When you spend two weeks away in late June and early July, as I did, the vineyard can look quite different when you return than when you left. When I left, most berries were still pea sized, bright green, and hard. When I got out into the vineyard yesterday, things had changed. The grape berries and clusters looked more mature. The vines' deep green canopies contrasted dramatically with the midsummer blue sky. Quantities look respectable: perhaps somewhat smaller than average but better than 2015. The vines look remarkably healthy, with really no significant visible effects of the week-plus of 100-degree weather we saw in late June.
And, when I got to the top of the Syrah block, as I thought I might, I found veraison.
Veraison marks the point where a grape stops accumulating mass and starts accumulating sugar. At the same time, red grapes start their color change from green, while white grapes take on more of a yellow tint. Both red and white grapes start to soften. [For more about what's happening chemically, check out this veraison post from the archives.] This landmark comes roughly six weeks before the onset of harvest, and gives us our best estimate for when harvest will begin. A few of the most advanced Syrah clusters:
So far, of our red grapes, only Syrah has shown any color change. And only on the tops of the hills, which are typically most advanced, and even there there are many more all-green clusters than there are those like the ones above. A good example is the photo below, where a more advanced cluster on the left is visible next to another cluster on the same vine that is still entirely green:
The transformation between hard, sour green berries and sweet, soft, red berries takes some time, and when it starts depends both on how early the vine begins its spring growth and on how fast the ripening progresses, determined by the amount of heat and sun after budbreak. Looking at the chart below, from the Western Weather Group's Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance forecast, suggests that we shouldn't be surprised to be seeing an early veraison, given that 2016 is among the warmest years since 1997:
While six weeks is a good basic guide for the duration between veraison and harvest, it's not totally constant, and can be influenced by the weather that we get in the interim, as well as by the amount of fruit the vines are carrying. For example, in 2014 our earliest-ever veraison (noted on July 9th) was mitigated by a very cool August, and we started harvest 45 days later, on August 23rd. By contrast, last year's first veraison was noted on July 18th, but a warm August and a light crop load meant that we began harvest just 39 days later, on August 26th. The last ten years are compiled in the chart below:
|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|
|2014||July 9||August 23||45|
|2015||July 18||August 26||39|
It's clear that we're looking at another early harvest this year. Even if things cool off dramatically -- and there's nothing in the long-term forecast that suggests they will -- we're almost certainly starting harvest in August. Our longest-ever veraison-harvest interim, from the very cool (and plentiful) 2010 vintage, was 49 days. 49 days from July 13th is August 31st. If, instead, we see an interim like 2015 or 2007, both of which saw small crops and warm weather, we could start as early as August 21st. If we did, that would be our earliest beginning ever. I'm guessing we end up toward the early end of that range, but probably not right at the minimum, given that our crop levels look somewhat better than they did in 2015. But we'll see.
What's next for the vineyard? We'll watch the different grapes go through veraison. While Syrah is almost always first, Grenache and Mourvedre won't be far behind. Counoise is almost always last. It's an exciting time, with the view changing practically daily. Meanwhile, expect our winemaking team to take some vacation and rest up for the coming frenzy, and while they're here to be getting the last of the year's bottling done so there's space in barrels and tanks for the coming crush.
But while none of this is a surprise, it's still a significant milestone. We now know how much sand is in the hourglass. And that it's been flipped over.