California 2017: Wildfires, high quality and an end to drought

The 2017 harvest across California is being hailed as excellent in a year that witnessed an end to a five-year drought as well as savage wildfires in the north of the state.

A report sent out by California Wines this morning (9 November) reports that the state’s Department of Food and Agriculture has forecast the harvest to be 4 million tons in total, only very slightly down on the 4.03m tons achieved in 2016, with most of the losses coming from the summer heat wave rather than the fires in Sonoma, Napa and Mendocino counties.

The terrible wildfires that ripped through communities in those three areas in mid October dominated headlines around the world and although they caused huge material damage and claimed over 40 lives, their impact on the wine industry appears to have been relatively light.

Some wineries were caught by the flames and either completely or partially destroyed or damaged, their wine lost, and some fears of smoke taint still linger in certain areas.

Jimmy Hayes of Mayacamas recently told the drinks business Hong Kong he fears the 2017 vintage may be a write-off as although the wine was in tanks, they were open top fermenters exposed to all the flame and smoke and the heat was so intense and close-by that he isn’t convinced the liquid is going to be in good shape.

Generally, however, 85%-90% of the harvest in the three counties was gathered in before the fires hit.

Robert Koch, president and CEo of the Wine Institute, said: “The vast majority of California’s 2017 winegrape harvest was unaffected by the wildfires and the vintage promises to be of excellent quality.”

Although the wildfires were exacerbated by a heatwave in August and September – which conversely also brought the grapes to ripeness early and thus meant they were gathered in when the fires struck – 2017 also marked the end of a drought in the state that has run for five years.

Following such a long dry spell, the return of rain in the winter and spring brought its own set of challenges for winemakers now used to battling the heat.

Neil Bernardi, vice president of winemaking at Duckhorn, said it, “required special focus on cover crops and tillage and closely managing canopies,” while Eric Baugher, winemaker at Ridge Vineyards Monte Bello Winery, noted that the Zinfandel was caught by the rain during flowering which lowered the final tonnage by 15%-40% in parts.

Nonetheless, as Steve Lohr, CEO of J Lohr Vineyards, added: “It was wonderful because it helped fill up the reservoirs and bring new life to cover crops that had been parched after several years of drought. It has been a good year for us, all in all, on the Central Coast.”

Despite the challenges, both Bernardi and Baugher said they were happy with their crops. Bernardi said: Cabernet Sauvignon grapes in Napa Valley and Alexander Valley look especially healthy.

“Our Pinot Noir, Zinfandel and Merlot have excellent color, extraction and flavour, and Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay are showing excellent aromatics and great acidity.”

Despite the losses, Baugher said that the Zinfandel vintage appeared to have been, “an extraordinary one, similar to 1999.”

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