As we head into the winter months, it’s hard to believe harvest has come and gone… And for 2014, it was an early harvest.
What exactly does that mean? Traditionally, harvest for vineyards often comes in September. The summer is behind, the fruit is hanging low, ready to be taken from the vines. But this summer was extraordinarily dry in California. (Yes, we have all heard about the drought…) And the weather was such that the vineyards placed their harvest teams out there in August!!
Harvesting grapes for wine is not as romantic as it sounds. Many of the teams start the work at midnight and work through the cool dark hours of the night. Winemakers don’t want the fermenting process to begin until they have the conditions the way they want them. If the harvest was to take place during the day, the warm temperature will actually start fermentation – the sugar from the grapes will start to turn to alcohol.
The 2014 harvest has already been touted as an excellent quality year. The winemakers are saying “depth of flavor,” “excellent,” and “quality.” “Perfect weather.” “good fortune” and “abundant crop” are other terms used in describing this past growing season.
For Napa Valley, the first grapes were picked on July 30 for their sparkling wines. Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling were harvested in early August. And the other grape varietals were pulled during the third week of August. This is not the earliest on record – 1997 holds that honor. But it is quite a bit earlier than the average early September harvest.
The 2013/2014 winter was definitely a dry season for the record books. Napa Valley received about half of its typical rainfall. But the heavy rains in late February helped the parched vines just as they were transitioning from dormancy to bud break.
Coming further south to Santa Barbara County, and specifically, Sta. Rita Hills, Melville Winery experienced an early harvest as well. The ripening was about two weeks earlier than the average time. I happened to be at Melville in August just as the harvest was getting under way. Greg Brewer, co-owner and winemaker, talked about the harvest and the first stages of making the 2014 vintage.
Grapes in the various vineyards are picked in a specific order, according to the winemaker’s specifications. That way, Greg can direct which grapes go into which fermenter. There are many elements that go into how a particular wine tastes, even though they may be the same varietal from the same estate.
• Soil – Soil can be more clay-based and lends itself to being rich, dense and powerful. Sandy soils have more of a delicate nature with aromatics, and are a bit lighter.
• Clonal Selection – Pinot Noir clones all have different characteristics. Think of it as different instruments from the same family. “Clone 115 could be a violin, clone 114 a viola, for example.” The variations on this are driven by where these clones were planted. Different soils will lend themselves to tasting differently. Greg says that it’s a matter of tonality. Think of an instrument and how it can sound different, depending on how it’s played.
• Ripeness – Grapes that are harvested earlier are less ripe and have more acidity, offering youthfulness, energy and snap. Grapes that are picked later in the harvest are richer, more sensual and decadent and have more weight.
• Stem Inclusion – Okay, what’s that? Stem inclusion means that some of the stems are included in the fermentation process. Not all, but some. This helps add structure, some tannins and balance to the wine. Since all of Greg’s wines are aged in neutral oak barrels (barrels that have been used over and over and no longer add to the taste and tannin influence), stem inclusion is needed to help provide that structure to the wine.
Check out this five minute video shot on my iPhone. It’s great to hear Greg’s take on making wine. Ready maestro!