Vail Wine Ink column: 2016 wine harvest is under way in Northern Hemisphere
UNDER THE INFLUENCE
2012 Mumm Napa Sparkling Pinot Meunier — Each year when Mumm Napa begins the harvest, winemaker Ludovic Dervin pours a bottle of champagne on the freshly picked grapes to usher in good luck for the harvest. This year, a bottle from the 2012 vintage was Ludo’s (as he is known) choice for the honors. Made from 98 percent pinot meunier, picked from a number of Napa Valley vineyards, this wine is unique in that the third grape of the Champagne trilogy, after pinot noir and chardonnay, leads. Peaches and pears combine with a touch of toasty brioche on the nose make this a wonderful wine for both celebration and everyday drinking.
If you are in the wine trade, it is the most wonderful day of the year.
That day when the harvest season begins. Oh sure, it is filled with back-breaking work, little to no sleep and the stress of making a thousand decisions on the fly. But it is also the season when winemakers get a first look at what the new vintage will be like and what the earth has bestowed upon them over the past year.
For most winemakers, the phrase “we make wines in the vineyard” is a mantra. And this is the time when that plays out right before their very eyes.
THE HARVEST SEASON
Throughout the Northern Hemisphere, the picking has begun in the course of the past couple of weeks. The white wine grapes are generally the first to be picked each season, with pinot noir, merlot, syrah and cabernet sauvignon following in line throughout the next couple of months.
In Northern California, the harvest season began as usual with the sparkling wine houses picking pinot meunier, pinot noir and chardonnay for their Champagne-style wines. Mumm Napa announced that they picked 20 tons of grapes in American Canyon at first light on July 28. The next day, in the Russian River Valley, Korbel began to harvest pinot gris, and on Aug. 3, Gloria Ferrer Caves and Cellars picked some pinot noir for their sparklers, as well. This was not as early as last year, when Mumm started six days earlier, but is in keeping with the trend for earlier harvests.
At this point, Napa and Sonoma winemakers are optimistic about the 2016 season, especially in contrast to 2015, when Napa yields were down nearly a third from the previous 2014 vintage, which was a record haul. Fires in both the Big Sur area and in Lake County, a region that had been decimated in September 2015, as well, have kept everyone on edge, but the work has begun in earnest.
Up north in Washington State, the heated hills of Red Mountain and the Yakima Valley saw the harvests begin the second week of August, as vintners supervised the picks of sauvignon blanc and chardonnay, getting them in early before the sugar levels climbed too high. Woodinville’s Auclair Winery in the western part of Washington announced that it had picked a ton of Savvy from the Artz Vineyard in the Red Mountain Appellation on Aug. 13. The forecast for Washington foresees record tonnage, as the state’s wine industry continues to grow with more than 850 wineries producing product.
Oregon’s harvest season kicks off a little later in August, with many of the state’s 702 wineries getting their white grapes, including pinot gris and Riesling, off the vines this month. According to the Oregon Vineyard and Winery Report for 2015, pinot noir accounts for just more than two thirds, or 67 percent, of total wine production within the state. The pinot noir pick will likely not be in full force until mid-September in the Willamette Valley, as these wines tend to hang a little longer.
CALLING THE PICK
It is estimated that during the course of a vintage, a winemaker must make more than a thousand decisions before a wine is actually made. But unquestionably, the most important verdict of the year comes when he or she finally says, “Let’s go,” and the harvest begins.
There are a myriad of factors that go into making the determination of when to harvest a vineyard, and science plays a key role. The chemistry of the grapes is meticulously monitored, as tests are conducted to determine the chemical composition of the clusters of grapes as they hang on the vines. Each grape variety requires different levels of sugars, or brix as they are called, and/or acidity to meet the requirements of an individual winemaker. Not sweet enough or the brix levels are too low? Let ’em hang may be the choice. Rising acidity? Perhaps it’s time to get ’em off the vine. It all depends on what kind of wine the winemaker hopes to produce.
Of course, all decisions ultimately hinge on the weather, as well. Winemakers keep a close eye on the sky and generally hope for fair weather during the harvest months of August and September. A cold snap or a heavy rain or a dose of unwelcome humidity can greatly change the prospects for a smooth harvest.
But for most winemakers, the one factor that is most important comes when they stand in the vineyard and taste the grapes. They taste the sweetness, feel the tannins in the skins and get a feel for the flavors of the grapes.
If there is perfection in the mouth, then it is time to call the pick.
Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be-designated appellation of Old Snowmass with his wife, Linda, and black Lab, Vino. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.