I got back this week from three weeks in Vermont. I try to take that vacation each year, both because it's nice to get out of Paso Robles in what's usually our hottest month and because it's typically a quiet time of year in the vineyard and winery. The grapes are ripening, the wines we've decided on are getting blended, and we're getting the previous vintage into bottle. There aren't a lot of decisions to make. Typically, when I get back in late July, I find a vineyard transformed by at least the early stages of veraison, with purple starting to make its way into what is otherwise a sea of green. Not this year. Check out Syrah, typically the first to show color changes:
Not only is the Syrah not changing color, its berries aren't even full-size yet. Look at all that space in the clusters! Since it's usually a week or two between the berries reaching maximum size and them starting to change color, we're still weeks away. And it's not just Syrah. Let's take a run through the other key red grapes, in more or less the order in which we'd expect to see them harvested. Next would be Grenache:
Grenache is its usual beautiful self, and the berries are larger and rounder than what we're seeing in Syrah... but still hard, green, and sour. Nothing like the Grenache that I posted one year ago yesterday:
Mourvedre is usually next to go through veraison, though it takes more time than the others between veraison and harvest. Our Mourvedre berries are still small, which is unsurprising since we were still seeing the last stages of flowering at the summer solstice:
Finally, Counoise, which even in more precocious years I'd expect to still be all green in late July. This year's berries, though, still have a lot of growing to do before they can even think of starting to turn purple:
Over the last decade, the average date when we've noted our first veraison was July 21st, with a range between July 9th and July 30th. If I'm right and we were still three weeks out as of yesterday, that would put us at August 16th. That's nearly four weeks later than our recent average.
How does this year stack up against the last two chilly growing seasons that we've experienced, back in 2010 and 2011? In 2010 we saw our first red berry on July 30th, and in 2011 it wasn't until August 5th. Could we possibly be two weeks later than our latest-ever vintage? Maybe that's unlikely. After all, most of the last month has been quite warm, and the recent trend seems to be diverging from the 2010-2011 trend lines. The below chart measures growing degree days by year, with the bold, dotted red line representing 2023:
Late ripening notwithstanding, the vineyard looks great. We're seeing outstanding vine health everywhere. This Syrah section, where we were doing a Biodynamic silica spray yesterday, is a great example:
All the water that we got this winter has meant that our young vines are thriving. In this new Mourvedre block (which we've named the Santos Block after a much loved and deeply missed longtime member of our crew) you can see the two- and three-year-old Mourvedre vines looking green and happy:
The older blocks that we've been working to regenerate, like this Syrah that we've been increasing our vine density through layering, are benefiting from the moisture in the soil too. You can see, if you look closely, how we've turned two healthy Syrah vines (the second and fifth from the left, as you look below) into five over the past few years, by burying the canes and letting them grow new roots:
The reserves of moisture have allowed us to continue planting later in the year than we'd normally think ideal. That's been important because the nurseries too were impacted by the cold, wet winter and have been slow to get us material that's robust enough to plant. Just this week, we completed the year's plantings with Vermentino and Picpoul (pictured) at the base of Jewel Ridge. These vines will get a little supplemental water the first two years, and then will be on their own:
Overall, it's becoming clear that we're looking at a year unlike any that we've seen in our recent history. But I find comfort and context in remembering that the growing season over the last decade has been shifted much earlier than what was historically considered normal, driven by climate change and eight dry years in ten. If we don't start harvest until mid-September and don't finish until early November, which is what I'm guessing at this point, we can have the confidence that the Paso Robles climate should make that possible. Look at years like 2005 (start date September 21st, end date November 7th) or 2010 (start date September 16th, end date November 13th) or 2011 (start date September 20th, end date November 9th), all of which gave us wines we loved.
Will we see our latest-ever veraison? That seems possible, maybe even likely. I think it's less likely, though, that we'll eclipse our latest-ever start or finish to harvest. There's ample warm weather on the horizon, unlike 2010 and 2011. The world's baseline climate is warmer than it was a dozen years ago. And we've become comfortable with harvesting at somewhat lower sugar levels than we were back in that earlier era. But if it does come to pass, we'll take solace in the fact that the vines have the health they need to make this marathon possible. And that as unusual as it seems in our recent context, it's more or less what we were expecting when we settled here three decades ago.
Now, just hoping el nino holds off until Thanksgiving...