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September 2015
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November 2015

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.

We Help the Vineyard Don Its Autumn Coat

This is the time of year when things start to slow down enough that you take new stock of what's around you.  Harvest is mostly done (look for more on this later in the week).  The days are getting quite short, and the nights notably cooler.  The quality of the light changes with the lower sun angles, with richer yellows to the sunlight.  And the vineyard is responding, with the vine leaves losing chlorophyll and the yellows, oranges, and reds emerging for their brief autumn before everything fades to brown with the first frost.

A Mourvedre vine will give you an idea.  We're done with our harvesting here, although as you see there is the occasional second-crop cluster remaining.  These will provide treats for our animal herd as we get them back out in the vineyard.

Mourvedre colors_med

Though the bright green of summer fades in all cases, not every grape's foliage colors up so dramatically, as you can see from Roussanne, below, which turns more yellow than red.  Roussanne is the only grape for which we have any significant crop remaining on the vines:

Roussanne banner_mid

Even as we finish up this year's harvest, we're getting the vineyard ready for winter. This means seeding the cover crop that will hold the soil in place during our (hopefully) torrential el nino rains this winter, and putting out the compost that we've been making all year.  The compost spreader, poised and ready:

Compost Spreader_mid

It hasn't come close to freezing yet -- our lowest nighttime low this fall has been 42° -- but we typically get our first frost night sometime between late October and mid-November.  These frosts are a good thing for the vines, in that they force them into dormancy. Right now, relieved of their crop and with warm sun still available, many of our vines (like the Tannat vine below) have started growing new leaf growth at the end of this year's canes:

Tannat regrowth_med

In this climate, a grapevine's late-season growth serves no purpose, as the energy and carbohydrates needed to fuel the new growth will be lost at first frost and would be better stored in the root system for next spring.  So, bring on our chilly nights.

As for the weather outlook, we've had some cool, unsettled weather over the last few days, including 0.08" of rain on Thursday (we posted a video of one of these cloudbursts on our Facebook page) and daytime highs in the mid-70s.  It's supposed to warm up a bit over the next week, before a series of fronts start to weaken California's high pressure and are predicted to eventually open California to the westerly rain-bringing winds.  If all goes as planned, we'll welcome our first winter storms around Halloween.

I'll leave you with one final photo, which feels to me even more fall-like than the others.  I took it near our straw-bale barn, in the bowl at the center of our vineyard.  We have trained the Mourvedre vines there up high to allow cold air (that in the spring can bring damaging frosts) to more easily drain underneath them.  One second-crop cluster remained, among mostly-brown leaves and a nascent cover crop.  Soon enough, the whole vineyard will look like this:

Fall Mourvedre Cluster_med

We wind toward the close of a high quality but painfully low-yielding 2015 harvest

I snuck out yesterday morning to get some photos of the ever-diminishing portions of the vineyard that still have grapes on them. One block that I particularly wanted to see was Syrah, given that it was scheduled to be picked in the afternoon.  It was looking suitably autumnal:

Last Syrah pick

We're pretty much done with everything except Roussanne and Mourvedre, and even Mourvedre is more than two-thirds picked.  This week we'll be cleaning up the parcels we've harvested already, going through to get the bottoms of the hills, the cool pockets, and the slightly less ripe clusters we left behind on our main picks.  After that, we'll just be waiting on Roussanne, which is doing its normal late-season swoon, with leaves turning yellow and ripening slowing to a crawl.  It will get there, but it will take its time.  Overall, we're probably about 85% done.

It is clear to us now that our hopes for near-normal yields on our late grapes like Roussanne and Mourvedre will not come to pass.  They may be down a little less than the 50% reduction we saw in early grapes like Syrah, Vermentino, and Viognier, but they'll still be down something near 40%.  This will make the 2015 harvest our smallest ever in yield per acre, and our smallest estate harvest in tonnage since frost-diminished 2001, when we had 45 fewer acres in production.

I'll have more details in an upcoming harvest recap, but we're already conducting triage, doing our best to figure out what we're going to do to adjust to the tiny yields.  Grapes we're used to having comfortably enough of to include in a wine club shipment and still have a few hundred cases to sell after (think Vermentino) won't even make enough to get a bottle to each club member.  We'll be making a lot less Dianthus rosé (and by a lot less, I mean like 85% less) because (firstly) the red grapes don't need any further concentrating at 1.5 tons per acre, and (secondly) we felt that dedicating the 3800 gallons we'd need to make the same 1600 cases of Dianthus we did in the 2014 vintage would leave us unable to make many of our red wines.  As I said, triage.

Still, there are three saving graces at the moment.  First, we feel lucky to have gotten reasonable quantities of wine (down only slightly compared to normal) in both 2013 and 2014, and it's becoming increasingly clear to us that those two vintages are the best back-to-back vintages in terms of quality in our history.  Second, we have the Patelin de Tablas program, and we've been able to find some terrific additional sources for all three colors and keep our production more or less where we wanted it. Third, the quality of the 2015 vintage looks comparable to the last two years.  If there's not much of it, at least it will be stunning.

One last photo, of Mourvedre sheltering under its canopy.  Not long now, and photos like this one will be history, for another year.

Mourvedre on the vine

Harvesting under the stars

By: Lauren Phelps

I arrived at the vineyard today at 4:00 AM in the crisp morning air to photograph the "night harvest" of one of our last blocks of Mourvedre.  Our crew used only head-lamps and the lights from the tractors to harvest which was challenging to photograph and made for some very interesting and rewarding shots.  

Group Tractor Row

Row Pick


I found our 17-person harvest crew deep in the vineyard at a newly planted block of head-trained, dry-farmed Mourvedre on the parcel we call Cross-hairs. This block was part of an experiment that we're excited about, using some very old-fashioned, deep-rooting rootstocks in high stress parts of the vineyard.

Head Trained Sunrise

This block of about 3 acres (there are also 3 acres of Grenache) was planted in 2013 and is now on its third harvest (in vineyard jargon, "third-leaf"), which is the first year you expect to pick any fruit, though only a small amount even in the best of situations, which 2015 has not been.  Given the drought and our low yields overall this harvest, we were pleased that the crew was able to pick about 3/4 of a ton. The quality looks excellent!


Just as the crew was finishing up the sun began to rise over the mountains.  What a treat!

Fruit In

This is our third year harvesting in the very early morning.  Night harvesting is great for the fruit; picking them at lower temperature protects them from oxidation and allows the fermentation to start more gradually and predictably.  It's also better for our harvest crew than picking in the heat of mid-day.

I absolutely love getting out into the vineyard for these photo excursions; I felt like a National Geographic photojournalist on-site documenting an ancient, rarely seen event.  And it's true, it is not very often that we get an in-depth look into the process of harvesting, especially in the dark.  I feel honored to witness and become a part the crew that is responsible for hand-harvesting the fruit that will soon become the next vintage of Tablas Creek wine.