Hurry up and wait.
August is the final mile of the marathon for cool-climate grapes like Chardonnay, and it’s usually the month with the hottest days, pushing the grapes to full ripeness before harvest. But not in 2016. This preliminary 2016 vintage report for northern California explains the growing season, weather and how it has impacted the grapes thus far.
Cool temperatures and misty fog lingered well into late morning most days throughout August. Highs stayed in the upper 70s and low 80s—about 10 degrees below average. This cooling trend allowed our Chardonnay grapes to continue a slow ripening process on the vines without the threat of excessive heat, which can sunburn their delicate skins. If the cold weather holds, as predicted, we may harvest one block of our earliest ripening Russian River Chardonnay the first week of September and pause for at least another week before the 2016 vintage harvest kicks into full gear. Last year, 2015 Chardonnay harvest began on August 24.
Augusts like the 2016 vintage had are exactly what the grapes need. There was just enough sunshine, but without intense heat that radiates through the long days of California summers. Grape clusters can ripen slowly, developing more complex flavors. The key is ensuring the Chardonnay grapes reach full maturity before the typical fall rains, which often arrive between late September and mid-October.
So far for the 2016 vintage, Russian River Chardonnay looks very good. I wish there was more fruit on the vines, but the ripening clusters are uniform in berry size and showing intense apple flavors. Throughout our five grower vineyards, I’ve noticed very little sunburn, which will help preserve the brightness of flavors once the grapes arrive at the press.
Chardonnay yields are almost average—more clusters on the vines than in the minuscule 2015 vintage, but a lot less fruit than in 2012 and 2013.
The calm, cool August has allowed us to ample time to focus on getting the crushpad equipment, fermentation room and barrel cellar ready for harvest. I was beginning to worry that August harvests would become a regular occurrence with global warming, and we have gladly welcomed the return of a September Blessing of the Grapes ceremony to commence crush. It just means we winemakers (and grapegrowers) have to be more patient this month. We sample clusters. We test sugars. And then, we wait. Mother Nature is in the driver’s seat.