Harvest 2015 – A Good Year October 07 2015, 0 Comments

From all reports in so far, it looks like the 2015 harvest across the northern hemisphere wine regions is shaping up to be a good one. Welcome news, indeed. But what does it mean, exactly, and what causes this happy circumstance?

The “harvest” refers to the actual picking of the grapes. A critical step in the winemaking process, the quality of grapes at harvest sets the stage for the quality of that year’s wine, but the final picking of the grapes is actually the end-game following months of work in the vineyard, subject to unpredictable weather conditions.

"...a good vintage is made in the vineyard, not in the winery..."

An experienced winemaker will tell you that a good vintage is made in the vineyard, not in the winery, and that the highest quality a wine can achieve is determined by the condition of grapes when they are picked. Contrary to popular belief, it is not possible to “fix” a vintage in the winery – one can only coax out the best characters of the fruit at hand, serving as a steward, of sorts, for the grapes at hand. This is why, in a challenging vintage, the producers who understand this in their bones provide us the best of what that particular vintage gave us.

 

Merlot grapes at Chateau Les Trois Croix, AOC Fronsac, Bordeaux, waiting to be picked

What factors conspire to make any particular harvest a “good harvest?”

Certainly, the current year’s weather conditions play an important role. Heat, rain (or lack thereof), hail, wind … these conditions and the timing of them can have a significant influence year to year. The summer of 2015 saw extreme heat across Europe as early as June, extending well into July in some places. Sun and heat are necessary, of course, but too much heat for an extended period can shut down a vine.

Rain is less important in California than it is in Europe, simply because the vineyards in Europe, as a rule, are not irrigated. The winegrowers there depend on rainfall to give their vines the requisite amount of moisture. And here again, too much of a good thing can be as bad, if not worse, than not enough. The last couple of years in central and southern France have been challenging in this regard – heat spikes in the weather followed by violent storms bringing buckets of water and hail. The result: severe damage to both the current year’s fruit and the vines themselves.

Hail is a nightmare whenever it occurs during the growing season, either destroying the fragile flowers before they have a chance to turn into berries, or battering the ripening bunches that survived the flowering. A golf ball-sized piece of ice can obliterate a tender bunch of grapes. Hail is largely responsible for the diminished yields across Burgundy in 2012 and 2013. Many producers achieved barely one year’s normal harvest across two seasons because of it. Most of those vines are recovered, and the 2015 vintage shows the rebound of both quality and quantity that puts faith back into the winegrowers.

Another factor that may not seem immediately intuitive is that events of the prior season often have an impact on the current growing season. Vines, as a general rule, want to grow and procreate. If last year’s weather was difficult and resulted in less fruit, the plant, left to its own devices, will try to make it up the following year by overproducing. Alternatively, if a plant was damaged during the prior growing season from, say, hail, floods, etc., the plant may still be recovering, and may be too weak to give up the full quantity of fruit that it normally would provide.

We’re seeing this latter result in some areas of Burgundy and the south of France, in those pockets where severe weather in 2013 and 2014 laid waste to certain vineyards. Even the positive effects of the weather during 2015 can’t erase the kind of damage some vineyards suffered.

 

80-year old “head-pruned” Grenache vine at Domaine Santa Duc, Gigondas

Beyond the annual weather conditions, there is the human influence in the vineyard. Like the growing cycle of any agricultural crop, we can and do intervene (or interfere) with the plant’s natural tendencies.

The first opportunity for human intervention in a vineyard is winter pruning, which sets the stage for how the vine will grow, and how much fruit it will initially attempt to produce. Timing here is important, particularly in those places in the world where winter is very cold. Too early, and the vines could be exposed to freezing temperatures that can damage freshly cut wood.

Once pruning is finished, we look to the sky for rain and wait for budburst. Budburst is where the knobs on the bare cane begin to “bud out,” meaning green shoots of new plant life begin to form. Those shoots will grow out and become this season’s canes, from which the flowers will form. Rain is welcome until the fragile shoots flower, when good weather is needed to ensure even pollination. Heavy rain at this time can destroy the flowers before pollination is finished and fruit set can begin.

The number of bunches per shoot, how they are positioned, and how much foliage surrounds them (the plant’s canopy) are examples of how the plant itself can be manipulated during this time. Repositioning shoots, eliminating bunches and thinning leaves are all ways of managing a vineyard to accommodate whatever weather the season is offering.

 

Flowering vine, Chateau L’Hospitalet, Languedoc

Spraying against fungal diseases is another significant intervention, and one that even organic growers perform using non-synthetic products. A wet season increases the opportunity for rot, which can spread and destroy fruit. Judicious use of sprays, timed properly, can save a vintage. Late season warmth and dry days are a blessing, as lack of water stresses the vines, inhibiting shoot growth and encourages grape ripening.

And this brings us full circle to harvest. Dry conditions are best for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that too much rain can swell the grapes and dilute the juice, heavy rain can burst berries, and too many days of wet can encourage rot. All in all, many conditions to worry about, mitigate if possible, and deal with as one can.

So back to 2015 … most of Burgundy breathed a sigh of relief with favorable weather in September and people are cautiously optimistic. Though yields are still lower than normal due to prior years’ damage, the quality appears to be very good. Chablis suffered a poorly timed hailstorm on the eve of harvest that raged across the region, but it wasn’t the disaster that it could have been. While some fruit was lost, everyone was ready to pick, and they rallied. Early reports are that acidity was retained, though some fruit was lost.

September rain proved challenging for Bordeaux growers as well, though coming on the heels of exceptional growing conditions throughout the season, the grapes appear to have been strong and healthy enough to withstand rot. The grapes for still white wines were in before the rain, and in Sauternes and Barsac (where the production is sweet white wine), producers confirm that noble rot is spreading as desired and the first round of grapes are in the cellar.

Tuscany also reports a very favorable September after a hot summer. One winegrower in Montepulciano told us that 2015 could be the best vintage there so far this century.

If you are lucky enough to find yourself in a wine region about now, the air will be filled with the sweet perfume of fermenting juice. It will be months for the white wine and a year or more for the reds before we start seeing them arrive in our shop, but we are already looking forward to evaluating for ourselves if 2015 is, in fact, A Good Year.

Questions about harvest or the vine-growing cycle? Call us, or email nancy@lcawine.com with your wine-related questions. LCA Wine is Orange County’s authority on wine education and merchants of unique curated wines.

 

À votre santé!

Nancy