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A Year of Extremes : Effects of Heat and Early Harvest May Be Tasted in California Vintages

January 17, 1985|NATHAN CHROMAN | Nathan Chroman is a free-lance wine writer and author who also practices law in Beverly Hills

Wine lovers are always deeply concerned about the vintage of European wine but rarely do they worry over California's harvest climate conditions. Generally they assume harvests here are likely to be good without considering that a specific vintage may be a total washout. Those who foster that delusion generally rue the day when a California bottle is uncorked and it turns out to be flavorless, dull and uninteresting.

Vintage Wine Merchants of San Francisco offers a California 1984 vintage report that belies the notion that California grapes need to do nothing more than simply show up on sun-drenched soils and all will be fine. Mendocino County, this past vintage, suffered more than any other from temperature extremes. In July, for more than one month, Vintage Merchants reports the grapes simply dried up, because of severe sunburn and raisining during summer heat as high as 114 degrees. The county suffered a crop reduction of at least 20% to 25%.

A Wild Year John Parducci, wine master for Parducci Winery, said, "It was the wildest vintage I've ever seen because everything seemed to happen at once. That is, all varieties ripened at about the same time in August, three to four weeks earlier than normal. What ordinarily took place during a vintage season, had to be done in two weeks. Our problem was that it got hot in May and just never cooled off."

Quality then should be spotty with Gewurztraminer suffering poor quality while Cabernet will be somewhat lighter in color and character, though Petite Sirah should enjoy great success. Overall Mendocino's vintage should be rated as fair, but uneven, with better wines coming from cooler regions.

Throughout California a warm spring precipitated early vine growth, resulting in an earlier start for harvest which pushed all winery facilities to maximum limits. The real problem, however, was the intense summer heat resulting in earlier picking, higher alcohols and less flavor intensity.

In Sonoma too, Gewurztraminers were hard hit and are likely to be somewhat light in character. Cabernet Sauvignon, frequently the last to be picked, should show more successes. Its late-blooming characteristic was its chief protection against a two-week long period of heat in July that registered over 100 degrees.

Sunburn Sufferers Delicate white grape varieties suffered considerably in Sonoma, principally from sunburn. The exception was Johannisberg Riesling which benefitted from its protective leaf canopy. Vintage Merchants estimates that there was no consistent pattern to the sunburn, but some vineyards lost the equivalent of a ton per acre, which of course is considerable. Growers were shocked, some of them suggesting that they had never seen anything like this and wondering whether indeed they were in Sonoma.

Richard Arrowood, Chateau St. Jean, a veteran wine maker offered another view, suggesting that he was working with the finest of grapes that were at least very good looking. He seemed happy with the quality, notwithstanding that the prolonged heat made acids fall at harvest time.

Alexander Valley growers also expressed optimism that the vintage was good, possibly very good. Chardonnays will show intense varietal aromas, while Cabernet should be overall good, except for some with lower than normal acidity. Unusual, too, was the short harvest period terminated at the end of September, except for some Johannisberg Riesling, which conceivably could become fine "late harvest" wine if October rains did not otherwise spoil the grapes.

The difficulties of May heat here helped bring on a crop loss of about 20%. Two months later, intense summer heat compounded the area's problems although it was able to perform better than other regions because of its reliance on heavy plantings of late blooming Cabernet.

Another Early Harvester Napa Valley was not overlooked in the early harvest trend. It had the earliest vintage in a quarter of a century. One grower picked his Zinfandel a full six weeks earlier than normal. Shatter found its way to Napa Valley too, and resulted in crop losses, especially in Cabernet, up to 200%. During the year there were 34 days of more than 100-degree temperatures compared to the norm of 11 days, yet somehow sunburn and raisining were not as dominant here.

In spite of the heat, quantity of the harvest is high, reaching near record proportions. Though Cabernet may have suffered quantitatively, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc experienced increases with the former producing as much as 7 tons per acre. Most vintners were excited about the quality.

Johannisberg Riesling and Chardonnay provided good intense aroma and character, therefore decent to good bottles are likely. The reds, especially Zinfandel, are very good with fine fruit and tannin, the latter suggesting longer aging capacity. The Carneros district, home of some of Napa's finest Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs, is considered to have a fine year with excellent fruit.

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