With a compact harvest, wine critic Jon Bonne interview winemaker from around California, including Gavin Chanin, to check in on harvest conditions. To read the full report, click here.
Signs of stress
Whether that sugar was matched by physical ripeness is something we’ll have to see once the wines are in bottle, but winemaker Gavin Chanin, for instance, found fully brown seeds in most of his grapes, which signals full maturity. And yet the grapes still had ample acidity, which often drops in the wait for maturity.
This didn’t mean things were easy in the field. After two years of drought, and little winter rain after Christmas, most vines still had plenty of stress – especially older Zinfandel, which Turley Wine Cellars winemaker Tegan Passalacqua often found retaining fewer leaves than usual, and on a slower pace. And the hastened pace in other vineyards might be, as much as anything, a sign of vines trying to complete their annual cycle in a hurry after a tough few years.
“People talk about how stressed vines make the best wine,” Passalacqua says. “If that’s really the truth, this is going to be a year for it.”
Back to the sunshine, though. While we spend a lot of time talking about heat in California, it is in fact an abundance of photosynthesis that defines the state’s potential. There’s particularly good evidence for that in a year like this, with not a lot of heat but plenty of sun.
In much of Napa and Sonoma, the degree-days used to measure ripening potential were actually lower in 2013 than in vintages like 2009 and 2007; St. Helena recorded 3,113 through Oct. 15, compared with 3,423 in 2009 and 3,525 in 2007.
That said, the season itself wasn’t dramatically short – just more typical of elsewhere in the world. If harvest for wine grapes is typically planned for 100 days from flowering, many winemakers this year were picking around 102 or 105 days – if they had space. That only seems odd because California has grown accustomed to stretches of 130 or even 150 days.
All of which helps to explain the early opportunity for picking in the generally cold Santa Rita Hills, where a warmer than usual June and July, and then a cool August, hastened ripeness so that harvest could begin at the start of September, weeks earlier than usual.
The same was true at the Durell vineyard in Sonoma, where Chanin harvested on Aug. 29 rather than the typical Sept. 15.
Less than 10 days later, 80 percent of Chanin’s work was done for both his own Chanin Wine label and Lutum Wines, which he owns with Bill Price, who has ownership stakes in Durell as well as Kistler and Kosta Browne. Chanin saw, both in fruit from his native Santa Barbara and from Sonoma, fully ripe grapes, with brown seeds and thick skins, moderate sugars and moderate acid levels – the sort of fruit that makes mellow, consumer-friendly wines. “I think it shows that hang time isn’t your ultimate friend,” Chanin says. “This is going to be one of those vintages where there are a lot of lessons.”
One of those lessons: Winery space is not infinite. Chanin, for instance, had to juggle fruit from the Sanford & Benedict site and Los Alamos to the north, which ripened just two days apart – rather than the typical two weeks.