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Drought hits Napa Valley 2021 harvest but quality shows promise

Drought has left several Napa winemakers wishing for a bigger crop, but there is also optimism that 2021 could prove to be a high quality vintage.

Drought was causing concern among winemakers in Napa Valley and other California wine-growing regions long before the 2021 harvest began, and initial reports suggest the conditions have cut potential vintage size to varying degrees.

In Napa Valley, Spottswoode CEO Beth Novak Milliken told Decanter.com that yields across the winery’s estate vineyard were expected to be around 25 to 30% below average.

‘There are other vineyards that we work with, that have been impacted even more… to the tune of 85% drop,’ said Aron Weinkauf, Spottswoode winemaker and vineyard manager.

‘This will have complications for this year and future years,’ he told Decanter via email. ‘Because of the drought, cover crops and soil microbial populations have also suffered and so overall soil fertility has also suffered.’

It’s still early days in terms of assessing the Napa Valley 2021 vintage, but Weinkauf struck an upbeat tone on the quality of grapes that have made it through.

‘We love the quality so far,’ he told Decanter. ‘However it’s been somewhat atypical for us. We have seen blocks where sugar accumulation plateaued early and [we] see a very large diversity in the fruit, so it will be great to see the different interpretation of the vintage across the industry.

‘The post-veraison period has so far been warm but mostly moderated, so one can find a real spectrum of ripeness levels.’

Spottswoode finished harvest at its estate vineyard last week, when the final Cabernet Sauvignon grapes came in.

Michael Honig, president and CEO of Honig Vineyard and Winery, said Sauvignon Blanc yields had been hit harder by the drought than Cabernet Sauvignon.

He said Sauvignon Blanc yields were around 30% down, with the Cabernet Sauvignon harvest expected to be around 10 to 15% smaller than a more typical year. Honig said the Cabernet harvest was around 75% complete.

Cooler conditions since August have helped to slow down sugar accumulation in the Cabernet grapes and ensure more balanced ripening, said Honig. ‘The vines look healthy,’ he said. ‘It could be a wonderful, wonderful vintage.’

Things are certainly looking better than 2020, when Honig decided against producing an estate Cabernet due to concerns about the possibility of smoke taint.

Wildfires have become a perennial concern for winemakers in many parts of the US west coast, as well as for communities as a whole.

As reported by Decanter at the time, the so-called Glass Fire caused particular damage to parts of Napa and Sonoma Counties around one year ago. Several wineries suffered damage, and labs worked around-the-clock to test grape samples for signs of smoke taint.

Trade body Napa Valley Vintners has cautioned that the 2020 vintage was not lost, yet there has also been a degree of relief in recent weeks that – so far – Napa has avoided a major fire this year.

‘We are beyond relieved to have this reprieve from the fires that have been a part of our fall lives for the past four years,’ said Milliken.

‘Yes, many parts of California are burning, yet we have been fortunate here, with very little smoke and no fire. We are still susceptible to fire, mind you, so we await the rain which we hope the winter will bring.’

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