Vintage 2017’s journey is complete
By George MacLeod and Ed Murphy, Indian Springs Ranch
The journey that began during the cold, wet, dormant days of winter last January is now complete. As usual, our Sauvignon Blanc was ready for harvest first, followed by the Zinfandel, with the Merlot hanging the longest and getting picked last. Like each of the 37 years preceding it, vintage 2017 has been a journey of discovery at MacLeod Family Vineyard – an annual cycle of trying to guess what Mother Nature has planned and what vineyard practices we should put in place to take advantage, or at least play along as best we can.
The extraordinary early-September heat wave hit right in the middle of Sauvignon Blanc harvest. Not good, but son John did a masterful job of managing Mother Nature’s curve ball. The harvest team had to be careful to remove any sunburned bunches, thus reducing our overall crop size. Also not good, but their diligence has won praise from our winemakers who are predicting an excellent vintage for our Marie’s Cuvee and classic Sauvignon Blanc wines.
The reds are all an interesting, if puzzling, story. The Zinfandel bunches looked different than we’ve ever seen. The bunches were Zinfandel-like in that they were big and long, but the individual berries were 20-30 percent smaller than their normal size. Almost the size of Cabernet Sauvignon berries. Not a single berry touching another berry. And the small berry size had a big impact on yield, with the Zinfandel crop coming in almost a full 30 percent lower than our bunch count data had led us to expect.
Not good for the farmer’s paycheck, but potentially spectacular news for our wine consumers. As we’ve reported in the past, there appears to be a strong correlation between yield and quality. In fact, 2017 may be the highest quality we’ve ever harvested in the Zinfandel in terms of flavor, color, and uniformity of bunches.
Skin to juice ratio is much higher – that means good wines with good tannins. Berries tasted really good. Sometimes the berries in Zinfandel bunches get so plump that the bunch gets too tight, resulting in bunch rot – watery, “squished” berries. This year, nothing was deteriorating at harvest. The small berry size gave every single berry plenty of room to grow. The color was out of this world – every berry as dark as midnight. Typically during harvest, someone is assigned to watch all the bunches as they get dumped in the gondola that moves down the row with the harvesters. The inspector removes bunches with immature pink berries or bunch rot. This year we didn’t have to pull a single bunch out of the gondola. Quality is off the charts!
What makes this year so different? This year’s crop is coming in lighter for everyone in Sonoma Valley. For us it was 10 tons less than last year among all our varieties. Perhaps it’s that we had the hottest summer on record (or at least it felt that way). But the truth is we don’t know for sure. Are we seeing the effect of global climate change in our local vineyards? The changes are slow and not always obvious. Climate change is an added vector of uncertainty that compounds the complexity of trying to plan for the future. For example, should we prune early in the winter to give us an earlier harvest date? That would be good. But this would also mean earlier bud growth that would be vulnerable to late frosts or rains during bloom time. Should we remove excess leaves in summer to promote air circulation in the vineyard and reduce risk of bunch rot? But what if we get an unexpected heat wave that could sunburn the newly exposed grapes (sound familiar)? Is there a new normal? Or is every year a new ball game? Someone please remind me again why I love farming.
My definition of happiness is when the last full gondola of grapes is driven out our front gate headed for the winery. All the planning, optimism, hard work, good and bad vibes, are now wonderful memories in our ranch saga. My wife Greta and I have often commented that this annual end-of-harvest scene produces a feeling not unlike when we would send our children off to college. Like our children, our great hope is that the grapes will return and will have been changed by the magic of the winemaker into a beverage that will gladden the hearts of men – and women, too! And all our work-in-progress will have changed into “accounts receivable” on our account books. Good times!
Thank you, Dear Reader, for joining us again on our Journey to Harvest. We look forward to speaking with you again next year when vintage 2018 gets underway.