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Dan Berger On Wine: Harvest 2021 in California: smaller in size, phenomenal in quality

From the Napa Valley Wine Insider Digest: Oct. 23, 2021 series
  • Updated

Northern California’s 2021 harvest is over almost before wine lovers knew it had begun.

But North Coast winemakers surely knew it was on — given the frenetic pace and strange impediments tossed in their paths by Mother Nature, not to mention supply chain, labor and transportation problems.

And then there was the curious harvest season in Central California, which started well, turned very cool, and ended up, after much trepidation, providing a European style of blank canvas and potentially great wines.

What a strange harvest 2021 was (and still is in some areas), especially in Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino, and Lake counties! Despite its short duration in the north, the abnormal complications visited on wineries were nerve-wracking.

The bottom line: California’s 2021 harvest will prove to be smaller in size statewide than the average of the last six years, but the quality looks phenomenal, almost across the board.

The fruit was as clean as any in a decade, with no smoke impact, which damaged fruit in many areas in the last several years, notably 2020.

Smoke taint may be thought of as the COVID-19 of wine. Once grapes are smoke-affected, the ashtray smell in resulting wines is nearly impossible to remove, which damped production in many areas, necessitating disposal of a lot of wine.

The growing conditions that impact a vintage are greater than just what happens in that four-month period after the first grape is picked, ending when the last drop leaves the press. A vintage begins about February after vines awake from winter hibernation.

First, there’s the critical task of pruning, then spring’s new growth, flowering, and development of fruit.

In 2021, vines between Humboldt and Ventura counties started well, with no bad weather (frost, heat, heavy rains), so the fruit “set” was good.

Central Coast vines, retarded by cooler weather, started later than usual.

Statewide, summer temperatures were moderate except for a few hot summer days.

In the north, picking began sooner than usual, providing the keyword to describe this year’s harvest: early. Some table wine grapes were picked as early as July. In many past Julys, some California winemakers might still be bottling wines to free up space in tanks and barrels, preparing for new wines.

The early start made it obvious that more workers were needed to handle chores that usually are paced out for two additional months. The compressed harvest caught many Norcal wineries flatfooted; many were understaffed and it was hard finding additional seasonal workers.

Then there was the chaotic pace.

In more traditional vintages, grapes to make white wines are picked earlier than red-wine grapes, making for a smooth transition in the use of equipment. White wine grapes can go into the same equipment, one after the other. All that’s needed is a quick cleansing of the presses, crushers, hoses, etc.

This year it was bedlam. In many cases in the north, white wine grapes ripened more slowly than did some reds, which were picked earlier than ever. This rarely happens.

With some red grapes being processed first, cleaning out equipment when the white grapes finally arrived was essential. The additional combined with labor shortages left some tasks in the hands of novice workers.

One reality from 2021 is that many wines may well be made with lower alcohols than has been typical in the last 25 years. (This also was the case in the cool 2011 harvest, which made some of the longest-lived wines in decades.)

Several winemakers told me that early spring vine growth in the north allowed grapes plenty of time on vines, developing proper flavors. And while flavors were developing, sugars didn’t rise as rapidly.

Many winemakers said flavor development was near perfect early -- even though sugar levels were lower than they had seen in the last quarter-century!

In most cases, winemakers harvest fruit with about 23% to 26% sugar (called “degrees Brix”). Some exalted Cabernet Sauvignon grapes are harvested at 27° or 28° Brix -- or even higher. A tank of grape juice with a sugar reading of 28° Brix will produce a dry wine that has just under 17% alcohol. That’s higher than Fino Sherry!

But by late September this year, red wine grapes showed exceptional flavor development even though sugar levels rose only marginally. Sugars in some fruit was back to 23°, or even lower. (A tank of grape juice with 23° Brix will make a dry wine that has less than 14% alcohol.)

Winemaker Scott Harvey, who makes a Napa Valley Cabernet each year, said it will be less than 14% alcohol — “it usually is.” But he also makes a Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir, which will also be under 14%, a rarity.

One Northern California winery consultant told me he couldn’t get one of his clients to pick his Cabernet grapes even though they were perfectly “flavor ripe.” The intransigent owner said his sugars were “too low.”

On Sept. 29, the consultant told me, “The fruit is sitting there at about 21° Brix and everything is perfect in terms of flavor — but this [guy] wants to wait two more weeks to pick! He won’t pick a grape until he gets at least 25 Brix. By then he’ll have Port.”

By contrast, Central California weather remained cool through September, with some vineyard managers comparing it to the cool 2011.

Despite that, flavors were excellent, and some of the first fruit to be harvested in Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, and Monterey counties, in late September (later than usual), showed exceptional acidity, with hopes of long-lived wines. Quality was rated as exceptional, but most growers reported crop sizes 20% to 25% less than expected.

Novato-based Ciatti Co., a large wine importer and grape and wine broker, tracks harvest conditions worldwide. In its report in late September, Ciatti said:

“The severe statewide drought has inevitably played a big part in the quick ripening [of grapes in the north].

“Water curtailment mandates are in place up and down the state’s rivers and there have been drought stress issues visible on some vines, including lack of berry sizing and desiccated foliage.”

Desiccated grapes undoubtedly account for some of the lost tonnage that crop experts anticipated would reduce the overall statewide tonnage. Small crops are bad news for growers, who make their profits based on grapes sold by weight. (A few grape contracts are based on price per acre.)

Many of those who make expensive Cabernets reported smaller crops this year than in the past. They also suffered crop losses in 2020 because of the aforementioned smoke taint. Some iconic wineries reported that because of smoke taint, they produced only 25% or even less of a normal Cabernet crop.

So, another small crop in 2021 could create shortages in the ultra-premium Cabernet market.

Wine of the Week

2020 Whitehaven Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough ($18)—This tasty white wine is recommended not because it’s prototypical of New Zealand or Sauvignon Blanc. In fact, it isn’t typical of either! For those who love those exotic lime, grapefruit rind, gooseberry/cat pee/cilantro aromatics typical of kiwi SB, this isn’t your wine! Its aroma is attractive in a floral way, due probably to clever grape-growing! It’s atypical of New Zealand SB, so will appeal most to people who don’t like the assertively pungent style of many NZSBs. It’s fresh and tasty, has excellent acidity, and doesn’t have the same sweet finish that so many other NZSBs seem to have. Often seen around $14.

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A roof of solar panels shades Pierre Escudie as he inspects the last plump grapes to be harvested at his vineyard in southwest France, after a year of hard frosts and blistering heat that damaged many of his neighbors' crops. But his, thanks to the panels, are plump and fresh. Lauren Anthony has more.


Dan Berger lives in Sonoma County, Calif., where he publishes "Vintage Experiences," a subscription-only wine newsletter. Write to him at He is also co-host of California Wine Country with Steve Jaxon on KSRO Radio, 1350 AM.

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