We have certainly enjoyed the lovely fall weather this year. Nice sunny days, almost no rain and cool nights. It has been simply lovely. It is affecting grape harvest across the west though, applying “the brakes” to what had been looking like harvest dates that were spot on with long-term historical averages. The diurnal temperature changes that make for perfect wine grape growing have become severe this fall, and this is the time when grape growers and winemakers alike would prefer these daytime to nighttime temperature swings to moderate a bit.
This swing into the 30s and 40s at night in wine country in the fall while increasing hang time can also really amp up the acid levels in the grapes, causing them to taste less ripe and potentially throwing off the grape chemistry. The risk also increases for the fall rains to commence before harvest is complete. If the rains were to start in combination with cool temperatures, there is a fair chance of rot setting in. While much of harvest is completed in the late ripening, fuller bodied red varietals like Syrah, Cabernet, Zinfandel and Merlot in many cases are still “hanging.” Winemakers and growers alike are playing the risky waiting game as the grapes slowly approach the perfect harvest point.
There was some light rain across Northern California a week ago. Not enough to jeopardize the crop, but it did get everyone’s attention. If this lovely fall weather that we have enjoyed so much shows any sign of changing, all will be faced with that most difficult of decision — to pick, or wait it out and hope for the best.
We talked to one winemaker this last week who starkly illustrated for us how much harvest has slowed. His normal harvest date over his 15 plus vintages for his Syrah is mid-October, between the 12th and 15th. This year he is hoping he will be picked by the end of October, but it may even be the beginning of November!
The other challenge for a delayed harvest like this is schedule compression. Once the weather shifts, a lot of grapes will start to come in to the wineries at once. This not only makes it harder to schedule picking crews, but increases logistical complications in the cellar as fermenter space will be at a premium. The fascinating part of this for wine consumers is how much a seemingly ideal weather pattern can create havoc the closer the industry gets to the final harvest dates.
There is much good news about the domestic 2018 vintage. The quality of the white varietals and lighter bodied reds varietals that have already been harvested is very good. In addition, it is a sizeable crop across the west with no drought impacts. Smoke damage is also limited to some Oregon vineyards, with no signs of smoke like Northern California experienced last year from the massive fires that engulfed parts of Napa, Sonoma, Lake and Mendocino Counties.
Growers of white varietals and Pinot Noir producers across Northern California are pleased beyond words with their crop size and quality. Similarly, this past week, Grenache and other lighter bodied Rhone varietals were harvested with great reviews for the crop.
Time will tell how the harvest ends up for the varietals that are still not quite there. We will stay in touch with all of our friends in wine country as we make our way through this “white knuckle” finish of the harvest and will keep you updated right here until all in the wine industry can proclaim with joy “and they’re off!”
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George Balling is co-owner with his wife, Mary Lancaster, of the dinner party, a wine and gift shop in Coeur d’Alene by Costco. The dinner party has won the award for best wine shop in North Idaho twice, including for 2018. George is also published in several other publications around the country. After working in wineries in California and judging many wine competitions, he moved to Coeur d’Alene with Mary more than 10 years ago to open the shop. You can also follow us on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/#!/dinnerpartyshop.