- PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
- PICK OF THE YEAR: This year brought a smooth growing season and brief harvest to vineyards.
This year everyone’s talking about the early and swift wine harvest; I’ve read about it online, and I’ve heard about it when I run into winemakers around town: 2013 has been a very good vintage for every wine variety. After tasting some outstanding chardonnays and pinot noirs that had been freshly crushed and sent to barrels, I found them already showing pretty, intense fruit flavors and good balance. That said, I also tasted some excellent 2012 wines still in barrels that were quite impressive, which we’ll see start to be released in spring of 2014. Few will claim to predict exactly how these fresh new wines will develop; it was a calm growing season without the kind of severe weather problems that can ruin a vintage. Yet there are markers that do indicate 2013 wines will be rise above the last three vintages.
This year the growing season was smooth; the vineyards didn’t undergo any killer frosts, unexpected rainstorms, or extreme heat spikes before or during harvest, which means winemakers won’t have problems making the 2013 wines. That said, some vineyards produced a lot more fruit than winemakers expected despite drought conditions.
In the San Francisco Chronicle, wine writer Jon Bonné said of this year’s harvest: “Blinked? You missed it. Harvest 2013, that is, which has come and gone in a flicker—one of the earliest in at least the past decade, and one of the quickest.” After speaking with Jason Haas, president of Tablas Creek in Paso Robles, I found that’s exactly what happened in his winegrowing area.
“We’re a full three weeks ahead, earlier than we’ve been in the last 10 years,” Haas reported. “We had perfect ripening conditions at every marker point with no heat spikes. The quality looks great and the yields were low, down 22 percent. We brought in 2.6 tons per acre, which is right in line with our great years.”
Tablas Creek’s vineyards are largely dry-farmed. Combined with the drought conditions over the past two growing seasons, that means there’s some concentration in the grape flavors. Importantly, they didn’t have the mid-summer heat wave that affected the 2012 vintage which Haas described as a friendly vintage, but lacking the intensity that’s already obvious in their 2013 wines.
“We’re comparing this year to the 2007 vintage, which was generally great across the board for white and red wines grown in Paso Robles,” he said.
In the southernmost winegrowing region of Paso, Santa Margarita Ranch was about two-thirds through harvest in mid-October. Mike Sinor, director of winemaking for Ancient Peaks, explained that most people don’t realize it’s much cooler there.
“Every day I get three weather reports, and there’s no rain predicted in the next three weeks. Our only worry is frost, which can make the leaves start falling off,” Sinor noted. “Weather often pushes us, but in 2013 it’s been nice and easy. It’s exciting growing up here.”
Although he’s still waiting for late-ripening grapes like cabernet sauvignon and zinfandel for Ancient Peaks, he’s almost done with harvest for his own label, Sinor LaVallee.
Sinor owns Bassi Vineyard in Avila Valley and buys grapes from Talley Vineyards in Arroyo Grande Valley, among other grape growers. His focus in South County is mostly Burgundian varieties (pinot noir and chardonnay), but he still had some syrah ripening on the vines.
“The quality is really good with average or higher total yields, but it hasn’t been a holy moly kind of year,” he said. “It’s been a good, even growing season, and dry years usually have some great flavors.”
It’s amazing to have two average vintages in drought conditions, but the vines are resilient—not like leafy crops that need three times the amount of water. Although the cooler growing seasons during 2010 and 2011 were challenging, winemakers are enthused about the 2013 wines fermenting in their cellars.
“It’s exciting—reminds me of the 1997 vintage,” Sinor said. “It’s not a light crop, but there is a great intensity in the flavors.”
At Stephen Ross in SLO, assistant winemaker Jill Delariva has been through five harvests, which began when she was interning there while still studying enology and viticulture at Cal Poly. Now she brings interns in to experience the harvest by participating. She recalled that this year’s harvest started fairly normally, but then they received a lot of grapes within a very short two-week span.
“We needed more tanks and borrowed some from winemaker Russell From [of Herman Story Winery in Paso],” she explained. “Once we were finished we loaned some of our tanks to him. We have all of our small lots, like Stone Corral, in small bins. We ferment the clones separately and take our favorite clones to make the Stone Corral pinot noir [one of several vineyard-designated wines].”
What doesn’t get chosen for that goes into the blend for their Edna Valley pinot noir, she said. Although most of the wines for the Stephen Ross brand were in, Delariva said they still had another two or three weeks of harvest. She was busy making room to bring in winemaker Terry Speizer’s first grape harvest from his certified organic vineyard, planted to later-ripening varieties like nebbiolo and merlot. The founder of Domaine Alfred (now Chamisal Vineyard), his new label is Speizer Family Vineyards.
Ariki “Rick” Hill, winemaker at Tantara in Santa Maria and for his own brand Labyrinth, noted that the drought situation every grower experienced over the past two growing seasons meant the vineyards didn’t carry too heavy a crop load.
“In 2012 we expected rain, but we’ve had back-to-back high yields for two years. We didn’t get much rain in 2013 either, but the crop isn’t greatly oversized,” Hill explained. “It’s a heavy year, but with quality. There’s so much color in the 2013s, they remind me of the 2000 vintage.”
Although the winery isn’t open to the public, Tantara wine club members can make an appointment to taste barrel samples with Hill. After tasting his impressive 2013 chardonnays and pinot noirs, I was excited, too. It’s definitely a vintage to watch.
Contact Cuisine columnist Kathy Marcks Hardesty at firstname.lastname@example.org.