Murphys, CA — Believe it or not, extended drought conditions may have given this year’s local wine grape harvest an assist.
Various reports from across the state echo that the majority of growers saw smaller than average yields — up to 50 percent less for some in the Paso Robles appellation, partly due to a cooler spring that affected fruit set. However, the overall takeaway is that in many parts of the state, including the Sierra Foothills, premium crops yielded smaller clusters and berries with good skin to juice ratio, which is music to the ears of winemakers focusing on producing high quality wines.
According to Mark Skenfield, a viticultural spokesperson for the Calaveras Winegrape Alliance whose Vinescapes vineyard management company oversees and consults for more than 20 growing operations in Calaveras and Tuolumne counties, pretty much everything has been picked. While local tonnage figures are still out, he confirms, “The production was a little low, pretty much across the board but the quality, I think was good…high quality, for the most part — and we didn’t run out of water in too many places, so that was good, too.”
More Quality ‘Hang Time’ For Some Varietals
Skenfield guesstimates that Mother Lode vineyard yields may have been down by as much as 20 percent, due to the drought. However, the drier weather allowed the slower ripening varietals such as Petit Sirah and Cabernet Sauvignon to enjoy more quality “hang time.” In addition to 2015 being a potentially good vintage year for those two wine grapes, he indicates that locally-grown Grenache, Zinfandel and Syrah should also show well in wines that are now in production.
As far as impacts from the recent devastating Butte Fire, which ravaged nearly 71,000 acres in Calaveras County, Skenfield notes, “We lost two or three vineyards…and there was also smoke in the air for awhile, so there is always a potential for that ‘smoke taint’ in the wine, but we’re crossing our fingers that [the fruit] wasn’t exposed long enough for that to happen.”
Last year’s “fast and furious” harvest, due to extreme heat and faster than normal ripening fruit, was further plagued by issues tapping sufficient timely labor and water shortages; these resulted in tough irrigation choices that left some of the crop to languish on the vines, unpicked.
Water Was Less Of An Issue
This year, Skenfield states that most of the water-challenged vineyard owners were able to drill more wells or otherwise improve their water storage. Although coordinating labor was dicey at times he remarks, “We didn’t leave anything on the vine this year, due to well failures and not enough water in storage.”
Although rain is generally welcome, during harvest it can be a challenge, as Skenfield points out, especially with varietals like tight-clustered Petit Sirah, which, when rain gets inside, tends to quickly begin to rot. “I don’t know if we’re going to have another ‘normal’ year, but in a normal year we’d have more of those issues…with late ripening varieties Mourvedre and Grenache,” he comments. “This year, we got one rain that may have mattered but it didn’t really do any damage, which is kind of nice.”
The changing weather pattern has perhaps increased the success chances of some varietals that had been previously considered a stretch for the Sierra Foothills, despite its many microclimes, according to Skenfield. “A lot of people would say Cabernet is not well-suited but we’ve picked some very high-end Cabernet…there’s certainly varieties that have a harder time in the heat — but you make up for that with how you trellis them and things like that,” he shares.
As for new vineyard plantings in the works, Skenfield remarks, “I don’t see the confidence coming back quite yet…there are some projects coming on — but not the scale we were seeing 12 to 15 years ago.” He opines that there is a demand for quality locally grown varieties that are now more minimally planted, such as Barbara grown in Calaveras County, Viognier, and Vermentino, also known in France as Rolle.
Local organic wine grape growing operations are notably on the increase, Skenfield says. Certainly, he affirms, having less rain to deal with makes organic farming somewhat easier as weeds, mildew and rot become less of an issue in more arid conditions. Among the vineyards he cites as recent examples are Murphys-based Broll Mountain Vineyards, which converted last year to a certified organic program, and El Portal Vineyard, located behind Val du Vino.