2009 Napa Valley harvest: are there any real benefits to long ‘hang time’?

by TrevR on September 23, 2009

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This week brought us the autumnal equinox, meaning Summer is officially behind us and Fall is here.

As for the local wine grape harvest, things are still trudging along quite slowly as generally mild temperatures continue to be the norm in the Napa Valley.

Regardless, we’ve got some good updates this week from Smith-Madrone, Swanson Vineyards and Piña Napa Valley

Piña Napa Valley
Winemaker Anna Monticelli noted that very select blocks of Cabernet are beginning to be brought in from the winery’s Yountville and Oakville vineyards…

We had some warm temperatures last week, with Thursday and Friday as the hottest days. On Wednesday we harvested select clusters of Cabernet Sauvignon from a few blocks in our Wolff Vineyard in Yountville and the Ames Vineyard in Oakville. On Friday we brought in the Cabernet from 3 of the blocks of our estate Firehouse Vineyard in Rutherford. It cooled down a little over the weekend. The forecast showed a heat wave for the first half of this week with temperatures in the hundreds so we harvested select clusters on the vine from some different blocks in our Wolff Vineyard.

Sometimes it is necessary to go through the vineyard and harvest only some of the clusters on a vine rather than all the fruit at once. Generally this happens when we have more extreme temperatures and some of the clusters are more affected by the heat than others. It’s more expensive to make several passes through the vineyard but it is the best way to ensure that all of the grapes are harvested at optimum ripeness. I typically find that we don’t need to do this later during the harvest season when the temperatures are more moderate.

So far this season I’m finding that sugars are lower than in 2007 and 2008 for the corresponding level of flavor, aroma and tannin maturity. We’ve just started harvesting our Cabernet so we will see if this trend continues.

Swanson Vineyards
Vineyard manager Ross Hall predicted that ‘heavy picking’ will take place late this week or early next…

We’re still anxiously waiting to get started on our “red grape” harvest. We have picked 7 tons of Syrah to date but are still waiting for our Merlot, Petite Sirah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot to reach full maturity. We’re very close and fully expect to be starting a heavy picking schedule late this week and early next.

Our red varieties are developing nicely and we’re very pleased with acidity and tannin expression in our mouths during field sampling and tasting. Again, we are looking forward with great anticipation to what we feel are going to be some very fine wines from these grapes.

Crop management of the red varieties has been a little tricky this year, but it’s now obvious that the extra effort is really going to pay off. We’ve kept crop levels slightly lighter this year compared to previous years and have seen very little shatter, good cluster development with medium to large clusters full of almost perfectly sized berries. We’re convinced we’ve got a wonderful vintage on our hands and can’t wait until the wines are ready to drink. Prepare yourself for the 2009 vintage wines. They are going to be a great experience.

Managing partner Stuart Smith detailed the situation up on Spring Mountain…

This past week was fairly quiet and despite the forecast for very hot weather not a lot seems to be changing for the upcoming week. Keenan and Schwieger will finish their Chardonnay; while Spring Mountain Vineyard should finish their Sauvignon Blanc leaving only the Pride Mountain Viognier as the last of the whites to be harvested on the mountain. Cain and York Creek Vineyard seem to be making a mild effort with reds this week, but most others are still waiting for another week or so.

We asked Smith if there was any concern with the continued waiting game that’s currently taking place generally throughout the valley and specifically on Spring Mountain. Here’s how he responded:

There are several issues to be concerned with, both positive and negative. Positive is that you hopefully allow the grapes to reach perfect maturity. On the negative side, waiting increases the chance you’ll run into rain, also the longer you wait the more the grapes respire out acidity, thus lowering the acidity and raising the pHs.

There’s a lot of conventional wisdom about the benefits of a long “hang-time,” but I don’t believe in it at all. If hang-time had validity, than the best vintages would be the latest ones, such as California’s 1998 El Nino year or the coolest years in Europe. Nature’s a lot more complicated than that.

And is there a certain date on the calendar where you’d really get worried if we’re still in the waiting stage?

Growing grapes is farming and farmers are always worried about the weather. What’s the long term forecast, is it a gentle southern storm or a strong early one from the north? How long will the current hot spell last, will the night time temperatures do? Worry goes with very vintage and yet it’s vintage dependent; this year is one of the coolest years ever; on the other hand the grapes seem to be self correcting and are pretty much on schedule. We are much earlier than the El Nino of 1998 and much later than 1980 and 1984. 1974 brought ten inches of rain during the harvest and in 1998 people were harvesting grapes in mid-November but without a lot of flavors. I remember Andre Tchelisteff telling me that he picked Cabernet once in the beginning of December; the weather held and the grapes finally got ripe. But in those days there was a lot of leaf roll virus; most of our vineyards today are leaf roll virus free, so they mature earlier than in the 1950s and 1960s and the plants are more efficient because the virus doesn’t interfere with photosynthesis.

Be sure to check-out all previous coverage of Harvest 2009.

[techtags: Napa, Napa Valley, wine, winery, napa harvest, 2009 napa harvest, napa wine grape harvest]

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has written 725 posts on The Cork Board. He was born and aged in the Napa Valley and has a passion for wine, writing and social media, which led him to co-found this blog in early 2007. Follow him on Twitter and Google+.

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