly affected. Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino counties, the regions most impacted, grow 12 percent of California’s winegrapes, and 90% percent of the harvest in Napa and Sonoma and 85% in Mendocino were already picked and in production at wineries before the fires.
“The vast majority of California’s 2017 winegrape harvest was unaffected by the wildfires and the vintage promises to be of excellent quality,” said Robert P. (Bobby) Koch, president and CEO of Wine Institute. “The outpouring of support locally and from around the world for people in the impacted communities has been phenomenal. We are saddened by the loss of lives and homes and this will truly be remembered as a harvest of the heart. Wineries are at work making their 2017 wines and welcoming visitors dur-ing this beautiful late fall/early winter season.”
The Growing Season
With all but late harvest grapes in, vintners are looking back at the 2017 growing season throughout the state. The drought is over with the season beginning with rainfall that refilled reservoirs and replenished soils. Harvest began early at a normal pace in many regions, and then progressed rapidly during a heat wave in late August and early September. Temperatures cooled mid-September, slowing the harvest pace and allowing red grapes to ripen gradually. Many regions are reporting reduced yields due to the heat spell, but vintners are reporting strong quality for the 2017 vintage.
The California Department of Food and Agriculture estimated in early August that the state’s overall crop size would reach 4 million tons, down slightly from 4.03 million in 2016 and above the historical average of 3.9 million tons. The heat wave will likely lower this prediction.
“We had above average rainfall this winter on the Central Coast, but not as much as areas that saw flooding,” said Steve Lohr, CEO, J. Lohr Vineyards & Wines. “It was wonderful because it helped fill up the reservoirs and bring new life to cover crops that had been parched after several years of drought. It has been a good year for us, all in all, on the Central Coast,” Lohr said. “From the 30,000-foot perspective, I would say that these wines are going to show particularly nicely in their youth but will have the capacity to age.”
According to Neil Bernardi, vice president of winemaking at Duckhorn Wine Co., the increased rainfall also brought vine-vigor challenges. “It required special focus on cover crops and tillage and closely managing canopies. Cabernet Sauvignon grapes in Napa Valley and Alexander Valley look especially healthy,” he said. “Our Pinot Noir, Zinfandel and Merlot have excellent color, extraction and flavor, and Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay are showing excellent aromatics and great acidity.”
The rainfall helped vines in the Santa Cruz Mountains rebound from the drought, but also caused some problems during flowering. “Zinfandel got caught by spring rain during bloom and most of our Zinfandel sites are down in tonnage anywhere from 15% to 40%,” said Eric Baugher, chief operating officer and winemaker, Ridge Vineyards Monte Bello Winery. “It does appear that the Zinfandel vintage will be an extraordinary one, similar to 1999. I expect similar excellent quality out of Chardonnay since the fruit had such great intensity of flavor from the petite-size clusters and berries.”
A heat spell impacted many California regions in late summer, speeding up harvest schedules and requiring extra vigilance. “Some vineyards that had exposed fruit showed desiccation,” said David Hayman, vice president of winegrowing for Delicato Family Vineyards, which farms grapes across the state. “Ripeness was accelerated and a lot of fruit became ready all at once. Flavors across the board look good.”
Abundant winter rains thrilled vintners and helped recharge reservoirs and groundwater. Spring weather was cool to mild, with increased vine vigor and extended flowering in some areas, but few reports of shatter. A freak June hail storm caused isolated damage, but left the crop mostly unscathed. Initially, harvest seemed like it would proceed at a leisurely rate, but that changed with the Labor Day weekend heat wave. High temperatures kicked harvest into high gear until mid-September, when cooler weather arrived to give red Bordeaux varieties some extra hang time. Vintners are optimistic about quality. Reduced yields are expected for some varieties due to discarding fruit damaged by heat and the wildfires. The whites have bright, fresh flavors and the reds are intense and rich. Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir and Zinfandel are showing especially good quality.
Record-breaking winter rainfall kicked off the season, filling the water table to capacity and replenishing soils. A mild spring brought bud break at the normal time, and vintners reported small berries with excellent color. A hot summer culminated in a Labor Day weekend heat wave that caused some vintners to move up their harvest dates by a week or so. The grapes endured the heat and once cooler weather arrived, fruit was able to mature at a gradual pace. Mid-September rain forced growers open up canopies, and in some instances, use blowers to dry out certain varieties prior to harvesting. Early estimates predicted an average yield, but some vintners reported weight loss in the grapes after the heat wave. Because most of the fruit was picked prior to the October fires, vintners have a positive outlook on the 2017 wines, comparing the vintage to 2003, 2013 and 2014. The fruit has excellent color, pronounced flavors and high quality across varieties.
The growing season got off to a good start, with generous winter rainfall and warm spring temperatures that prevented spring frost issues. The winter rains contributed to strong canopy growth and reduced the need for irrigation. High temperatures and humidity in late August and early September contributed to increased fungal pressure, but vintners reported no significant fruit damage. Harvest began in the third week of August. Fruit quality was above average, characterized by small berries with good color and concentration in the reds. Clusters were also smaller than normal, resulting in yield reductions for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Yields were average to nearly 50% of normal.
SANTA CRUZ MOUNTAINS
The region experienced a remarkably wet winter with as much as 100 inches or more of rainfall on the ocean side. This brought healthy vigor to the vines, along with the need for additional canopy management, floor management and weed control. Bud break began in early to mid-March and bloom followed in late May to early June. Harvest came at the end of August, spurred by a heat wave that sent temperatures into triple digits for several days and quickly spurred harvest into overdrive. Some vineyards were affected more than others, depending on microclimates and farming practices. Crop loads were very good and quality looks fantastic for the varieties that were able to ride through the heat spell—especially Cabernet Sauvignon.