After spending about an hour out in the vineyard this afternoon and finding scattered but significant veraison in Mourvedre and Syrah, just the first hints of color in a few top-of-hill Grenache clusters, and no coloring at all in Counoise, I think we can safely say that things are late this year. By contrast, last year I wrote about veraison on August 5th, and the photos demonstrate that things were a bit more advanced than they were today. For context, last year was already late; I wrote about veraison on July 27, 2007, July 30, 2008 and July 24, 2009.
Veraison -- the point at which grapes start to turn color and accumulate sugar -- is a hopeful time for wineries and grape growers; it marks the beginning of the home stretch of a vintage. Typically the textbooks suggest roughly 6 weeks between veraison and harvest, which puts our beginning this year in late September or early October.
Is it scary being at least a week later than 2010, when we had our latest harvest ever? Yes, more than a bit. But there are reasons to think that we'll catch up. First, August and September of 2010 were the coldest on record in Paso Robles. Although 2011 hasn't been as hot as Paso Robles mid-summer often is, it's been at least warm, and it's unlikely that we'll see 2010's extremely cool weather over the next six weeks. Further, yields are much lighter than they were in 2010. Thanks to a frost-free spring and ample winter rainfall, we averaged 3.6 tons per acre in 2010. We got good rain again this last winter, but the April frosts will ensure that our tonnage is down significantly, by at least a third compared to last year and probably more. The lower load on the vines should accelerate the ripening from this point.
What's curious is that the frost seems to have reset the typical sequence, at least in our whites. Normally we'd expect Syrah, Viognier and Marsanne to go through veraison first, followed by Mourvedre, Grenache, Grenache Blanc and Roussanne and finished by Counoise. The reds seem to be more or less following that sequence this year. The first grape to show veraison was Mourvedre, and it's still probably the most regular, with the majority of clusters in the vineyard showing some pink or red berries:
Syrah is showing significant veraison as well, with some clusters nearly through and others still wholly green. The photo below is a good example:
The Grenache is still almost entirely green; I had to trek to the top of the hill to find a few pink berries:
And Counoise is indeed last, as it remains resolutely green throughout:
What is unexpected is that we are still yet to see any veraison in our whites. This is further evidence, if we needed it, of how badly impacted they were by the frosts. We know that our yields in Viognier and Marsanne are very low, and Grenache Blanc significantly reduced. Roussanne, which ripens latest, is looking good, but it goes through veraison late anyway, almost always last of the whites.
If I had to assess yields at this point, I'd think that we're looking at something nearly as low as 2009's 1.9 tons per acre, though much less regular. Where the 2009 spring frosts came on top of drought and hit most varities in frost's typically spotty and irregular manner, this spring's frost damage was more severe in the sprouted varieties (particularly Viognier, Marsanne, Grenache and Grenache Blanc), had a slight impact in Syrah, which was just starting to bud out, and seems to have largely spared Mourvedre, Roussanne and Counoise. This will inevitably lead to some unique challenges in blending this year. If you're a fan of the Cotes de Tablas Blanc, stock up on the 2010.
I am expecting us to begin harvesting sometime right at the end of September or the beginning of October, and for the separation between our earliest- and latest-ripening varieties to be less than normal. It wouldn't surprise me if harvest was a month shorter than usual, lasting 6 weeks instead of the average of 10.
Neil (our winemaker) typically takes an August vacation to help rest up for harvest and to keep in check his impatience for things to begin. He's going to have a hard time when he gets back at the end of the month, with likely another month to worry before things in the cellar heat up.