Have you heard that every year is the same here in Napa Valley? Don’t you believe it! After the drama of the 2008 vintage with its roller coaster of weather-related challenges, we enjoyed a remarkably mild, blissfully uneventful 2009 growing season. That is, until Mother Nature tossed us a curve ball on October 13th. We had the heaviest harvest rainfall since the early 80s! Perhaps this will be called the Bordeaux vintage…
The vines came out of their winter sleep just about on time, in the third week of March, and we were off to a beautiful start. The weather was gorgeous – late March and early April brought us daytime temperatures in the 70s with lows in the 40s at night. The word frost was barely part of our vocabulary last spring, which was a delightful contrast to the spring of 2008. These mild conditions seemed to set the tone for the whole season – it was very comfortable for both the vines and the people!
By April, Geoff Gorsuch, our Winemaker, began the usual shoot thinning, essentially correcting the pruning work he did in the winter. The winter pruning is an attempt to determine the number of shoots and clusters that will appear in the spring but, as Geoff says, the vines don’t read the textbook and some thinning is inevitable to prevent crowding and over-cropping. See our video of springtime shoot thinning
That initial thinning was just the beginning. The vines seemed to thrive on the mild growing conditions and between the beautiful weather and a good soaking of rain in early May they grew like gangbusters. Geoff couldn’t remember a season when he’s done so much shoot thinning.
It’s important to keep the vines balanced – carrying the right number of shoots and potential crop for the site and spacing – and also to keep the ratio of leafy growth to clusters in line. Otherwise we risk vegetal characteristics in the wine. The thinning also increases ventilation which helps keep mildew in check.
The vines flowered around middle of May, right on time again, and the weather continued to cooperate nicely. Too much heat can burn the flowers and heavy rain may knock them off, resulting in crop loss, or “shatter”. We lucked out and Geoff saw fairly uniform fruit set and nicely formed clusters.
When pollination is complete, it’s time to make cluster counts and this was the first indication that we’d have a nice, average-sized crop. Geoff did a little cluster thinning at that point to ensure good flavor intensity down the road – quantity and quality don’t necessarily go together in the world of wine.
Exceptionally mild weather continued through June and July, punctuated by a couple of heat waves. By the time the grapes here at the winery began to change color, the third week of July, many of the local growers reported being significantly behind schedule, most likely due to the cool conditions. An early or late harvest is neither good nor bad – it depends upon what happens between fruit set and harvest. The grapes need enough time to develop flavor maturity, which is why you hear talk of “hangtime” on the early years. On the late years we worry about running into rain.
The color change, when the grapes turn from green to yellow-green or purple, is such a significant event there’s a name for it: veraison (see video). It signals that the shoots have stopped growing and the vine’s energy has shifted into fruit ripening. At this point, Geoff did more shoot and leaf thinning. If there’s too much leafy growth, aside from encouraging vegetal character the grapes may get sweet faster than the flavors mature.
Veraison is also a good time to re-evaluate the crop load. Geoff walks the vineyard repeatedly to see if the clusters are coloring up nicely. Dropping unripe fruit on the ground isn’t something he likes to do, but if some of the clusters are lagging behind, they’ll add green, unripe flavor to the wine. So – off they come – it’s called a “green harvest” (see video). He also needs to make sure that the vines aren’t carrying more fruit than they can ripen with a high degree of flavor intensity – sometimes thinning is the answer.
Once the fruit is nicely colored up, it’s time to begin field sampling (see video), which is gathering grape samples for tasting and analysis (see video). Geoff knows the end point he wants to reach in terms of numbers and, more importantly, flavors for each variety and site. The sugar level or brix, is important because it determines the alcohol. The acidity gives the wine freshness and makes it food friendly. The pH is related to the health and stability of the wine. Flavor is the over-riding consideration, so he samples with increasing frequency until he finally decides it’s time to harvest!
When the numbers fall nicely into place at the same time the flavors are at peak it’s called a good year! Most winemakers will tell you that the most important decision they make on an annual basis is when to pick each section of grapes because that’s their best chance to make beautifully balanced wine that’s packed with flavor.
The sparkling wine producers began bringing in their Pinot Noir and Chardonnay the third week of August. A few Sauvignon Blanc vineyards came in about that time, too.
The Chenin Blanc was the first to arrive on our crush pad, over Labor Day weekend, nearly two weeks later than the start date for 2008 (see video of crushing). Surprisingly, the Estate Merlot was ready on the 7th. We think of Merlot as a mid-season variety. Perhaps it was because of the light crop in that part of the vineyard. The very sparse crop from Howell Mountain was next and we were off to the races!
September was the warmest month of the season, by far. If you check our harvest calendar, you’ll see that the fruit was coming in fast and furious at the end of September and the beginning of October. It meant very long hours for Geoff and his crew.
As local growers and winemakers began to talk about the vintage the most common themes were good flavor maturity at relatively low brix (sugar levels) – that’s no surprise given the cool weather – and very good news in terms of balance. Most winemakers seemed to agree that the reds had excellent color – a good indicator for flavor intensity. Opinions were all over the board regarding yields, so it appeared to be a question of location. The yields in our home vineyard, here in Yountville, were quite good while the crop up at Howell Mountain resembled that of 2008 – very sparse.
The upside of the rapid-fire pace is that Geoff and his fatigued crush crew could begin to see the light at the end of the tunnel. The advantage we didn’t anticipate was that almost all of our grapes were harvested in advance of a major, winter-style rainstorm on October 13th. We measured over three inches in 24 hours here in Yountville!
A little sprinkle doesn’t much matter but this kind of rain is a real worry – it brings down the sugar and can cause dilution and rot!
The good news for local growers was that Cabernet Sauvignon was the main grape still hanging. It’s fairly rot resistant, thanks to its thick skin and loose cluster formation. After rain we pray for wind to dry things out and with Cab, there’s a good chance it will all turn out fine. Many growers and winemakers thinned leaves to improve ventilation.
The only variety we had yet to harvest, at that point, was the Carneros Syrah – fortunately another tough-skinned grape. Geoff gave it a few days hoping things would dry out and, with some trepidation, went down to check things out. Much to his relief, it looked clean and the sugar was on a par with 2008. With more rain predicted in another few days he went ahead and brought it in the next day at 24% sugar – just about perfect – and the color was remarkably deep! It turned out to be a good call because we got another good soaking the next day. And, so ended the Goosecross harvest on October 18th.
For the Napa Valley as a whole, a number of growers had grapes out until the end of October but, with more rain predicted for the first week of November, there was a rush to finish harvesting by Halloween. There was some warm, windy weather along the way, which is ideal for drying things out and bringing up the sugar. But, the linchpin for any review of the 2009 harvest will center on what was harvest before, vs. after, the rainstorm.
Our first releases from the 2009 vintage will be the fruity whites: Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier and Chenin Blanc. They’re best when they’re young and we’ll bottle them in December, anticipating a springtime release.
After a beautiful growing season of mild, sunny days and cool, foggy nights, we were reminded not to count our chickens before they’re hatched! Geoff is grateful to have escaped the rain-related challenges, for the most part, and pleased with the flavor concentration and excellent balance of the 2009 vintage as he moves into getting the new wines barrelled up and blended. Now, on to 2010!