Not as huge as 2015, but yet another solid Colorado grape harvest

The 2016 wine-grape harvest is in its final stages across the Grand Valley while the 1,000-foot higher North Fork Valley is just hitting full stride.

After a cooler than expected spring, that midsummer stretch of hot weather caused some grapes to ripen quickly (crews were picking Merlot in early September) while the cooler nights and lingering warm days of late September and early October have allowed later-ripening grapes to pick up the sugars and flavors winemakers prefer.

People are generally happy although no one was going wowzers about the harvest.

“It’s decent, maybe a little better, but not like last year,” said grower Neil Guard at Avanti Winery. “But that’s good.”

Vineyard specialist Kaibab Sauvage is growing several varieties of cold-hardy grapes along with a change in his trellising system. “The grapes were really happy,” Sauvage said. “I started calling around (early) and people were asking, ‘Why are you calling me in August?’ But the grapes were getting ripe.” On Sunday, Nancy Janes of Whitewater Hill Winery entertaining guests from the Colorado Wine Experience wine train, an annual event sponsored by AAA and the Grand Junction Visitors and Convention Bureau.

“We’ve put picking on hold today to handle this event,” she said. “We just pressed four loads of Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon and the first of my St. Vincent’s.

“The quality is really good and we’ll get right back to picking this week.”

St. Vincent’s is a cold-hardy red-grape hybrid between Chambourcin and Pinot Noir. Janes planted it in a low spot formerly occupied by Merlot.

Predictions for this year’s crop indicate a healthy but not overwhelming harvest, a respite from the huge 2015 crop that saw wineries filling all available tanks and barrels and still leaving grapes on the vines.

“Last year was an anomaly,” said Bruce Talbott of Talbott Farms, the area’s largest grape grower. “The vines should not have had the quality and volume that they did. We’d take it again, but that means we’d have extra grapes, and we’re still trying to figure out what to do with what we got last year.”

Frost hasn’t yet been a factor in the Grand Valley despite a report last week of 32.9 degrees.

Several vineyards around the North Fork Valley were showing signs of an uneven frost after a low of 31 was reported last week.

“We just started picking today,” said Karen Helleckson of Stone Cottage Cellars in Paonia on Friday. “Brent’s up at Terror Creek today, picking some Pinot Noir that got some frost damage.”

The Stone Cottage vineyards, at 6,300 feet, are protected from frosts to around 28 degrees by a valley headwind blowing from McClure Pass.

Not so at Terror Creek, even though it sits another 100 feet higher on Garvin Mesa. Last week, Terror Creek had vines in a lower vineyard get frostnipped.

“Once the leaves are dead, there’s no transport of water or nutrients so you want to pick the grapes before they start to shrivel,” Brent Helleckson said, pointing out how the vineyard starts high and gradually curves toward the river 1,000 feet below. “You can see how the higher vines survived because the slope is steep enough to allow for air drainage. But down here it’s just flat enough for the cold air to settle.”

It’s all part of the game of trying to eke out the best grapes while cautiously watching the weather.

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