California’s 2012 wine grape season ended with a big surprise – in more ways the one.
The crush was the biggest ever. Nevertheless, the vintage promises to be an impressive one. And, with consumer demand on the rise, grower prices remain strong.
Thefinal grape crush report, released by USDA-NASS puts last year’s crush at a record 4,387,086 tons. That’s 13 percent above the 3,874,158 tonscrushed in 2011 and 1 percent larger than the previous record high 2005 crush.
“As the harvest began with the early sparkling varieties, such as Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, most everyone believed it was going to be a big crop,” says Brian Clements, vice president of Turrentine Brokerage, Novato, Calif. “The highest guesses were in the range of 3.80 to 3.85 million tons. But, no one thought it would be this big.”
In his latest company blog, Clements notes some of last year’s production highlights:
• The Cabernet Sauvignon crop was the second largest in state history -- up 18 percent over the five-year average. In the Lodi area, production jumped 36 percent over the light 2011 harvest, accounting for 26 percent of the state total. That’s far more than any other region.
• Statewide, production of Chardonnay climbed 13 percent over its five year average. Sonoma County Chardonnay growers harvested their largest crop ever, while those in the Lodi area brought in their second largest Chardonnay crop
• Merlot tonnage increased 13 percent over the five-year 2011 average, rising 17 percent above 2011 levels.
• The 2012 Zinfandel harvest was 30 percent larger than in 2011, the lightest in 15 years, and 11 percent bigger than the five-year average.
• The 2012 Pinot Noir crop was 356 percent larger than 10 years earlier
Clements attributes the size and quality of last year’s crop to several factors, including what he calls the “hand of man.” Because of the two previous small crops, many growers left more wood in an effort to boost fruit yields.
But the main reason for last year’s outstanding crop, he says, was ideal weather in most grape-growing areas of the state, A long, moderate growing season in most areas produced excellent quality and allowed the grapes to continue to size right up to harvest, he notes.
“Except for the southern San Joaquin Valley, where hot weather limited crop size, the rest of California’s growers, especially those in the North Coast, enjoyed a near-perfect growing season,” Clements says. “We didn’t have a summer. Instead we had a warm spring that continued throughout the year, resulting in large berries. We ended up with a big crop, not because of the number of clusters but because of the size of the grapes.”
That, in turn, explains why he’s more than a little enthusiastic about the winemaking potential of the crop. A crop that’s big in size usually doesn’t result in one that’s big on quality. That’s not the case this time. Consumers should enjoy the wines made from what he describes grapes of fantastic quality. “It could even be another vintage of the century,” he jokes.
Due to relatively small crops the last two years and increased case sales, wineries were able to absorb all the grapes. “Even when the winery tanks were full, a number of wineries did whatever they could to bring in as many of the picture-perfect clusters as possible.” Clements says. That helped give prices a healthy boost.
The 2012 average price of all varieties reached a record high of $737.61, up 25 percent from 2011. That figure includes an average price of $883.62 for red wine grapes, up 25 percent from 2011, and $625.30 for white wine grapes, a 15 percent increase over 2011
For the first time ever, prices of Napa County grapes topped $5,000 per ton, jumping 11 percent over 2011 prices to $5,067, Clements reports.
In most of California’s grape-growing areas, the major varieties buyers wanted from the 2011 harvest are still in demand at nearly the same price levels, Clements says. This past December and January buyers of popular grapes like Napa Cabernet Sauvignon and Russian River Pinot Noir, outnumbered sellers.
Meanwhile, bulk wine inventories have increased to about 14 million gallons. That’s likely to reduce imports of bulk wine, particularly of several key varieties which had been short in recent years. This, too, has helped keep wine grape prices high,
“If I was a winemaker or grape buyer I’d be thinking the 2012 crush caught up our supplies momentarily,” Clements says. “But, there’s still a structural shortage in most regions, and demand is strong. Considering the size of the 2012 crop, there are relatively few tons of grapes available for sale. Most of the tonnage has been tied up in multi-year contracts. We’ll know more in the second quarter of this year when we see how case sales are going.”
Meanwhile, growers are keeping a wary eye on the sky. Despite a wet November and December, little or no rain since then has left vineyard soil profiles dry.
“Growers are starting to talk about it and if the dry weather continues it could be worrisome,” Clements says, “Having to start irrigation early could impact the 2013 crop.”
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