Spring freeze, recent cold result in light grape harvest
Colorado’s wine-grape harvest continues this week, but with most growers this year reporting half or less their normal crop load, the end is in sight.
While the 2012 harvest was finished earlier than usual, a month early in most cases — early enough for winemakers to enjoy Colorado Mountain Winefest — this year’s harvest has stretched out as growers wait for grapes to ripen after the spring freeze and the recent cold combined to provide uneven ripening.
The grape crop initially was hit hard by the January deep-freeze, with many vineyards losing entire rows of vines, and again in April when temperatures plunged into the 20s just as some grape buds were most vulnerable.
The result is a shortage of Merlot, Gewürztraminer, Riesling and Syrah and scant quantities of the others.
“I think I’ll be at 40 percent this year,” said veteran grape grower John Garlich of Bookcliff Vineyards during Winefest. “It’s as bad as I’ve ever seen it.”
Garlich has vineyards in the Vinelands south of Palisade, an area normally protected from winter freezes by the renowned DeBeque Canyon “million dollar breeze.”
But the depth of the sub-zero air layer hit the east end of the Grand Valley especially hard.
The April freeze seemed to damage mostly white-wine grapes, which already had pushed their buds in a late-winter warm-up.
But that cold impacted other buds as well, meaning growers now are dealing with uneven ripening and small crops.
“I think I’ll get about 15 tons, which is just enough for me and Rob (Kimball of 5680 Vineyards) and that’s all there is,” said Paonia grower and winemaker Lee Bradley of this year’s Pinot Noir crop.
Bradley normally supplies Pinot Noir to several North Fork Valley wineries but this year there isn’t enough to go around.
“There’s nothing coming from Lee,“said Eames Petersen of Alfred Eames cellars, who regularly gets Pinot Noir from Bradley. “We’ll get little (Pinot Noir) from here but that’s it.”
He looked at the few vines at his Puesta del Sol vineyards, which also had some winter damage.
“I’ll get my usual Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet franc, Merlot and carmine from Rusty Price but there’s no Syrah, no Tempranillo,” Petersen said.
“It’s about a tenth of what we usually do.”
Nancy Janes at Whitewater Hill Vineyards, which during most years is a source of grapes for many winemakers, said she won’t have any grapes to sell after she meets her own requirements.
“We already picked our Merlot, we just didn’t have much,” she said. “People looking for grapes (without earlier contracts) are going to be out of luck.
“We’ll just tell the others we don’t have any more.”
The two weeks or so of hot weather in August evened out some of the ripening and gave growers hope the season could be saved.
But the rain and cool that came in September slowed the push.
The concern over uneven ripening is even though all the grapes look ripe, not all grapes in a bunch will be phenological ripe.
The result, unless the pickers are careful about which grapes they harvest and which they leave, can be an unappealing vegetal, green herbal flavor in the wines.
“It’s going to be more work, that’s certain,” said Steve Smith of Grande River Winery in late September.
It also means letting some varieties hang a while longer, hoping the weather warms enough this month to bring grapes to desired maturity, balancing sugar levels (which decide alcohol levels) with acidity.
Winemakers are accustomed to being flexible.
“We still have our later varieties — Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet franc and Shiraz — to pick and we’d like them to get bit riper,” said Nancy Janes. “So we’re hoping for a couple more weeks of warm weather.”