2017 started with a historically wet winter, and the growing season ended with a historically hot Labor Day weekend. As of today, everything is off the vine except for the Petite Sirah, which we hope didn't suffer any mildew damage from last night's pop-up thunderstorm. Yes, we've had a bit of everything this year.
All the moisture in the soil and the high water table from the winter rains led to a surge of vegetative growth early in the growing season, with vines shooting up over six feet tall in record time. The growth spurt may have had its drawbacks, however, as a lot of the energy that might have gone into producing clusters was already exhausted through the excessive shoot growth. At least, that's what some winegrowers are theorizing as to why many yields in 2017 are below average.
At Collier Falls, the Zinfandel vines were the most affected by this unusual growing season, with a much lighter yield than expected. The Primitivo vines on the same block were more consistent with last year's totals, which admittedly is still lower than average but not substantially. The Cabernet vineyards on the high elevation blocks fared the best, and our yields were actually better than expected and surpassed the previous year.
What does it all mean? It means sometimes there's just no rhyme or reason as to why vines grow the way they do, and we're reminded that the fruits of the vine are never guaranteed. One neighbor who is a 4th generation grower called it one of the strangest harvests he's seen in 50 years. (He was kind enough to let us borrow his forklift, too. Gotta love friendly neighbors)
The real story of this year's growing season is the heat wave that hit during Labor Day. Here at Collier Falls in Dry Creek Valley we had a stretch of 100 degree days that lasted over a week, including 3 straight days of temperatures over 110. There's not a grape in the world that will respond favorably to those conditions, so naturally, some are concerned about the effect on the quality of this year's fruit.
The warm temperatures in August coupled with the September heat wave turned the season into a race to get the fruit off the vine, and compacted the timeline for all the grapes in the county. So you're left with a situation where you have lots of vineyards competing for limited space in the winery who are trying to juggle white and red harvests at the same time, and all exacerbated by a shrinking labor pool. Inevitably, some vineyards are going to have to let the fruit hang longer than they may have wanted to in a perfect case scenario. Seldom the case in winemaking, and especially not this year.
Oh, and I forgot about the wildfires. Thankfully, not anywhere near as dangerous or destructive as the Lake County fires 2 years ago, we still could smell smoke and see a haze in the sky when we kicked off our harvest on September 2nd. But thankfully the smoke didn't stick around long enough to have any likely impact on the flavor in the fruit.
At the winery the main concern is the raisining and shriveled berries from the dehydration the grapes suffered in the scorching heat. Many clusters lost a great deal of water weight which also contributes to the lower yields, and the increased sugar levels in the juice might make for some high alcohol wines that need extra attention to get dry during fermentation. At Collier Falls the fruit is carefully sorted by hand so each cluster is inspected to make sure that we're getting the berries we want and not the raisins.
At the end of the day, we've had heat waves in the past that left raisining on the clusters, but the eventual wines turned out exceptional thanks to carefull fruit sorting and winemaking, and although the yields were low, I still expect the final product for 2017 to be outstanding.
For more on the 2017 season, the SF Chroicle profiled the harvest HERE...