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Hot growing season has grape crop in early

By Dave Buchanan

Colorado’s wine grape crop came through the hot, dry summer in better condition than many people might have expected.

While there aren’t yet any numbers on the total production, comments from producers and winemakers indicate the summer growing season was short, intense and productive.

“Everything came in early,” said state viticulturist Horst Caspari of the Colorado State University Orchard Mesa Research Center. “I think everything was picked by the 20th of October this year and sometimes they pick into November.”

Parker Carlson at Carlson Vineyards said he was done a month ahead of his normal schedule. “Harvest was really good, in fact almost too good,” Parker said. “We got a lot of grapes and quality was for the most part pretty good.”

“The weather had everything ripening on top of other but this was the first time in my 24 or 25 years (of grape growing) that we were finished by end of September,” he said. “It really gave us another month of our lives back.”

Guy Drew of Guy Drew Vineyards near Cortez called the harvest “fast and furious.”

“Basically it was over in a month,” he said. “It didn’t even get into October, it was all over in September. I couldn’t go to Winefest this year because I was busy dealing with grapes.”

Caspari said the growing season started normally but a warmer-than-usual May and June pushed the crop ahead.

“We had bud break pretty much as normal but with May and June very warm and it just kept getting warmer,” Horst said. “We have never had a warmer year during our growing season, which is the first of May to the 30th of September. “So everything got ripe very early.”

Most grape varietals ripened two weeks to a month early, Caspari said. “I picked the grapes at my site (on Orchard Mesa) on the 22nd of August and I’ve never picked anything in August,” he said.

He said the crop overall was “pretty decent, probably a record for us quantity wise and maybe quality.”

But a continuous hot growing season isn't necessarily a good thing. Unrelenting hot weather has a drawback – the hot days build sugar in the grapes but winemakers want cool nights to develop the acids that balance sugars, tannins and alcohol.

Winemakers watch grapes as carefully as a mother watches her sleeping child. Grape maturity is monitored daily, and sometimes more often, as the grapes near the level of ripeness the winemaker is seeking.

“We didn’t get the cool nights of September like usual,” Drew said. “It was so hot, we couldn’t get the acids we needed and the while the sugars stayed high, the acids are low.”

A study by climatologists Greg Jones of the University of Oregon and Robert Davis of the University of Virginia indicated (and I'm paraphrasing greatly here) that in the last two decades, grapevines in Bordeaux have seen a longer growing period, which causes Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon varietals to have higher sugar-to-acid ratios, greater berry weights and a "greater potential wine quality."

However, sugars and acids develop at different rates, and hot weather can cause grapes to be phenologically ripe but not evenly ripe, with sugars and acids out of balance.

Plus, more sugars equate to higher alcohol content, one reason California wines tend to have higher alcohol than French or German wines, which don't get as ripe due to generally cooler growing conditions.

But even that is changing, as higher temperatures around the world already are having a hand in wine production.

Without the balancing crispness of acidity, white and red wines tend to be soft and dull – “flabby” is one term used – and in years such as this it’s not unusual for winemakers to augment the acidity by adding either tartaric acid or cream of tartar, both of which occur naturally in grapes (along with malic and citric acids).

Also, it was evident early in September that picking crews were going to be doing double duty – trying to get the last of the peaches off the trees while fielding calls from grape growers.

“The fruit from down here was good early but we weren’t able to pick it when it should have been picked,” Guy said. “Most of the fruit I buy from Grand Junction comes from (Bruce) Talbott but his crews can only do so much.

“When they are busy, even if you need it picked today, you aren’t going to get it done.”


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