Napa Valley Rocks: The Napa Valley Appellation Education Program
The following commentaries have been paraphrased from the NVV's Annual Vintage Review Press Releases.
Optimal Ripening Brings in “Epic” Fruit
“Early, even and excellent” are three words being used to describe this year’s growing season and the Napa Valley wine grapes that have come from it, reflecting the consistent quality for which this world famous wine region is known.
A warm, dry spring brought early bud break, helped with canopy vigor and berry size and created ideal conditions for flowering and fruit set under sunny skies. With the exception of one heat spike in late June/early July, temperatures were consistently in the zone for optimal vine activity, resulting in notably healthy vines as fruit went through veraison and started ripening.
A Classic Vintage for Napa Valley from Start to Finish
"Classic" and "perfect" are just two accolades being bestowed upon the 2012 Napa Valley growing season and harvest. Textbook conditions saw near-ideal spring bud break, steady flowering, even fruit set, and a lengthy stretch of warm days and cool and often foggy nights during the long summer months. Late and light rains held off until Napa Valley's treasured wine grapes found optimal ripeness, bringing exceptional quality to the crush pad and into the cellar.
The abundance of perfectly ripe grapes--with a smooth balance of acids and sugars--provided a broad sweep of opportunities for winemakers to cull only the most select fruit. The vineyards of Napa Valley are intentionally farmed at lower yields bringing only the very best grape to harvest. Growers here, year-in and year-out, bring an average of 4 tons per acre to crush overall, which is consistently half the California state-wide average. This is one of the many reasons that Napa Valley wines are so consistent vintage-to-vintage and acclaimed for their high quality in the bottle. This vintage, while as much as 30% higher than the past two years' smaller crops, is on par with near-normal quantity.
Stay tuned as the fruit, now juice on its careful and intricate way toward wine, develops in the cellar. We can't wait to see how the flavors of the 2012 Napa Valley harvest reveal themselves.
What began with a wet winter and spring continued with rainfall into mid-June that delayed bloom and disrupted fruit set resulting in shatter in parts of the region set the stage for a long, cooler-than-average growing season with a later-than-average harvest beset with autumn rain storms. The precipitation measuring season ending on June 30 found the region more than a third above normal in rainfall. While this is good news for water resources, the cloud cover and cool temperatures delayed vine development by several weeks at the onset of the growing season.
This timetable continued through the somewhat cool summer season where harvest for the first varieties for sparkling wines found the latest harvest start in anyone's memory, beginning August 29. Few high heat events occurred at any point this year, but growers managed more open vine canopies to ensure sunlight, warmth and good air circulation around the grape clusters. The shatter resulting from the rain events in June was variable by vineyard location hitting some locations harder with projected crop diminished by more than 30% while leaving other sites nearly untouched with near-normal crop.
After a consistently cool summer season, significant mid-October rain pushed the vintage even later. But growers were rewarded with weeks of fantastic weather, a prolonged Indian summer that provided needed ripening time.
Quality looks very good with lower alcohols, good structure and length on the palate.
Mold, rot, and botrytis were challenges to the grapes that were not harvested, and had a major impact on the quantity of the harvest, but not the quality. The commitment to quality runs so deep and strong in this valley that systems for effective sorting were already set-up, both in the field and at the wineries. While quantity was low, the fruit this year will make for well-balanced wines with good intensity, structure and texture with a brightness of flavor.
Rainfall returned after three dry years, pushed bud break, flowering and fruit-set back by at least two weeks at the front end of the growing season, and due to the cloud cover, there was no frost damage in 2010. The summer brought cooler than normal temperatures, where constant vigilance and rigorous canopy management averted mildew or pest problems. The ten-day to two-week lag continued into a later than average veraison-the time when white varieties turn from green to golden and black varieties for red wine turn from green to pink to inky purple before final ripening. Winegrowers were faced with a two-day heat spike into triple digits for the first time this season, coinciding with the first day of harvest on August 24. With canopies thinned to adjust for the cooler season, grapes at various sites experienced some sunburn. The damage was variable site-to-site with many vineyards reporting no sunburned clusters at all.
In the midst of the 2010 growing season, and led by the hard work of Napa County Agriculture Commissioner Dave Whitmer, the potentially crop devastating pest known as the European Grapevine Moth or Lobesia looks to be successfully eradicated in Napa County. Industry winegrowers led by the Napa Valley Vintners, and the Napa County Farm Bureau along with residential grapes growers, community leaders and environmental groups joined forces in a highly organized and well-orchestrated effort that employed organic compounds, fruit disposal and mating disruption. This effort hit it out of the park and speaks volumes about the collaborative efforts, innovation and leadership of the Napa Valley wine industry.
In Napa Valley Mother Nature is once again a super-hero, providing winemakers lush, beautiful grapes for great wine.
Compare the nearly thirty days of intense frost from spring 2008 to the fewer than five frost incidents in 2009, the start to the vintage was much less eventful for growers who were able to sleep nights not worrying about the threat of frost-or the lack of water to combat it if it came. Late spring rains delayed irrigation needs and the warm spell in June helped curtail excessive canopy development. The nearly 14 days of 100°f plus temperatures that mark a typical growing season, 2009 counted perhaps only four or five overall, again helping to reduce demand for water when the resource was relatively scarce.
Though rainfall was little more than two-thirds of normal for the third year in a row, the timing of the precipitation was on the vine's side. Couple that with the lack of frost and the mild, relatively cool growing season, Mother Nature managed to have it all work in unison to give vines and grapes the best scenario possible.
Winegrowers across Napa Valley met the challenges of a crazy weather year, harvesting fruit with incredible concentration which, by all accounts, is showing 2008 as a low-yielding, yet high-quality vintage from Napa Valley. Mother Nature may have lightened the load in the vineyard, but what's being revealed in the winery is very well structured, concentrated, elegant wines
In contrast to 2007, the New Year began with intense storms that brought high winds and heavy rains to the region, but the precipitation soon waned and for the second year in a row, Napa received little more than 60% of its normal rainfall. The spring season was one of the driest on record with virtually no rainfall. The drier soils prompted vines to push out early, providing the "perfect storm" for frigid, dry air to create conditions for the deepest and longest frost period in decades.
As vines all over the appellation were budding, the sheer number of days of frost threatened the future of the crop. Some growers, especially those in the eastern hills around the Howell Mountain AVA were low on water for overhead irrigation or farmed in areas that rarely see any frost and were therefore hit hardest. Some growers reported losses of thirty percent or more. Though a second budding occurred, the fruit set was thin and uneven.
Daytimes during the spring were picture-perfect, yet the cold temperatures and frost threat held on for more than three weeks. Then, within the same week that many had been irrigating for frost protection, vineyards were irrigated because of a multi-day heat spike that brought early season temperatures into the triple digits in many parts of the appellation and at the time that vines were beginning to flower, another time when fruit and vine development is particularly susceptible to extremes. After the fruit set, fewer clusters with smaller berries appeared to be the norm all around the Napa Valley. The dryness of the season produced less vine canopy, and allowed the vines to focus on fruit production. Fortunately, the summer season continued with cooler, consistent temperatures. A benefit of the dry year found very little pest infestation in the vines, little mold or mildew problems and very healthy vines.
Because of the early vine development in spring, growers were initially predicting a very early harvest, however because of the cooler summer it started just a little ahead of normal. As grapes for sparkling wines began to be harvested in mid-August, the lighter white varieties began in earnest toward the third week of August. Then, a week-long heat spell over the Labor Day holiday ratcheted everyone into high gear as several varieties were coming to ripeness all at once. The pace of harvest was break-neck with cellar crews often working around the clock to crush the fruit that was coming in all at once. Vintners were crushing Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay as well as Pinot Noir and Merlot virtually one atop the other.
Then, just as quickly as the heat arrived, it was as if a switch had been turned and the temperatures dropped to well below normal. This allowed cellar crew to catch up, and with the following weeks returning to seasonally normal temperatures with warm days and cool nights, the red varieties, which were largely untouched to date, languished on the vine with optimal hang time, excellent ripening and balanced structure. The light rain events in late September and early October had no effect on the grapes or the harvest in Napa Valley.
While a lighter than average vintage, 2008 looks to be another where vintners and growers in Napa Valley will continue their well-earned reputation for excellence in the world of wine.
This was a vintage of contrasts: contrasts from previous vintages, and contrasts from early predictions to final outcome, yet winegrowers adapted to changing conditions all along the way to finish with what was an outstanding vintage.
The year began dry with some very cold days and single-digit nighttime temperatures around the New Year holiday, and continued dry, with about 60% of normal precipitation throughout the appellation. Temperatures were warmer than normal as winter continued into spring with resulting earlier budding, bloom and set in the vineyards across all varieties.
The summer growing season continued on the mild to cool side, with few days topping 100 degrees, even in the warmest locations in the appellation. There were also notably fewer days in the 90s, and harvest followed a traditional, even relaxed, pace. There was a brief period of heat that spiked around Labor Day, but the temperatures cooled after several days. This heat spike added the boost of sugar development that growers were looking for to complement the excellent acid structure developed in the white varieties.
Clusters, as well as individual berries on the clusters, though set at a normal quantity, were notably smaller in all varieties due to the dry season.
Harvest of Chardonnay began in early to mid-August in Carneros and southern Napa, followed by Pinot Noir. The timing was just a little ahead of normal. The first rounds of thinner-skinned white varieties like Riesling, Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc and then Chardonnay for still wines began in late August and continued into mid-September. In September the region saw a couple of periods of brief precipitation. Nearly all white varieties were already picked and the thicker-skinned black varieties like Cabernet and Merlot were unaffected by the rain.
The valley floor crop, including most of the black varieties, was almost fully harvested when unseasonably cool and wet weather arrived the second week in October, with nearly an inch of rain falling in parts of the appellation. The hillside and higher elevation vineyards still had anywhere from 25-50% of their crop on the vine, but while the rain was just enough to penetrate several inches into the soil, not enough to get to the root zone of most vineyards. Indian Summer returned with warm, clear days and vineyard crews sprang into action to finish harvest for what appears to be a vintage of exceptional quality from all points around the Napa Valley.
The 2006 harvest finished in early November and will go down as a 'grower's year' as vintners were faced with a variety of challenges from New Year flooding to wet weather that continued late into spring delaying budbreak. By early June, the sun came out and vines began to bloom and set fruit. Mid-July presented a record-setting ten day heat wave, but the canopy had not yet been thinned because of the delayed season and young clusters were shaded from the hot sun. Most growers agreed that the heat helped catch the vines up to a "normal" place in the growing season. Somewhat cooler weather arrived in August and continued throughout harvest, allowing for moderately paced and deliberate ripening and a long harvest period. Cool weather dominated early October, with rain coming in the first week, but the white varieties were in and this presented no damage to the black varieties still on the vine.
Winter rains took pause for a dry, mild March then began again with record-setting precipitation late into the growing season delaying bloom and set. The summer months were cool and pleasant with few heat spikes. Fog and cool temperatures were a concern heading into September as sugar levels were yet to rise in all varieties. Warm, nearly perfect conditions arrived with an Indian Summer making for a later than average harvest, providing winemakers with fruit with extended hang and ultimately realizing excellent sugar development and balanced acids with a larger than average crop of what could be a signature vintages from Napa Valley.
Bud break occurred earlier than many vintners could remember and the trend carried forward throughout the growing season. Heat spikes occurred in June and at scattered intervals throughout the summer season. Grapes completed veraison early and ripeness with well developed sugars in all varieties was realized early. Growers held on as acid balance eventually caught up. Temperatures were steady into one of the earliest harvests in Napa Valley. Grape quality was very good with a crop that was smaller than average.
The unpredictable nature of the 2003 growing season began with a series of early heat spikes in March, followed by the wettest April on record. A long cool summer allowed the fruit flavors to evolve beautifully ahead of the sugar accumulation. Heat spikes in September helped move the harvest forward after many felt it would be a late year.
The 2002 vintage will be remembered by a long, mostly mild growing season, followed by warm weather near the end of September that pushed the ripening level upward, concentrated fruit flavors and condensed the harvest. An early April frost and May rains gave way to a mild summer with ideal growing conditions - warm days and cool, even cold, nights. Overall, the grape crop was balanced, showing excellent intense colors and flavor concentrations. While per-acre tonnage was generally lower than average, the overall yield of the entire Napa Valley appellation was average to above average.
An early spring, a surprise frost and early heat spikes led to a bit of a roller coaster ride for the 2001 vintage crop. But the weather evened out, condensing the harvest and producing a near simultaneous harvest of grapes. The up and down temperatures began with a cold and harsh March, with two deceptive heat spikes into the 80s, which coaxed the vines into a slightly earlier bloom. The hottest May on record and the third hottest June (in total degree days) led to a harvest time around two to three weeks ahead of normal. August cooled to near perfect temperatures with cool nights, allowing the grapes to settle and extend the all-important hang time on the vine, producing remarkably clean fruit.
The 21st century in the Napa Valley began with a virtually picture perfect growing season. The almost uneventful spring and summer weather pattern, every grower's dream, produced fruit of exceptional quality. A cool, even growing season throughout, except for a three-day heat stretch of unusually high temperatures in June and ominous rain clouds in late August, led to a compact harvesting period that finished in mid-October. Yields were were average on a per acre basis, however, with numerous post-phylloxera vineyards coming on line, the year's overall tonnage was up noticeably.
A long, cool spring gave way to a mild summer. With only one heat spike recorded in the first part of July, the 1999 vintage ripened under conditions that allowed a long hang-time that resulted in fruit of concentrated varietal flavors with a strong backbone of acid. Harvest got underway following a weekend of intense summer heat late in September. October proved to be a very active month in vineyards and winery crush pads as red and white grapes reached maturity simultaneously. Napa Valley received only a trace of rain from April through October, leading to extremely clean fruit arriving at the wineries.
An abnormally wet El Niño spring and late summer caused a poor set for the 1998 vintage crop. During the growing season, clusters also were subjected to uneven ripening and threatened with sunburn, sending growers into the vineyard, performing more hand manipulation of the vines and reducing crops. With a later than usual harvest, growers faced the possibility of rains, but nature cooperated with a warm and sunny early autumn. Picking started in late September, went into full swing in October and reached completion in early November. The clusters, while small and low in weight, produced elegant fruit with definite personality and complexity. The juice to skin ratio was very low, which translates into extracted wines with concentrated fruit flavors.
The season started when the warm, dry soils at the end of February triggered budbreak a full month early. Bloom followed in early May. As the fruit set, growers recognized that the outstanding weather of the previous year would result in an exceptional crop. A temperate summer with moderate, steady temperatures allowed the fruit to reach optimal maturity with good hang time for the full development of character and flavors. 1997 was a vintage of great quality and quantity - 144,000 tons compared to the 10-year-average for the region of 121,000 tons.
An unseasonably warm winter with substantial rainfall launched the 1996 growing season with an early bud break. A cool spring was followed by intermittent rain during the May bloom period, causing shatter in many vineyards and reducing the potential crop size. A relatively warm summer with several heat spells speeded veraison and ripening, while a cooling trend in September allowed grape flavors to catch up with sugars, bringing the fruit into excellent balance. Smaller clusters and a light crop resulted in deeply flavored grapes, with the overall harvest down by 20-30%.
A year of weather extremes marked the 1995 vintage, which saw winter floods, spring rains and a June hailstorm. The dramatic weather events got the growing season off to a late start, and although summer heat pushed grapes to maturity, harvest was late and yields were down. Moderate Indian Summer temperatures permitted extended hang time for red varieties, important to the development of rich flavors and deep color. Overall, vintners characterized the year as late, light and luscious.
A long, cool spring followed by a cool summer produced slightly lower grape yields of richly concentrated fruit. The effects of low winter rainfall were mitigated by the combination of cool daytime temperatures and evening marine fog. The moderate temperatures were optimum for grape quality. A two-week period of hot weather at the beginning of August created some uneven coloration during veraison, and growers compensated by thinning fruit to allow only the best grapes to reach maturation.
An uneventful, warm spring concluded with unexpected rain during the bloom period in May, resulting in lower berry set and ultimate crop reduction of 20% to 30% at harvest. Cool growing season temperatures were broken with intermittent heat spells in August and September, resulting in several selective harvests, rather than one extended crush. Grape quality was excellent, with intense flavors off the vine, although some varieties experienced sunburn and required selective picking at harvest.
Early budbreak, followed by prolonged bloom induced by cool weather, caused uneven set, requiring cluster pruning in some varieties. June brought unseasonable rain, but worries were erased by the warm, dry weather which followed and continued through the summer. High temperatures brought a somewhat frenzied start to harvest in August, when it seemed all varieties would ripen at once, but a return to normally cool nights and foggy mornings allowed harvest to proceed at a more relaxed pace. Both quality and quantity were good for all varietals in all growing areas.
Vineyards entered the growing season in a state of dormancy, induced by a December freeze which saw temperatures plummet into the teens. Heavy March rainfall prior to budbreak, followed by ideal weather during bloom, resulted in an abundant set of excellent fruit. Thinning of the resultant large crop was important and widespread. Cool to moderate temperatures, broken by a brief heat spike in early July, extended the growing season â€” ideal for concentrating fruit flavors and maintaining desirable high acidity. All varietals were intensely colored and rich in flavor at harvest.
Soaking spring rains during bloom reduced the size of the crop somewhat, but the long, warm summer that followed allowed grapes to ripen uniformly and achieve near-perfect fruit maturity, acid levels and sugar content. Mild weather during harvest allowed picking to proceed at a normal pace and late rains came too late in the season to do much damage. With both red and white varietals showing excellent balance, the vintage was judged overall to be one of higher quality and slightly lower quantity.