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Harvest 2015 Recap: Mourvedre and Roussanne (somewhat) to the Rescue

The last two days, we picked the last batches of Roussanne off of our estate.  This makes in one case six passes through a single block, harvesting what's ripe, leaving the rest to ripen a bit more, and repeating every week or two.  In a year like 2015, when yields are so low that you treasure every single grape, the extra investment is worth it.  And, it seems like this extra care has been warranted, as our latest-ripening grapes have turned out to be the ones whose yields are down least.

Last Pick Chalkboard

Two weeks ago, before the Counoise, Mourvedre and Roussanne harvests were quite done, it looked like every grape was going to be down between 40%-50%, as we'd seen in the earlier varieties.  But these last three grapes came in much better, down 19%, 9% and 2% respectively, which leaves us overall with an estate harvest that's down 27.6%: serious, but better than the 40%+ that we'd feared.  The details:

Grape2014 Yields (tons)2015 Yields (tons)% Change
Viognier 11.4 6.3 -45.1%
Marsanne 9.9 5.9 -40.3%
Grenache Blanc 31.9 22.0 -31.0%
Picpoul Blanc 7.5 5.0 -33.0%
Vermentino 17.3 8.7 -49.4%
Roussanne 42.8 42.0 -1.8%
Total Whites 120.8 89.9
Grenache 50.7 30.7 -39.5%
Syrah 38.1 21.4 -44.0%
Mourvedre 52.3 47.5 -9.1%
Tannat 15.4 9.8 -36.6%
Counoise 17.0 13.7 -19.4%
Total Reds 173.5 123.1
Total 294.3 213.0 -27.6%

We had speculated at the beginning of harvest that while the drought was playing a part, a big piece of the lower yields on the earlier-sprouting varieties was the cool, wet, windy May that impacted these grapes' abilities to set fruit during flowering.  The weather in June, when Counoise, Mourvedre, and Roussanne flowered, was benign.  Knowing that these grapes were down roughly 10% while the earlier grapes were down an average of 40% suggests that in fact the majority of the blame should go to the May weather rather than to the four dry years.

Overall yields off our estate ended up at 2.01 tons per acre, which is (barely!) our lowest ever, just a hair below the 2.03 tons per acre we saw in 2009's drought- and frost-reduced crop.  If the intensity is comparable to 2009, then we're in for a treat when we get to the blending stage this spring.

Looking at average sugars and pH at harvest gives a quick way of measuring a year's ripeness.  Since 2007:

YearAvg. SugarsAvg. pH
2007 24.42 3.67
2008 23.87 3.64
2009 23.42 3.69
2010 22.68 3.51
2011 22.39 3.50
2012 22.83 3.65
2013 22.90 3.63
2014 23.18 3.59
2015 22.60 3.59

I think that in this measurement is where you see the largest impact of the drought.  The sugars look more like the cool years of 2010 and 2011 than they do like the warmer years we've seen before and since.  And, of course, until late August, this year was actually cooler than our 10-year average.  For a more graphical look at how the 2015 vintage progressed, take a look by month at the accumulation of degree days out here at Tablas Creek.  As you can see, we alternated between warmer-than-average stretches and cooler-than-average stretches:

2015 Degree Days vs Average

The difference between normal and 2015 is even more dramatic when you look at it as a percent change.  May saw fully 30% fewer degree days accumulated than our eighteen-year average, October so far has been more than 40% above normal, and only June was within 10% of normal:

Temp Pct Chg vs Average

The above graph gives a hint as to why we think we saw relatively modest sugars for our latest-ripening grapes. While warm weather is good for ripening, hot weather actually causes the vines to shut down photosynthesis, and you don't get the same sugar accumulation you do when it's more moderate. We had three separate heat spikes at the end of the ripening cycle.  Hence our last two lots of Roussanne, which despite an exceptionally long hang time averaged only about 19° Brix. Yet the flavors were good, the grapes and clusters looked good, and we expect to find a happy home for all the lots we brought in.  A few Roussanne clusters, from last week, illustrate the russet tinge that gives the grape its name:

Roussanne Clusters

I mentioned at the beginning of this piece that we had gone multiple times through even more of our blocks than normal, to maximize our quality while getting as much yield out of this reduced crop as possible.  We will keep these lots separate until we start to consider our blending options in the spring.  And boy will we have a lot of options.  You can see on our harvest chalkboard that around the end of September, Madeline (who maintains this chalkboard) realized that because we were picking so many blocks multiple times we were ending up with enough lots to warrant doubling up lots per line.  Even so, she ran out of space in mid-October:

Final Chalk Board

In character, it's early to tell what things will be like, but the combination of very low yields and moderate sugars/acids suggests we are working with a vintage unlike any we've seen in our recent memories.  Clusters and berries have been very small all year, which means that skin-to-juice ratios were high on our red grapes.  Flavors should be intense.  Some of the last-harvested lots of Mourvedre illustrate:

2015-10-13 15.04.57

At 63 days between its August 26th beginning and its October 28th conclusion, this harvest clocks in at a week longer than average (our 10-year average is 56 days) and about average in terms of start and finish dates.  This is a far cry from many growers to our south, who started and finished nearly a month ahead of us.  I'll have some additional thoughts on what made Paso's experience of the 2015 harvest unique in an upcoming blog.

I had speculated mid-summer that our dry-farmed, wide-spaced blocks looked like they suffered less in the drought than our traditional trellised, close-spaced blocks.  And it looks like this turned out to be the case, as we got 13.90 tons off of our Scruffy Hill picks, down less than 1% compared to last year's 13.94 tons.  Our other head-trained, dry-farmed blocks showed a bit of a decline, down 9.8% to 17.32 tons, but still held up better than the closer-spaced blocks.

Now that the fruit is in, it's welcome to start raining any time.  We've been preparing the vineyard for this rain, seeding our cover crop, spreading compost, and putting out straw in areas that might be prone to erosion.  A storm that looked like it might hit this week dissipated before it got here, but there's another in the forecast for early next week.  Bring on el nino.