Wine Harvest 2015: Napa Valley Reports an Outstanding but Small Grape Crop

Across the Northern Hemisphere, winemakers in many regions are reporting one of the earlier grape harvests they’ve seen. They scrambled to pick fruit and find tank space, but now they are enjoying tasting the results and getting an idea of what nature provided. Wine Spectator will be providing snapshot looks at harvest in major wine regions, providing an early preview of what wine drinkers can expect.

Up next, California’s Napa Valley, where drought conditions and poor weather during fruit set led to a lot of uneven grape bunches and very low yields. For the most part, vintners report their wines should be very good to outstanding. But quality is variable.

The Good News: Napa vintners report a harvest without any problems, capping off a growing season that produced clean, healthy grapes. They also believe they have made some high-quality wines, though not at the level of their 2013s or even 2014s.

The Bad News: A year marked by drought produced a very small crop; there was also some uneven ripening as sugars outpaced flavor development.

Promising Grapes: Some potentially great Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot, Syrah and Zinfandel, but quality and yields varied considerably from vineyard to vineyard.

Picking Started: Harvest began in very early August, and wineries were even bringing in Cabernet Sauvignon before the month ended. Picking ended in October.

Analysis: After three years of plentiful harvests, California’s water shortage finally caught up with Napa Valley’s vines. «The vines are really showing the effects of our fourth year of drought,» said Corra winemaker Celia Welch. «They look tired. After three banner years in terms of both high yield and high quality, since April we knew we were looking at a much smaller crop.»

Everyone knew yields would be down in 2015. Drought years do that. But the lack of water wasn’t the only factor that put a crimp in Napa Valley’s harvest this year. Cold weather during flowering led to poor fruit set, leading to small, uneven grape clusters. Vintners are telling Wine Spectator that yields in some locations are 50 to 90 percent less than average. But they also report that the fruit that did ripen was outstanding.

Ripening was helped by a warm summer with almost no rain. Picking began in early August in some areas. Most of the valley was finished by late October. «After more than 30 vintages in Napa Valley I still haven’t seen two that are alike and 2015 didn’t disappoint in that way,» observed Elias Fernandez of Shafer Vineyards. «We started picking a couple of days earlier than last year, but four separate heat spikes fueled a very compact three-week harvest. Ripeness was hitting its peak in a lot of vineyard blocks very close together.

«The good part about having less fruit than in the last couple of vintages is that we weren’t in a mad scramble for tank space. Because of the drought, berries were smaller and just packed with color and flavor. What I’m seeing so far in Stags Leap Cabernet is good quality, dark color and the potential for some great structured, extracted wines.»

The heat did pose a few more challenges. The early-season warm temperatures pushed sugar levels in some grapes well ahead of the maturation of the skins and tannins, where the flavor lies. And Craig Williams, a consultant who works with wineries throughout Napa and Sonoma, said that the heat during September caused more raisining and higher sugars, requiring more sorting than usual to prevent stuck fermentations. «What I’ve tasted from tank is very good; and along the lines of 2014 rather than the powerful 2013,» he said.

Early, small, but very good seems to be what vintners are hoping their tired vines produced.

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