The 2011 North Coast winegrape harvest began later and lighter than normal and even more than 2010, which suffered from some of the same early-season bad weather and cool summer conditions of this year.
As sparkling wine producers started harvesting grapes in the past couple of weeks, winemakers have found predictions of lighter tonnage bearing fruit. They and makers of table wine are cautious about any curve balls the weather could throw the industry this year, as in last year’s late-season heat wave and downpour.
The crop in the North Coast region could be more than 10 percent lighter than last year’s, based on the early view of the incoming sparkling winegrapes and what is maturing on the vine for table wine, according to Brian Clements, senior partner and wine grape broker for Turrentine Brokerage of Novato.
The 2010 crop in the region totaled more than 425,000 tons and $900 million, and tonnage and revenue last year were lower than in the good-sized crop of 2009 because of weather and economic conditions.
Pinot noir and merlot grape yields this year appear to be 5 percent to 10 percent lighter; cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay, 10 percent; and sauvignon blanc, 15 percent, according to Mr. Clements.
Mumm Napa on Aug. 22 began crushing what little fruit comes outside the county — pinot gris and some chardonnay from Solano County — and received the first 80 tons of Napa Valley pinot noir grapes last Monday, according to winemaker Ludovic Dervin.
“That’s a pretty big start,” he said. Big, but late for the Rutherford winery, about five days later than last year’s already-late crush date.
Mr. Dervin is projecting Chandon’s crop this year to be 4,200 tons, which would be light for the winery. Because of having Napa in the brand name, the winery is limited legally and marketing-wise in making up for seasonal shortfalls.
“I’d be happy to reach 85 percent of that,” Mr. Dervin said. “The sparkling wine category is doing very well right now.”
The smaller grape berry sizes seen this year could reduce that crush projection further because of fewer gallons of juice — the press fraction — from each ton of grapes, he said.
If the crop is as light as expected, Mumm Napa may have to more closely manage its stocks on hand this year, look to blend more from the 2012 crop and adjust distribution and bottle prices to stay within the winery’s current production target of 250,000 cases a year, Mr. Dervin said.
Sonoma County bubbly bottler J Vineyards & Winery started crushing grapes also on Aug. 22. Other sparkling wine houses in the county — Iron Horse Vineyards near Sebastopol and Gloria-Ferrer Cave & Vineyards in Sonoma Valley — also are starting to bring in fruit.
Grapes for the Piper Sonoma brand started arriving on Aug. 26 at Rack & Riddle Wine Services, a Hopland custom producer of the wine, according to facility partner Bruce Lindquist.
Domaine Chandon in Yountville crushed its first grapes also on Aug. 26, according to a spokeswoman.
Schramsberg Vineyards in Calistoga received more than a dozen tons of Napa Carneros pinot noir from Richburg Vineyard on Aug. 29, two days later than last year and 15 days behind the typical start of crush for the winery, according to spokesman Matthew Levy.
“Overall, the vines are looking really good to us,” he said. “They are maturing very well with the help of the consistent weather. The 85 to 90-degree highs throughout July and August have been great for the vines.”
Cool spring temperatures this year extended the vine self-pollination stage, or bloom, longer than normal, and occasional showers disrupted that pollination, resulting in fewer grape berries forming, a situation called shatter. Yet, several sparkling wine producers said the crop is exceptional.
“This is the best that our estate Petit Verdot has ever looked,” said Mr. Levy of Schramsberg.
Domaine Carneros in Napa Carneros started picking some of its pinot noir grapes last week as they reached the desired sugar concentration — 17 degrees Brix, according to winemaker T.J. Evans.
“The chardonnay is quite a bit farther behind at 10 to 12 Brix,” he said. “But the forecast is nice, with temperatures in the upper 80s, which is prime for the metabolic rate of the vines.”
The grapes are being picked about two weeks later than normal for the source vineyards, he said.
“It’s going to be a little bit longer and a little bit lighter, kind of like 2010,” he said. At this point, the winery could crush 975 tons of grapes for the sparkling wine program, compared with the “quite heavy” 1,100 tons last year.
The market outlook for local winegrapes looks good. The amount of bulk-wine for sale is relatively low, so one- and multi-year grape contracts are being signed in the major North Coast regions, including in Mendocino and Lake counties, Mr. Clements said.
“We’re getting to the point — not too much this year but certainly next year — when growers and wineries will make money,” he said.
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