US 2014 vintage – early, fast, eventful


23 Oct – We published this for members on Monday but thought that as a Throwback Thursday contribution it might interest everyone to read it in parallel with our other reports on the 2014 vintage, not least Richard's European 2014 round-up published on Tuesday. 

20 Oct - It has become my habit each year to check in with winemakers across the United States as harvest concludes in order to get a sense of the vintage as a whole. Without fail, the assessments I receive from the far-flung winegrowing regions of the country generally sound like descriptions of something completely different from what we have experienced here in California. If nothing else, these reports serve as an excellent reminder of the dangers of generalising about the character of any one harvest, especially in a country as large as America.

Despite their differences in 2014, most of the winemakers I spoke with, from New York to Washington State, reported a generally earlier harvest than normal and, thanks to some building late-season heat in many places, an accelerated pace at harvest time. Even discounting the farmer’s perpetual optimism, across the board most producers seem quite happy with their 2014 fruit, with some waxing all but ecstatic about the potential of the vintage.

Enough generalisation. Let’s dive into the world of the 2014 harvest.

Long Island, New York

I don’t think I’ve ever heard as many superlatives to describe harvest as I have heard from winemakers on the North Fork of Long Island in 2014. ‘We had a growing season which was a vineyard manager’s dream', says Kelly Urbanik Koch, the winemaker at Macari Vineyards, who goes on to use words like ‘great', ‘stunning', ‘incredible', and ‘fantastic’ in her praise of a year essentially without incident. She described a season that was sunny and moderately warm through to harvest, but most importantly mercifully lacking in the all-too-common local humidity, resulting in little to no disease pressure in the vineyards. Bedell Cellars winemaker Richard-Olsen Harbich concurs, saying, ‘This year was unlike anything else I’ve ever seen. It is a completely unique vintage that should yield awesome wines across the board, both red and white.’

Finger Lakes, New York

To the north, away from the moderating influence of the Atlantic, is the land of the Polar Vortex, where this past winter, temperatures as low as -25 ºC (-13 ºF) heavily damaged many vines and significantly reduced the crop for many growers. Whereas most of the US was gripped by drought and experienced a warm, early spring, the Finger Lakes remained cold and wet for much longer than expected. ‘We entered September nearly two weeks behind where we traditionally are for that time of year', says Christopher Missick of Bellangelo Winery, who took this picture of 2014 Riesling grapes. ‘By way of example as to how wet the year began, the weather station in Geneva, New York, registers a historical average of 3 to 3.5 inches [76-89 mm] of rain each month from May through October. This year, in July alone, they recorded 7.81 inches [198 mm] of rain.’

Disease pressure ran high in August and growers were braced for an extremely difficult finish to the vintage, but then, ‘we entered a period that has led even the most senior viticulturist in the region to recognise that it was the best September ever [recorded]', says Missick. The results of this later and dramatically finished vintage would seem to be well-ripened grapes with excellent, even high, acidity levels, which will be a winning combination for Riesling in particular.

Old Mission Peninsula, Michigan

Winters in Michigan can be bad enough without the Polar Vortex, but this past winter’s arctic freeze was severe and deadly. Despite 40 years of experience dealing with the region’s extreme weather, Chateau Grand Traverse lost almost 50% of its crop due to winter damage. ‘It’s part of our terroir so to say', suggests vice president and winegrower Sean O’Keefe somewhat optimistically, as he contemplates his much-reduced crop still sitting on the vine. ‘Everyone’s waiting as long as they can to let the grapes ripen sufficiently', he continues, suggesting that he’ll begin picking Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris this week, and then Riesling, Pinot Noir and Gamay well into the end of October.

Walla Walla Valley, Washington

Washington State’s 2014 vintage may well have been the exact opposite of Michigan’s. ‘It was our second hot year in a row', says Nina Buty of Buty Vineyards. ‘Harvest was as much as two weeks early in some sites, but our season started much earlier as well', she continues, describing a phenomenon common to most of America’s West Coast this year. Spring came early, warm, and dry, leading to early budbreak and flowering in most wine regions. ‘Overall, this is one of the very hottest, driest growing seasons known, with some records for heat being set', says winemaker Casey McLellan of Seven Hills winery, who suggests that ‘proper irrigation management’ would make all the difference this year. Despite the heat, most winemakers are upbeat about a vintage which seemed to deliver concentration, but also structure, a fact which suits winemaker Chris Sparkman of Sparkman Cellars just fine. ‘Quality and consistency is ridiculous across the board', he says, ‘the chemistry is simple this year and the flavours are incredible.’

Willamette Valley, Oregon

After dancing around relatively heavy rains near harvest in 2013, most winemakers in Oregon were thrilled to have a consistently warm vintage that, as in Washington and California, came in much earlier than usual – in some cases up to three weeks early. ‘For the first time since 2006 our picking decisions were based purely on wine style and not weather conditions', reports Robert Brittan of Brittan Vineyards. He goes on to add, ‘the 2014 Pinots are displaying a level of richness that I have not seen in Oregon before'. The heat, though not excessive, was constant through most of the summer, resulting in the potential for slightly higher sugars and slightly lower acids than average, according to Brittan.

Lodi, California

Harvest is still under way in Lodi and the Sierra Foothills of California, where the third year of a severe western drought in the vineyard continues to gain intensity, and has begun to affect the wine produced. In addition to the early onset of the growing season, ‘the dry soils affect the acid profile and we end up with lower malic acid accumulation in the grapes', says winemaker David Akiyoshi of Lange Twins Winery. ‘Overall, the crop levels were 10 to 15% below average. The struggling root systems could not support vigorous growth.’ Akiyoshi seems willing to accept lower acidity in favour of what he calls ‘better fruit expression’ and more maturation in the stems and seeds. While the ripe flavour profile of the region’s wines may easily accommodate such warm and dry vintages, the health of the vines depends upon winter rains, which many vintners will begin praying for once their wines have finished fermenting.

Sonoma, California

Apparently, the effects of the drought aren’t all underground. Winemaker Ed Kurtzman, whose personal label and consulting projects have him harvesting wine from all over northern California, says he’s seeing problems above ground in terms of crop levels. With some vineyards, he says, ‘It’s not that the vines didn't have enough water, but that local deer didn't have enough food from their normal sources. They ventured into these vineyards for the first time to eat young shoots in the spring, and they ate ripe Zinfandel grapes and leaves in September. Desperate times, I guess.’ Kurtzman reports crop levels varying from 25% to 50% below last year’s harvest in some vineyards, to about average in others. ‘They were basically all over the place', he says.

After a moderately warm, dry summer, heat levels began to climb in September and early October, with a few peaks in September that sent many vintners scrambling to bring fruit in, while others waited through these spikes for more moderate temperatures, and the longer, cooling nights of October. In general, however, picking began anywhere from two to three weeks earlier than in previous years for most producers, and a brief rainy period in early October meant that some producers, such as Jesse Katz of Lancaster Estate in Alexander Valley, had the opportunity to harvest fruit at two distinct ripeness levels. ‘Some of the earlier picks showcased some amazing red fruit characteristics with beautiful structure', he says. ‘The later picks were more round with darker fruits. Combined, these should showcase some incredible complexity.’

Napa, California

All Napa needed to make its harvest truly biblical this year was a plague of locusts. First the earthquake and then a freakish hailstorm disrupted harvest this year. Combined with an early and fast-ripening vintage, 2014 offered plenty of opportunities for anxiety among vintners, many of whom suffered losses to both events even as they were scrambling to harvest grapes three weeks earlier than usual. Those less affected by the quake, and those whose harvest timing managed to dodge the hail and a bit of October rain, are quite happy with a vintage largely free from extremes of heat, and moisture. ‘I couldn't be happier with 2014', says Dan Petroski, winemaker for Larkmead Winery, who admits that, ‘Napa felt like another wine region altogether this year.’

Santa Barbara County, California

Further south, the drought was just as bad, but the coastal regions of Santa Barbara managed a comparatively uneventful growing season. ‘Things could have been a whole lot worse', says Dieter Cronje, winemaker at Presqu’ile Winery in the Santa Maria Valley. ‘This should be a very educational vintage, one we'll look back at and understand how our vines and wines react to such a unique season. With everything from budbreak to harvest being about a month early, we still managed to get the same amount of hang time so it was not a shortened growing season.’

Cronje, like many winemakers I spoke with, expressed surprise that crop levels were so comparable to 2012 and 2013 given the extent of the drought. Like many he suggested that without some significant moisture this winter, the next harvest would be a different animal altogether.

Even with the earliness of the harvest, and the heat in September that accelerated maturity in the same way as it did in northern California, Tyler Thomas of Dierberg Winery believes the quality of 2014 to be close to that of 2013, ‘which is superb', he says. ‘It wasn’t quite as easy as 2013, but overall it is very positive.’

While the continuing extremes of weather offer challenges to vintners around the country, on the whole, 2014 seems to have been a reasonably successful growing season for the majority of America’s wine regions, although not without its share of stress for both winemakers and their vines. With wines now slumbering in barrels for most, we simply need to wait for the opportunity to taste them.