In California September and October is the traditional time to pick grapes and make wine. The year of hard work managing a vineyard is rewarded when the fields are buzzing with tractors and gondolas, picking bins and grape shears and a team of harvest workers. For grape growers and wineries this is a busy time with plenty to worry about and plenty to get done.
In California the harvest is running 2 or 3 weeks behind the usual timetable. Different grapes mature and ripen at different times, which generally help a winery’s schedule to stagger their production. Chardonnay and Merlot will generally be picked in mid to late August. Late ripening grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon, and Nebbiolo are harvested in Late September and frequently into October, and maybe in November this year!
The weather of 2011 has changed all that. Exceptional vintages frequently come from unusual growing seasons – and that is the hope for 2011.
A cool spring, with some devastating frosts, pushed back berry development. This was a concern to growers who are usually paid by the ton. (An average yield of a coastal vineyard is 3 to 4 tons per acre.) Summer arrived with clouds, rain and very mild temperatures. To develop enough sugar to make decent wine, grapes need temperatures well above 70 degrees. The cooler the daytime temperatures, the longer the ripening process.
With cool weather and the springtime frosts, most vineyard owners look to be harvesting well into October and some into November. Long “hang time” can add greater complexity to the fruit and can result in some remarkable wines. However, while grapes lingering on the vines later into the summer they are susceptible to all sorts of calamities. Early winter storms can wreck havoc on a grapes internal chemistry and wind can decimate leaf canopies and grape clusters.
2011 will be a light year in terms of how much fruit will find its way to the winery. Most vineyards in the state are estimating their grape yields to be well below last year’s levels. Locally along the central coast many growers anticipate a drop of 25-35% in the amount of grapes harvested from 2010.
For the wine industry this might not be completely unwelcome. There is still a lot of inventory yet to be sold. The 2011 vintage will be light in terms of volume, but if we are lucky, may be a good year in quality-- and perhaps produce some very distinguished and celebrated wines. Cheers!