2017 Harvest Season Reflections
The 2017 harvest season has been an interesting one by many accounts, and now unfortunately for some, a devastating one as wildfires ravage wine country north of San Francisco. When I woke up at 4am Monday AM to the smell of wildfire smoke, I knew that there was trouble brewing somewhere and it seemed like it might be close. Little did I know the extent. And even now, reports are just coming in and our hearts go out to all of those impacted by these fires and we can only hope they get them quickly under control.
Heading into this years harvest season, we experienced record breaking rains during the winter months with parts of the Santa Cruz Mountains receiving over 100 inches of rain. While roads in the area were devastated, vineyards and homes were spared. The abundance of ground water helped promote healthy growth during the Spring months. And the few wet, rainy events we had seemed to spare the delicate flowers and the vines set a healthy crop. The abundant rain was soon forgotten as we headed into a summer that featured hot and dry weather only occasionally interrupted by foggy mornings. A season that started almost two weeks later than the previous year was suddenly looking about the same with veraison occurring at the about the same time. And sure enough, as we drew close to the previous years first harvest dates at the end of August, the grapes were getting ripe in those vineyards.
Although the harvest started at about the same time (early by historical measures), the order of vineyards getting ripe varied wildly. Our Old Corral block estate Pinot was among the last Pinot blocks picked in 2016 coming in on September 14. This year it was our first coming in on August 29th before any other fruit was picked. This was followed by a nearly continuous harvest schedule over the following week with Lester Pinot, Coastview Chardonnay and Pinot, Ferrari Ranch Pinot (formerly Woodruff, and also usually one of our last picked Pinots), Brosseau Syrah and Grenache, Alfaro Pinot and Howard Chardonnay (an exciting older vineyard that we are now working with). The main feature of that first week as a blistering heat wave that set records across Northern California. Temperatures in the normally moderate Santa Cruz Mountains soared into the triple digits in nearly all locations. Any fruit that was almost ripe was quickly pushed to full ripeness. Anticipation of this heat event and scheduling of picking crews in advance were critical factors in bringing in fruit that was perfectly ripe and not raisined, or dehydrated with excessive sugar levels. I am happy to say that we navigated this first challenge pretty well and we achieved the complexity we seek without the over ripeness that bakes out the delicate aromas of Pinot Noir.
Luckily, the weather moderated and remained dry. As we surveyed the remaining fruit in various vineyards, we found large differentials in the impact the heat wave had on the fruit. In some vineyards, there was extensive shriveling and desiccation of sun exposed fruit. In these cases, crews had to go through the vineyard and drop these clusters on the ground. This is a task that is notoriously difficult as only 20-30% of a cluster mighty be affected, but you have to lose the whole thing. Other vineyards were largely spared (our estate was one of these) with the grapes simply pushed along in their ripening. From September 12-25, we harvested only a few select vineyards including more Coastview Pinot, the first of the Coastview Syrah and Grenache, and the Brokentop Viognier (sadly, only enough for a half barrel due to the heat wave).
On September 26, the second wave officially began. Brought on by temperatures that pushed into the upper 80s and vines and soils that had taken a lot of heat over the summer, grapes started ripening very quickly. We then started a four day run on Friday the 29th that had us bringing in record amounts of fruit every day. And we still had yet to harvest much of the estate. While yields had been good in nearly all vineyards this year, there were about what we expected – until this last week. We knew that both Syrah and Grenache set healthy crops and we went through these vineyards dropping fruit where it was lagging in ripeness or where there was simply too much for a given vine. Still, when these blocks were harvested, yields a bit more than expected (a good problem to have) and every available fermenter in the winery was quickly filled. We scrambled to locate a handful more fermenters and then picked the last of the estate Grenache and Syrah this past Thursday and Saturday bringing to a close the red grape harvest for 2017. Now all that remains is our estate Roussanne which we expect to harvest over the coming week bringing to a close the 2017 harvest season.
As we headed into this final sprint after an exhausting first month, the thing that kept my energy level high was the beautiful fruit we were harvesting. The Grenache had dark skins free of bleaching. The Syrah was nearly all perfect with ripe skins, yet very reasonable sugar levels. And now, as the fermentations are kicking off in the winery, the aromatics are intoxicating. I am definitely optimistic that this will be another excellent vintage for Big Basin Vineyards. We look forward to sharing these wines with you in the coming years.