The only significant impact of two brief rain events in late September on grapes of Cliff Lede Vineyards in Napa Valley’s Stags Leap AVA was positive. It gave crews a little breather from a fast-paced harvest that had begun the last week of August.
About half an inch of rain fell the morning of Sept. 21 followed by less than a tenth of an inch on Sept. 30. In each case, dry soils quickly absorbed water on the ground and bright sunshine returned in the afternoon to finish drying things out, reports Remi Cohen, director of winemaking and viticulture for the vineyard.
The vineyard’s 60 acres of grapes – predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec, and Petite Verdot – range in elevation from the valley floor to the appellation’s highest point.
This year’s harvest started about 10 to 14 days earlier than usual with Sauvignon Blanc. By the time the first rain began, crews had finished picking them along with Semillon, Malbec and Merlot. Assuming the favorable weather of early October continues to hold, Cohen expects to complete this year’s harvest about Oct. 15-20.
Warm, dry conditions throughout the season resulted in a good, even set and uniform veraison and hastened development of the crop. “We ended up with about an average cluster count with lots of tiny berries,” she says. “We thin our grapes pretty extensively to focus production on quality. Otherwise, yields would have been average to slightly above. Most of that reflected a high berry count per cluster rather than size of the berries.
Cohen attributes the smaller berry size to the number of berries and this year’s drought, which further limited the amount of water vines could provide each berry. With higher skin to juice ratios for fermentation, more and smaller berries should help boost the quality of the wine made from this year’s crop, she says.
She’s particularly optimistic about prospects for the vineyard’s signature variety. “We’re really excited about the concentration in our Cabernet Sauvignon this year,” Cohen says. “We were noticing very good flavors early this year and nice acid retention. The grapes seem really balanced and should require minimal manipulation. The wine is intensely colored and rich in texture and flavor.”
Despite warm temperatures this year, the season featured few extreme heat spikes. That helped the grapes retain their color, she explains. At the same time, cool nights aided acid retention.
In a season which started out dry and continued that way, Cohen took a conservative approach in irrigating the vineyards – withholding water when she could without jeopardizing health of the vines and turning on the drip system only when it was needed. “We focused on timely and judicious applications of water,” she says.
This included irrigating hillside blocks very early in the year to assure a wet soil profile in early spring, followed by little, if any, irrigation between the main period of shoot elongation and veraison.
“This benefited us by establishing healthy canopies early on and then maintaining small berry size which improved grape quality,” she says. “And, we still protected the vines by irrigating appropriately before the few heat events we experienced.”
With dry conditions also limiting canopy development this season, Cohen pulled far fewer leaves than she normally does when rainfall is more plentiful.
“We did almost no leaf removal, except for laterals in the center of the fruit zone,” she says. “We removed a few laterals there to allow some dappled sunlight on the grapes. But, because the weather was trending warm and dry, we left a layer of leaves to shade the grapes from sunburn.”