Harvest Update 2021
By: George Balling
Having just passed the mid-point of August grape growers and winemakers across the Northern Hemisphere are getting geared up for harvest. Grape trucks are being tuned up and serviced to bring them to their highest level of function. Tools are sharpened and barrels, tanks, presses and grape bins are being cleaned and readied for the coming “crush”. As we enter the last weeks of the 2021 growing season all involved in and invested in the wine grape harvest are getting a bit nervous, especially after some of the disastrous fires across the west over the last several years.
With all of the variables of farming coming together for wine grapes it seems a good time to update wine consumers on the coming harvest. Verasion, when grapes start their final ripening and turn from green to purple, has started and in some areas is nearly complete. This is on about a normal schedule and great news for all. In checking with growers in Washington, Oregon and California most all of the appellations across the Western US are in about a normal spot for ripening.
While I always hesitate to say “all”, I have not heard of any grape growers that have reduced “canopy” on their vines this year. Canopy refers to the layer of overhanging leaves on the vines that give the grape bundles protection from the sun. Canopy management is always key to a good crop and in cool years growers will aggressively cut back the canopy to allow more ripening of the berries. In this very hot and dry year though farmers and winemakers alike are leaving the canopy fully intact to provide as much shade as possible to prevent the grapes from ‘rasining”.
So far in 2021 very few vineyards across the West are being impacted by smoke. This is great news! We send our best wishes, hopes and prayers to all in the wine business here in the US that this continues. While fires have burned heavily across the West for several years now, 2017 and especially 2020 severely impacted the crop in Northern California. In 2020 virtually no red wine was made, so a smoke free year in 2021 would be a welcome break for all of our friends. The big difference so far this year is while there are certainly fires burning, we see the evidence every day, they are not burning right on top of the vineyards where the post-verasion gape skins will absorb the smoke.
While quality overall is good so far, crop size this year for the US is likely to be down from previous years. With such a hot and dry summer, the individual grapes and therefore the bundles are very small. This will reduce tonnage harvested significantly. If the current conditions persist, we would expect harvest to be early as well. We traded emails with a winemaker this past week who told us that their main white varietal was already at 18 brix, the measure of sugar in the grapes. This is quite early for the grapes to be at that level and would suggest that the picking will start earlier than normal.
The crop across Europe is going to be very small to non-existent. Across “the Old World” the spring was notable for cool temperatures, much rain, hail and frost to freezing night time temperatures. All of which left vineyards with a very small bud break and even smaller berry production on the vines as the hail caused significant “shatter”. Once summer started the temperatures in many areas have been as hot as they have been here at home resulting in the individual grapes and grape bundles that survived the spring onslaught being smaller than normal. As so frequently happens Europe is almost the inverse of what we have had here at home. This tough 2021 for Europe is against the backdrop of a string of great to outstanding vintages from 2015 all the way through 2020, where temperatures and growing conditions were nearly ideal producing some of the best years in history each on its own but when taken together are clearly a fabulous run by any historical measure!
As is always the case the next month to six weeks is going to be absolutely vital to the success of failure of the vintage here in the US. If we can make it to mid-September without a sharp cool down, early rains, or smoke blanketing vineyards the collective sigh of relief from all of us working in the wine industry will be audible. We will keep everyone updated as the harvest gets closer, and how it progresses once we get started.