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November: The Calm Before the Storms (Hopefully)

Harvest 2018 Recap: A Vintage Concentrated in both Time and Character

Last Thursday, we brought in the last lingering blocks of Mourvedre, Grenache, and Counoise.  It wasn't as though there was a threat of imminent rain, or heat, or anything else. No, it was just that the grapes were ready. That made it a fitting end to the 2018 harvest, which unfolded under the best conditions I can remember in my 18 years here. No wonder our cellar crew was all smiles:

End of Harvest Lunch

Unlike many years, where the harvest comes in waves, 2018 was the harvest that never needed to hit the pause button.  From the first serious pick on September 10th, we picked nearly every day until we reached the 85% mark in mid-October. After giving ourselves a long weekend without picking to let the last few blocks finish ripening, we started right back up and picked steadily until we were done on October 25th. You can see steady workflow in the chart below.  It's not quite the classic bell curve, but it's as close as I ever remember seeing, at least on the estate side (in the chart, blue is purchased fruit for the Patelin program, and orange estate grown fruit):

Harvest Chart through October 28th

Yields were slightly above average, although the picture varies quite a bit depending on the variety you focus on. Grenache, for example, had one of our best years ever in terms of yields, but Roussanne was down quite a bit. Overall, our yields were off somewhat from the near-record 3.6 tons/acre we saw in the 2017 vintage that had been fueled by the previous winter's near-record rainfall. The complete picture:

Grape 2018 Yields (tons) 2017 Yields (tons) % Change vs. 2017
Viognier 18.2 18.9 -3.7%
Marsanne 11.8 13.8 -14.5%
Grenache Blanc 43.6 46.4 -6.0%
Picpoul Blanc 9.1 9.7 -6.2%
Vermentino 17.9 22.2 -19.4%
Roussanne 32.6* 41.7 -21.8%
Total Whites 133.2 152.7 -12.8%
Grenache 74.3 73.1 +1.6%
Syrah 44.7 41.5 +7.7%
Mourvedre 64.4 72.9 -11.7%
Tannat 19.8 20.5 -3.4%
Counoise 16.0 18.8 -14.9%
Total Reds 219.2 226.8 -3.4%
Total 352.4  379.5 -7.1%

*If you're wondering why Roussanne has an asterisk, there is still a little Roussanne concentrating in our greenhouses for our Vin de Paille program, to be added to the total. It won't amount to much (a ton, more or less) but it's there. 

Overall yields ended up at 3.32 tons per acre, about 10% above our ten-year average.  We only have two other years in our history in which we've seen yields between 3 and 3.5 tons per acre, which was a little surprising to me, given that this is both our target and our long-term average. But it's worth remembering that the data set includes a number of years just above 3.5 tons/acre (like 2005, 2006, 2010, 2012, and 2017 when ample rainfall combined with excellent growing conditions) as well as vintages reduced by drought to between 2.5 and 3 tons per acre (including 2003, 2004, 2013, 2014, and 2016) and those reduced by frost or shatter to levels around 2 tons per acre (2009, 2011, and 2015).  So, that suggests a narrative for 2018, which joins the 2007 and 2008 vintages in what we think of as a sweet spot: years that show evidence of solid vigor from the vineyard, likely from residual moisture and vine health from recent wet winters, but still reduced somewhat by water stress. Given that last winter was dry but not at crisis levels, and that it followed the ample rainfall in early 2017, this makes sense to me.

Another way that you can get a quick assessment of concentration is to look at average sugars. Since 2007, the average degrees Brix and pH:

Year Avg. Sugars Avg. 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
2016 22.04 3.71
2017 22.87 3.74
2018 22.80 3.62

You'll note that 2018's sugars maintained the rebound we saw last year (after lower average sugars in 2015 and 2016) while the average pH declined to something close to our long-term average. Those are both good signs: that the vines were healthy enough to achieve the sugar concentrations we wanted while maintaining their acids later in the season.  The decline in pH from 3.74 to 3.62 might not seem like much, but remember that pH is a logarithmic scale, so this year's grapes contained nearly 32% more acid than last year's.  We're excited about that, and feel that the better acids are a sign of the health of the vines, and the relative lack of stress that the vines were under at harvest time.

Looking back at the degree days that we measured this 2018 growing season provides confirmation for what we felt on the ground: most of the year has been moderate to slightly cool, except for the scorching 6-week stretch between the second week of July and the middle of August. July was our hottest month ever, and August warmer than normal thanks to the first half of the month, but the rest of the year was not. So, while the overall picture suggests a warm year, with about 7% more degree days than average, it's important to remember when and how the heat came, and just as importantly, when it didn't. The chart below shows the cooler spring (1% fewer degree days than normal) and harvest (1.5% fewer degree days than normal) surrounding the hot mid-summer (20% more degree days than average). Note that October's information is for the first 25 days, as we picked our last block on October 25th:

2018 Degree Days by Month

We picked 115 lots this year, with one more (the Roussanne that's a part of the Vin de Paille) still to come.  And we had just enough space on our harvest chalkboard!

Completed Harvest Chalkboard 2018

The duration of harvest -- 55 days -- was exactly at our average this millennium, and one day longer than 2017. But that raw number too is deceptive, given that the first 10 days of harvest saw us bring in just 10 tons of grapes. The next 45 days saw the remaining 527 tons, so it felt like a shorter, more compact harvest than 2017. If we consider September 10th our first "real" harvest day, that puts the duration at our second-shortest of the last 15 years, longer only than the 2013 vintage that was conducted almost entirely in temperatures around 90 degrees and which finished on October 7th.

In character, it's early to tell what things will be like, but so far, we're excited. I asked Senior Assistant Winemaker Chelsea Franchi to sum up the vintage based on her tastings, and her response was, "I think it's going to be a really strong year for reds; the Mourvedre and Counoise are coloring up fast, which is usually an indicator of a good vintage, and the flavors are powerful and deep. And the whites are insanely aromatic and floral."  Given that Chelsea has been running on 60-hour weeks for the last two months, this is a pretty resounding endorsement.  We'll know more, of course, in coming weeks.

The last project for us for harvest 2018 is to make our first Vin de Paille since 2012.  This traditional dessert wine-making technique involves drying newly-harvested Roussanne clusters on straw, and only pressing and beginning fermentation when they have reached our desired level of concentration -- typically around 38° Brix -- after 2-3 weeks.  [For more details on how and why it's done, see our blog Vin de Paille: A Dessert Wine Making Technique for the Obsessed from a few years back]. The Roussanne we'll be using for this project is currently sitting on the straw, and we expect to bring it in and start fermentation next week. 

Roussanne on the straw

Although harvest is over, there's still plenty of work to do in the cellar; because we were harvesting pretty steadily up until the end, we have plenty of tanks still fermenting and on their skins. It's important to remember, should you see a winemaker emerging from his or her work-imposed exile in the next few weeks, that November is still a busy month for cellar work. Cellar Assistant Amanda Weaver got a great shot of a Grenache tank she was digging out late last week. Automated, this is not.

Amanda digging out Grenache

Now that the fruit is in, it's welcome to start raining any time (although, to be fair, it doesn't look like there's any precipitation in the long-term forecast until the second week of November, and even that's uncertain. But whenever it comes, we'll be ready. And as for those "harvest hands"? December can't come soon enough.

Harvest Hand