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Rob Campbell
December 7, 2023 | Rob Campbell

The Harvest That Would Not End

The 2023 Crush will go down in history as one of the best vintages in the past two decades. But why? It has mostly to do with the weather but also the way a wine grape matures.

Think back to the winter of 2022-2023 in Northern California. It was cold, wet, and long. We were still getting significant rain in March and April. The Placerville rain station, located near Story Winery (where Meyye wines are made and the source of our Zinfandel grapes), recorded 48” of rain for the year. That’s more than the previous 2 rain years combined! But it was the air temperature, and in turn, the ground temperature that kept the grapes from waking up.

Bud break - Mid May, yikes.

‘Bud burst’, the tiny little green leaves that pop out of the pruned back grapevine, typically occurs in late March to Early April for the Sierra Foothills (late February to mid-March for Sonoma Co.). This year, bud burst didn’t happen until early-to-mid May–over a month late. It takes about 120 days for a vine to bear fruit and mature for harvest in the Sierra Foothills (the shortest duration for all California viticulture areas by the way). With this in mind, we knew mid-late September would be the earliest we would pick our Zinfandel.

Then came the summer. While the rest of the world was literally on fire, California enjoyed one of the mildest summers on record. For us in the cellar, this was both a gift and a curse. The gift was temperate days to harvest in, crush in, work in, clean in, etc. This was a far cry from the crush of 2022 where we crushed fruit in 115° temperatures and endured weeks-long heat spells (over 103° each day) that not only spiked sugars in the fruit but was physically exhausting to work in. The curse for this year was delayed ripening. Grape vines prefer specific temperature ranges during the day and night. When the weather gets too hot or too cool, the vines slow down grape maturity. So, we waited, and waited, and waited…

Aug. 14 - veraison not complete yet!
August 14 – Veraison still not complete

We picked our Chardonnay from Carneros, our Pinot from Petaluma Gap, and our Mourvèdre (for Sokootok) from Amador County all in the same week of October 9th. These three grape varietals are usually picked across 6 weeks. We picked our last fruit lot, a zinfandel, on October 26th. This lot wasn’t even done fermenting until after Thanksgiving and pressed out in December! All totaled up, we were engaged in crush for 12 weeks. Last year, it was 4 weeks.

Crushing the pinot fruit (O'may) on October 9

While not ideal for winemakers, the extended time spent on the vine for the grapes resulted in one of the best vintages in decades. When people talk about grape quality they tend to focus on sugar and acid because these are simple indicators of grape maturity. Low sugar and high acid indicate a grape is not ready to pick. The right sugar (usually measured in degrees brix°) and the right acid (titratable acid measured by pH) indicate a grape is ripe. A typical target may be 24.5° brix with a pH of 3.5-3.6. But as we saw last year, a heat spike can throw off that balance. Drought can also throw off that balance (by dehydrating the grape) driving sugars up and acids down. But when a grape has a long growing season, the other compounds that makeup flavor, aroma, and color in wine get extra time to develop. Flavanols, as you can probably tell, make up the taste of wine. Descriptors like raspberries, strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, tea leaves, cola, etc. get more time to develop and in greater concentration. Anthocyanins are the color of the wine created by the grape during maturation. The longer the maturation, the more anthocyanins. And finally, tannins. Most people think tannins come from the barrels during the aging process. While partly true with new barrels or ‘once-fills’, neutral barrels (those used more than twice) do not impart any additional tannins. But tannins also come from the grapes, specifically from the skin and seeds. Tannins act as the wine’s natural preservative (along with the acid) to create beautiful color and structure  that allows it to age long and graceful, like all Meyye wines. The result for 2023, ideal brix and acid at harvest with the greatest concentration of flavanols, anthocyanins, and tannins than we’ve had in decades. Can’t wait to enjoy these wines with all of you in 2026 and beyond!


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