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Napa harvest: Widespread rot fails to dampen spirits

Wine producers in Napa are counting the cost of the bizarre weather patterns this year.

Auction Napa Valley, June: wet

Many crops have been hit by the double whammy of heavy June rains, six times the average rainfall, which damaged flowers and led to coulure or shatter – the failure of the grapes to develop after flowering.

There was also rain at the beginning of October which caused conditions one winemaker described as ‘a petrie dish’ for rot.

Some growers however are extremely positive. Warren Winiarski, founder and former owner of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, picked his Chardonnay before the early October rains and so avoided botrytis.

Winiarski, who remains owner of the Arcadia Vineyard after selling Stag’s Leap three years ago, said the Chardonnay would be moderate in alcohol, with ‘very fresh contoured acids’.

‘The grapes were beautiful,’ he said, adding that he thought it would be similar in style to the 2007.

‘Anyone who has a problem producing an outstanding Chardonnay this year should be in a different business,’ he said.

Arcadia’s Chardonnay, which goes into Stag’s Leap’s renowned Arcadia bottling, was picked before the early October rains. Yield will be some 10-15% lower than last year.

Winiarski was careful to stress that he was speaking only for his own grapes, but there are others who share his view.

‘Oakville Chardonnay has the potential to be excellent, with great flavour without great sugar levels, as long as you got it in before the rain,’ winemaker Sean Capiaux at O’Shaughnessy said.

In Carneros, a prime cool-climate Chardonnay region, shatter was also a problem.

‘Carneros was very difficult,’ David Tate, winemaker at Barnett in Spring Mountain said.

Barnett makes a Carneros Chardonnay from the Sangiacomo Vineyard, and Tate said conditions at the beginning of October were perfect for botrytis.

‘It was a petrie dish’, he said, adding that this much rain at harvest hadn’t been seen in Napa since 1989.

The same is true for Cabernet. The harvest is just starting in many regions of Napa, with grapes in almost all regions severely depleted because of coulure, and botrytis.

Except for the mountain AVAs, where the risk of botrytis is minimal, Cabernet crops all over the valley have been afflicted by rot.

The only wineries not to be affected are those that picked before the early October rains.

At Screaming Eagle in Oakville, for example, estate manager Armand de Maigret said they were ‘almost the first’ to pick in Napa.

He said they were pleased with the quality of the grapes, which should produce a vintage that is light and elegant but ‘plumper than Bordeaux’.

de Maigret was especially pleased with the Cabernet Franc this year, as was his neighbour, grower Phil Coturri at Oakville Ranch, also in Oakville but 400m above the valley floor.

‘The Cabernet Franc is beautifully sweet and ripe, very perfumed,’ he said.

Elsewhere, growers are looking at yields considerably lower than last year, due to bunches being decimated by shatter.

Delia Viader of Viader, at the foot of Howell Mountain, said it was too early to call on quality, but her yields will be down by 30%. ‘It was a ghost crop,’ she said, blaming the heavy June rains with strong winds damaging flowers.

Written by Adam Lechmere in Napa

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