This is a time of year when things move fast in the vineyard. In just the last couple of weeks, we've gone from just starting veraison to more than halfway through. Large swaths of fully-colored grapes don't look much different than they will at harvest, and they're getting tasty. Even better, the vines themselves still look great. Typically, by mid-August some of the lower vigor grapes (I'm looking at you, Mourvedre) start to look a little tired, with some yellowing or browning of the leaves. Not this year. Throughout the vineyard, the vines look deep green and vigorous. That bodes well for their ability to make a strong finishing push.
I thought it would be fun to take a look at our main red grape varieties, both cluster and vine, to get a comparative sense of how they grow and what they look like now. So I took a walk through our Scruffy Hill block, which we planted back in 2005 and 2006 with the idea it would someday be a vineyard block designate, and got representative photos of the four red Rhone varieties we had available to plant in that era. I then went to a new head-trained Cinsaut block to complete the quintet of grapes we think of as our core set. I'll share them in the order in which we expect them to arrive in the cellar, starting with Syrah and finishing with Mourvedre. Without further ado:
There are Syrah blocks at the tops of our hills that look like they might only be a couple of weeks from harvest. But our Scruffy Hill section will likely be longer than that; you can see that the cluster I photographed still has a green berry, and there are other green clusters in the background. But overall I'd guess we're 80% of the way through veraison in Syrah. The grapes are characteristically blue-black, and the clusters modest in size and roughly cylindrical. In terms of the vine, you can see its vigor and its sprawling growth pattern, which is why we train it up high. That way the long canes can arc down like an umbrella instead of trailing on the ground.
Grenache has made a lot of progress through veraison in the last few weeks, and I'd estimate it's past the 50% mark vineyard-wide. You can see in the cluster I chose its relatively pale purple color and its tightly bunched, large clusters of fairly large grapes. The vine is also characteristic: stocky and robust, looking twice as old as its 16-year age, with a large number of relatively stiff canes shooting out at a variety of angles and a plentiful supply of grapes. We should see our first Grenache lots in mid-September, but our last lots not until mid-October.
Cinsaut may actually come in before Grenache, but the only head-trained block that we have is in one of the lowest parts of the vineyard and was impacted by the frosts we saw this spring. So, the vine's progress is a bit behind where it should be, and where the trellised blocks are elsewhere in the vineyard. But the cluster is still coloring up nicely, with a mix of colors between green and medium purple. The range of grape sizes is unusual (it's a condition colorfully known as "hens and chicks") and appears to be a symptom of the difficult weather it had during flowering. The vine, even in its youth, is already showing the long canes characteristic of Cinsaut and the vigor and upright growth pattern that made it so successful in both Mediterranean Europe and old Californian head-trained, dry-farmed vineyards. We expect it to come in roughly in synch with Grenache.
There are still Counoise blocks where you have to do some hunting around to find purple berries, but the Scruffy Hill block was at about 50%. This cluster shows the large berries that made Counoise a prized table grape before the development of seedless grapes, and its fairly pale color. The vine shows the moderate vigor and upright growth characteristic of Counoise. We don't expect to see our first Counoise grapes in the cellar until early October.
We have a lot of Mourvedre blocks, in various stages of ripening. The Scruffy Hill Mourvedre block is lower down the hillside, and it's relatively early into veraison. But there are hilltop trellised blocks that are nearly done. Still, even when it finishes veraison Mourvedre takes a while to get to ripeness, and we're not likely to see much if any in the cellar until October. The photo below shows the grape's relatively loose clusters, which helps it shrug off early rains, should we be so lucky, and the medium-dark color that the red berries have achieved shows why it produces darker wines than Counoise, Cinsaut, or Grenache. The vine is typical of what we see in the block this year, although as I mentioned in the intro it's unusually green compared to many other years. I would normally expect our Mourvedre vines to look more or less like the Counoise photo above, but this year they have longer canes and more leafy vigor. That's as good a sign as any that the vineyard has unusual vigor and is well positioned for this finishing push.
A quick note about this year's variability
Although as I noted in a few weeks ago we're likely to challenge our earliest-ever beginning to harvest, I'm starting to believe that it's likely to be quite an extended harvest season. Thanks to the frosts we got in March, April, and May, there's more difference than I'm used to seeing between the tops of the hills (which avoided the frosts and sprouted early) and the bottoms (which either stayed dormant through the frosts or were frozen back when they emerged). And we're used to a long harvest, typically lasting around eight weeks between the arrival of the first and last fruit. This year may be longer.
Still, I'm feeling optimistic about things. We're well set up to handle uneven or delayed ripening, since we give our field crew year-round employment and pick selectively while making multiple passes through our blocks even in a normal year. If we're going to have a 10-week lag between our first and last grapes, it's good to get an early start. And if you were designing perfect ripening weather, what we've gotten the last couple of weeks and what's forecast for next week (days topping out in the upper 80s to upper 90s, with onshore flow and cool nights) would be exactly what you'd wish for.
Let's get this party started.