This week, we've seen the first hints of veraison in our Syrah and our Mourvedre. One of the most advanced Syrah clusters is below, alongside other clusters that like most of the vineyard are still totally green:
Veraison is an exciting time visually, but its implications in the work that we do, at least in the short term, are limited. Practically speaking, it means that we no longer have to worry about powdery mildew, and so can end our sulfur, copper, and compost tea sprays. Otherwise, we continue the work we've been doing in the vineyard, start to thin clusters to get to our desired yields, and rest up knowing that harvest is just around the corner.
Physiologically, what is happening inside each grape during the veraison process is that the grapes have stopped adding mass and begun the changes that accumulate sugar. Like all fruit-bearing plants, its goal is to distribute its seeds far and wide, and the flavors are designed to peak at the time when their seeds are at maximum fertility. An animal snacks on the berries, distributes the berry's seeds in its waste, and the seeds grow into new plants.
The transformation between green, hard, sour berries and sweet, soft, red berries takes some time, and when it starts depends on that year's weather: both how early the vine sprouts and begins to grow (determined largely by the date of the last winter freeze) and how fast it can photosynthesize (determined by the amount of heat and sun after budbreak, as well as the vine's crop load). Given this year's early budbreak and the lack of spring frost, we expected this year's veraison to be early. The question was, how early. It turns out that despite the drought and a relatively warm summer so far, it's taken a relatively normal amount of time between budbreak and veraison. In degree day accumulation, 2014 has so far been one of our warmer years, though not as warm as our warmest years like 1997, 2001 and 2013 (weather data taken from the Western Weather Group's Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance forecast):
Budbreak, as I noted in a blog piece in mid-March, was about two and a half weeks earlier than normal. We were exceptionally lucky to avoid frost given the two full months of frost risk that this early budbreak left us with. But avoid it we did, and the vineyard has been progressing steadily ever since. But compared to when we've first reported veraison in other years, we've actually regressed a bit toward normal. Those dates are in the below chart, with the year linked to the blog piece I wrote that year talking about veraison:
|Year||First Veraison Noted||Harvest Begins||# of Days|
|2007||July 20||August 28||39|
|2008||July 23||September 3||42|
|2009||July 20||September 1||43|
|2010||July 30||September 16||49|
|2011||August 5||September 20||47|
|2012||July 25||September 5||42|
|2013||July 17||August 26||40|
This year's budbreak is about two weeks in advance of our eight-year average. Based on the range of days that it's taken between first veraison and harvest (between 39 and 49 days) that suggests that harvest will begin sometime between August 16th and August 27th. Given that the years when it was closer to 50 than 40 days were in the unusually cool vintages of 2010 and 2011, I'm betting that it will be at the early end of that range.
It is interesting to me that it has taken slightly longer than average for us to go from budbreak (two and a half weeks early) to veraison (two weeks early). This seems to me to be a good thing, given that the longer that the grapes can stay in contact with the vines, the more opportunity they have to pull character and minerality out of the soil. This suggests to me that our crop levels aren't as low as we worried they might be three years into our drought, and provides confirmation of what we're seeing in the vineyard: that crop levels are similar to last year, and in some blocks high enough that we're starting to go through and thin out some of the clusters.
So, where does this leave us? About where we were before. We're still thrilled with the health of the vineyard, which looks as good as we can remember for mid-July. And knowing that we're entering the home stretch with above-average hang time so far eases some worries that we had about the early start to harvest.
Now, the waiting starts. But at least we know that the timer has been set.