Harvest 2017: USA and Canada
It’s impossible to think of this year’s harvest in North America without remembering the fires that swept across California during the autumn.
Devastating physical damage was caused to wineries across the region, though fortunately most grapes had been harvested beforehand, meaning only late-ripening varieties such as Cabernet and Shiraz run the risk of having smoke taint.
2017 also marked the end of a five-year drought in California with a gratefully-received wet winter, though this was offset by excessive heat in the summer. Volumes were up by 6.7% this year in California, slightly down in Washington, and remained constant in Oregon.
Bibendum USA buyer Paul Meihuizen is positive about this vintage’s potential. “About a week and a half of cooler temperatures in mid-September in California really helped to extend the ripening and harvesting periods. The quality of the grapes is good – undoubtedly the extended hang time afforded by this cooler period have allowed the physiological maturity to catch up with the (already high) sugar levels in the grapes.
“Unfortunately some regions of the North Coast have lost production due to the wild fires, and the Central Valley yield is down very slightly against the average. However, California is on a run of high quality vintages stretching back to 2012 and we still envisage this vintage to be of good quality.”
“We experienced some heat spikes in June and August – with a few days reaching and sustaining temperatures of 100+ degrees!” remembers winemaker Anthony Truchard. “Cool night times, as well as Los Carneros’ proximity to the cooling influences of San Pablo bay helped to reduce the temperatures in the vineyards and prevent sunburn.”
Harvest began on 29 August, a little earlier than average but following the trend of the last few years at Truchard. “Overall it was a very uneventful harvest, which as a winemaker is great news,” says Anthony. “There were no rushes to bring fruit in because of threats of rain or heat and we could allow everything to slowly ripen on the vine.
“Of course what will make this harvest so eventful is the wildfires that broke out in Napa and Sonoma on 9 October. For us and most of the wine country, harvest was pretty much wrapped up. We had about 10% of our grapes left to pick after/during the fires. This was a new and learning experience for us; much of Napa was worried about the effect the fires and smoke may have on the grapes still remaining on the vine. So far all the news has been positive.”
Although yields were slightly down from a normal year, Anthony feels they will produce wines that have good fruit concentration as well as a good balance between tannin and acidity.
Walter Hansel, Russian River Valley
Although only 4 miles from the fires, Walter Hansel had finished harvesting their grapes and all were inside the winery, safe from smoke. The 2017 harvest will be remembered as a difficult one for different reasons though, says winemaker Stephen Hansel.
“The early growing season was somewhat uneventful but then in late June we had a heat spike that we were concerned might cause some sun damage to the young clusters. In fact, the nights were quite cool (50 degrees), which helped the grapes to acclimatise so that the day heat (100 degrees) did not burn them. As harvest approached in late August/early September another heat spike occurred but much more severe. Night time temperatures still ranged in the 50s but day time temperatures for our normally-cool vineyard hit 109 degrees. Some areas of our County reached 118 degrees,” he says.
“This extreme heat was followed by cool and light rainy conditions; which was then followed by cool foggy, normal weather. We harvested almost all of the 2017 Pinot Noir during the extreme heatwave, picking at night when it was cool. The fruit was dark, and very flavourful with healthy acids. Although the weather was typical – cool foggy nights followed by warm days – the remaining fruit just hung on the vine and developed very little additional sugar. These wines are lower in alcohol and may need a slight adjustment to lower PHs.
“Initially I was not too excited about the potential of this vintage, however, now that the wines are resting in the barrel I actually think there is great potential. The aromas are enticing; the colour is deep and dark. These will not be ready until 2020, so they have plenty of time to evolve.”
Morgan, Santa Lucia
Following record rainfall in the winter and a cooler January and February, budbreak occurred slightly later than in previous years. Mildew pressure was low and water availability in the soil was good, meaning vines grew with vigour. The weather was optimum for flowering in early May, but turned later on during flowering causing grape shatter for some Syrah clusters. Moderate temperatures during the summer, coupled with less fog than usual, resulted in faster ripening than in previous years. Harvest began slightly later, however, and the fruit was clean, with an average yield.
“What looked to be a very nice and unrushed harvest before Labor Day turned into a different story with very warm weather during the Labor Day weekend,” says proprietor Dan Morgan Lee. “The weather continued to be warmer than normal for the next two weeks as well. It caused all of the fruit to ripen faster than normal and quickly brutalised the capacity of the winery to process all the fruit when it was optimally ready. The winery team did a great job of responding to the situation and kicked it into overdrive. We finished harvest a couple of days earlier than last year even with the later start. It was brutal but I think that overall quality was fantastic.”
Unpredictable weather and the wildfires characterise the 2017 harvest for Rex Hill. “This year’s harvest was perhaps the most complex ever in Oregon,” says founder Debra Turner Hatcher. “An exceptionally cold winter left the spring ground cold, with the latest budbreak since 2011. Summer turned on a dime to record heat and humidity that caused the vines to shut down and produced mildew pressure in many vineyards, although A to Z properties were generally well controlled. While wildfires were not as severe as California, the smoke cover curtailed photosynthetic activity to the extent that some traditionally early vineyards were picked late and smoke taint is a concern.”
Despite these challenges, crops were ripe with very little disease other than isolated mildew. “All in all this is a classic Oregon vintage compared to the past three years,” says Debra. Their Pinot Noirs are predicted to be ageworthy, with well-balanced flavours and aromas. The whites are looking bright and clean with beautiful aromas and fresh flavours.
The crop was down from a record 2016 harvest in Washington. Summer conditions were hot and dry, while temperatures cooled during September.
“The heat this year was pretty much in line with the long-term average,” says winemaker Charles Smith. “As expected, the warmest area of Washington wine country is Red Mountain, traditionally considered the hottest area in the Columbia Valley. But despite the past winter’s especially harsh weather, it doesn’t appear to have caused much damage in the Columbia Valley.”
Forge Cellars, Finger Lakes
Yields are up this year at Forge Cellars, with ripening on cue and flavours developing well; the winemaking team is “cautiously optimistic” for the 2017 vintage. Managing partner Richard Rainey tells us more.
“For the last three vintages we have had very small yields due to difficult winters killing many buds. In 2016 we had the driest summer on record and now in 2017 we had the wettest. We had very good yields in 2017 and we were all concerned about ripening such a big crop load of Riesling. We exposed fruit early and stayed on top of managing the canopy in order to ensure we could pick very late. Mother Nature was very kind and gave us several weeks of dry and sunny weather. Without that I am afraid we would have been in a pickle.
“At Forge we focus 95% of our attention on an eight-mile-long stretch on the south east side of Seneca Lake… known as the ’banana belt’ because of the tendency to be the ripest area. In 2017 we picked from 14 different sites within this long stretch.
“Ripening was great with potential alcohol of 12.5 to 12.75%, a sweet spot for us. We had interesting flavour development and just the right amount of raisoning and botrytis. As always we hand-sorted everything in the winery and whole-cluster pressed. Everything is now in tank or barrel, and many have already started fermentation (we are 100% spontaneous) to begin the long road to dryness.
“Overall I am cautiously optimistic that we will end up with fresh, aromatic and minerally wines in 2017. 2017 was all about patience in ripening and not picking too early – I think we did well.”
A warm start to the year could have caused problems for these ice wine aficionados but thankfully Stratus harvested their frozen grapes late in 2016. Spring, bud break, and flowering all ran with textbook timeliness, despite damp conditions in early summer.
Winemaker Jean-Laurent Groux says: “Remarkably, summer weather seemed to start in September and carried through the warmest October in a decade. The total number of growing degree days soared during these two months. Chardonnay for sparkling was picked at the end of August with Sauvignon Blanc following in mid-September. All white varieties were off the vine by mid-October.
“The 10 red varieties in our vineyard were left to hang and ripen until the beginning of November. Brix levels were on target with mature phenolics as a result of the extended hang time and overall care in the vineyard. Yields are a touch conservative, but the cautious start to the vintage has ended very positively.”