The year’s first signs of life have come to Napa Valley vineyards, marking an exceptionally early start to the grape growing season here.
The Napa Valley Grapegrowers announced Thursday that bud break, the first stage of vine growth — where vines emerge from their winter dormancy and begin to produce shoots that will one day bear grapes — has begun in areas like the southern Carneros region. Vines in the area are typically the first in Napa County to begin the growing season and are among the first to be harvested each year.
Ushered in by a weeks-long bout of unseasonably warm and dry weather, this year’s bud break launches the growing season roughly two weeks earlier than the 2017 season, according to Garrett Buckland, president of the Napa Valley Grapegrowers, in an announcement from the group.
Buckland noted that in addition to the warmer climes of the past weeks, replantings have also taken place in vineyards throughout the county over the last several years, resulting in younger vines that tend to undergo bud break earlier.
As usual, white varietals like Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc are among those whose buds have broken first, said Brittany Pederson, viticulturist with Renteria Vineyard Management.
Pederson added that a cold front is expected in the coming days, “which will slow down bud break. However, it’s already started in some locations.”
A start to the growing season this early can be cause for concern among growers, as the buds that have broken thus far are now susceptible to damage from frost or rain.
Low water is also an issue, Pederson said. “We haven’t gotten very much rain yet this winter. So that’s a big issue if we have a longer growing season and if it’s drought year, trying to figure out where all our water’s going to come from.”
In its release, the Grapegrowers noted the weather alert system the group offers its members via text and voice messages. The system is currently on frost watch, the group said, and tracking nighttime temperatures.
With the threat of frost, Buckland said that growers are maintaining cover crops, including mustard, which is currently blooming throughout the region, and are “making sure to keep it mowed as a preventative frost protection measure.”
Pederson said growers are also ensuring their wind machines and sprinkler systems are up and running to protect against frost, should it set in while the buds are still vulnerable.
While Carneros is normally the first indicator of where things are starting to happen as far as Chardonnay, Pederson also noted that “Cabernet doesn’t look like it’s too, too far behind in some of the mountains.”
In particular, vines on Mount Veeder appear to be “fairly close” as well, she said. “Some of the mountain fruit always tends to ripen a little quicker because it’s sometimes not as cold; it gets above the inversion layer.”
Though of the vines that have already shown bud break, Pederson said, “it’s a pretty low percentage still.”
“It definitely is block dependent and variety and clone dependent,” she said, estimating that in Chardonnay vineyards only 2 to 5 percent of vines are currently showing bud break.