The first of this year’s North Coast winegrapes have started to arrive at some sparkling wine houses.
Vintners are saying that intense frost, heat and wind problems early in the season appear to have produced a slightly smaller-than-average crop, but one with intense flavor and color.
Combined with a dry spring and summer, grape berry sizes are reported to be generally smaller, allowing more air and sun exposure to the clusters during maturation and a higher skin-to-juice ratio during winemaking.
A few sparkling wine houses such as J Vineyards & Winery near Healdsburg and Domaine Chandon in Napa started harvesting in earnest before just about anyone else. Others, such as Mumm Napa in Rutherford, Schramsberg Vineyards in Calistoga, and Domaine Carneros began about a week later.
J winemaker George Bursick sent his pickers into the vineyards at 3 a.m. to start bringing in Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, as well as some Pinot Grigio.
“We had ideal weather conditions this summer, and the quality of our crop will be outstanding,” Bursick told the North Bay Business Journal.
However, the warm, even temperatures during most of the growing season could create a labor crunch if the vineyards mature all at once, according to Bursick.
“Our biggest challenge will be securing enough bodies to pick all of the fruit,” he said.
Also challenging, given the spotty frost damage in a stricken vineyard, is the labor-intensive harvesting needed to pick and choose which fruit to pick, according to Eileen Crane, president and winemaker of Domaine Carneros.
“Word around here is that the crop could be a little short like 2007, or about 10 percent to 15 percent below average,” she said.
Ludovic Dervin, winemaker for Mumm Napa, also is expecting a fast-paced harvest, capping off a harried year for vineyard workers. First, crews had 20 to 30 sleepless spring nights battling frost. “We had one area we were irrigating for frost protection, and 10 days later we were irrigating for 100-degree weather,’ Dervin said. “I’ve never seen that.”
Then a torrent of wildfires in June and July kept workers out of the vineyards because of heavy smoke, forcing crews tending Mumm Napa’s grapes to work long hours to catch up when the smoke cleared.
Now, flocks of hungry migratory birds are showing up earlier than expected, putting crews back into action to cover vine rows with protective nets. “It could be a sign of an early fall,” Dervin said about the birds.
The sparkling wine harvest starts a month or more before the first grapes are picked for white table wines, because grapes for sparkling wines are picked at lower sugar levels. It’s a time for wineries and growers to preview the potential size and quality of the rest of the harvest.
But a lot can happen between now and then, weather-wise, to affect timing and yields for the bulk of the harvest.