Normally, the Pinot Noir harvest in Mendocino County’s Anderson Valley begins in early October. But this has not been a normal season.
Glenn McGourty, the county’s University of California Cooperative Extension viticulture farm advisor, describes the situation at the mid-point of September
“In the Anderson Valley, they’re going full blast on harvesting Pinot Noir,” he says. “It’s at least three weeks ahead of schedule. Some varieties are coming in almost a month early.”
McGourty also works with growers in Lake County who are experiencing a similarly early harvest.
That’s what can happen when warm temperatures in April, that move the bloom forward, is followed by grape-friendly weather for the remainder of the season.
“Ripening accelerated quickly in pretty much everything,” McGourty says.
Most of Mendocino County’s white varieties had been picked by the third week of September. That included much of the Chardonnay, a major variety in the Russian River Valley, along with the county’s other white wine grapes, like Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier.
“Most of the white wine grape harvest here is pretty well done,” he says. “The white wine grape harvest in Lake County is moving right along, too.”
Growers are reporting good tonnage figures and very good quality, with little mold, McGourty notes. “It’s another nice crop,” he adds.
Meanwhile, in addition to the Pinot Noir, the other red varieties, ranging from Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon to Sangiovese and Zinfandel, continue on a fast-track to maturity. That harvest has already started by mid-September in some warmer sites. Activity is expected to peak around the second week of October.
In addition to ripening more quickly this season, white wine grapes are reaching maturity at a lower Brix, say, 22 instead of 23. At the same time, acidity levels of the grapes are low, while pH readings are higher than normal. As a result, some wineries are using those numbers instead of sugar values in deciding when the grapes should be picked, McGourty notes.
“Normally, wineries want to wait for acidity levels drop to where the grapes aren’t too tart,” he explains. “Usually, that allows time for sugar levels to increase. But, this year, if you wait for Brix to rise, then the acid falls out of the fruit. Also, if pH readings get too high, usually above 3.5 for white, the stability of the wine declines. So, this season, if the grapes are only at 22 Brix but pH is already at 3.5, it may be better to pick the grapes while the acidity is still in a decent range.”
While unusual, this phenomenon typically occurs in a warm, dry year like this, McGourty notes.
This year, the Mendocino County wine grape crop, while sizeable, appears to be smaller than last year. Still, space for the new grapes is tight in some wineries which are holding inventory from last year, he says. He’s heard of only a few growers having problems selling this year’s grapes on the spot market.
“Wineries want the fruit because it’s good,” McGourty says.
Generally, the size of crews available to pick the grapes is smaller than in other years. But the work is getting done, he notes.
“Growers here are now doing enough mechanical harvesting that we’re getting a more balanced labor pool.” McGourty says.