Winemakers across California predict that the 2021 vintage will be one of the best in recent memory, while the Golden State’s winegrowers enjoyed a smooth harvest following a moderate and consistent growing season.
Picking began early in many regions, including the North Coast — ranging from a week to several weeks ahead of average. Central Coast appellations experienced a cool year that prompted a later-than-average start.
Grapes for sparkling wines are typically the first to be picked in California, but this year, some varieties for still white wines, such as Sauvignon Blanc, were the first to ripen. In addition, varieties that do not normally reach maturity at the same time ripened simultaneously, resulting in vineyard crews in some regions picking multiple varieties at once.
The ongoing drought presented challenges for winegrowers, resulting in reduced yields, but vintners are reporting outstanding quality and great concentration in the fruit.
California produces about 80% of the nation’s wine, making it the world’s fourth-largest wine producing region. More than 80% of California wine is made in a Certified Sustainable California Winery and over half of the state’s 637,000 vineyard acres are certified to one of California’s sustainability programs (Certified California Sustainable Winegrowing, Fish Friendly Farming, LODI RULES, Napa Green and SIP-Certified). Along with preserving the land for future generations, many of the sustainable practices used by the state’s vintners help make the harvest and growing season run more smoothly and increase wine quality.
“The weather was excellent this year, with mild temperatures at the end of the growing season,” said Ted Henry, director of winegrowing at Groth Vineyards in Oakville in Napa Valley. “We got a little more time to mature flavors before pulling the fruit off the vine.” Yields were on the lighter side due to smaller clusters and berries, but otherwise, the vintage was free from significant issues. “I think 2021 will be a top vintage in the Napa Valley,” Henry said. “Reds are very dark and extracted, with nice balance and freshness. Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon stood out as exceptional, and whites were bright, fresh and full flavored.”
Rodney Strong Vineyards in Healdsburg in Sonoma County began picking about a week earlier than normal, on Aug. 8. The season progressed without heat spikes or cold snaps. “What was crazy was the condensed ripening of all of the different varieties at once,” said Justin Seidenfeld, director of winemaking. “I had one day where I picked Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet, Merlot, Grenache Blanc and Zinfandel. That’s not a normal kind of day for us.” Yields were down about 14% overall, while Chardonnay and Pinot Noir came in around average. “The quality and the color of the wine, and the tannin development are some of the best I’ve ever seen,” Seidenfeld said. “Our Bordeaux reds are amazing. It’s going to be an off-the-charts vintage for sure.”
Corey Beck, executive vice president of production and chief winemaker at Delicato Family Wines, also noted a decrease in yields. “We had to deal with drought conditions across Napa and Sonoma County, leading to lower cluster weights,” he said. “The good news is that we see a fantastic concentration of flavors and color in our reds. Our Lodi and Central Coast vineyards share a similar story as a result of the moderate summer and drought conditions — resulting in lighter grape structure.” Beck is particularly excited about Chardonnay, which is showing vibrant flavors, as well as Cabernet Sauvignon. “Wines in the fermenters at all sites have very nice, mature flavors and good concentration,” he said. “Acids are a bit higher than typical, so the wines are very bright. The concentration and cleanness of the fruit are two pillars that make 2021 such a stand-alone harvest.”
In Livermore Valley, Wente Vineyards began picking earlier than normal, around the second week of August. Harvest in the winery’s Monterey County vineyards began about two weeks earlier than average due to cold temperatures throughout the season, while grapes from the winery’s Arroyo Seco vineyards weren’t ready until the last week of September. Growing conditions in Livermore Valley were ideal, with few heat spikes noted viticulture manager Niki Wente. Strong winds during flowering caused some shatter in the reds, but whites were not affected. Though yields were down about 15% for red varieties, quality increased as a result. “There’s a lot of flavor concentration and really small berries,” Wente said, particularly for Cabernet Sauvignon and red Bordeaux varieties. This will also be a solid vintage for whites. “They’re going to be really beautiful and floral.”
J. Lohr Vineyards & Wines saw a good amount of pre-season rainfall for its Paso Robles vineyards this year. However, most of the precipitation arrived during a single storm event, causing runoff that prevented much of the water from penetrating the soil. “No matter how you irrigate, the vines love rainwater more than anything,” said director of winemaking Steve Peck. “Canopies and vines were a little bit smaller this year because of that lower rainfall total.” Even so, he added, yields came in around average, with fruit showing more structure and higher tannin levels than typical. “For people that really like that intense mouthfeel,” he said, “I think they’re going to be very pleased with 2021.”
Hopland-based Fetzer Vineyards, which grows grapes all over California, began picking several weeks ahead of historical averages. Minimal rainfall and a warm summer led to lower fruit volumes and smaller berries. John Kane, Fetzer’s vice president of winemaking and winery operations, notes that impacts on the 2021 vintage began with unusually cold and dry post-harvest weather in 2020, putting the vines into protective mode. “As soon as the weather warmed in March, the vines did not hesitate to set buds,” he said, “but not as many as they would after a winter with normal rainfall. Early bud break was followed by a spring and early summer of high heat, which added more stress for the vines.”
Low water availability coupled with a warm growing season meant growers had to be precise with irrigation and canopy management. Smaller berries and lower yields brought intense concentration to the wines, with notable vibrancy. “Monterey Sauvignon Blanc is crisp and bright,” Kane said, “and Cabernet Sauvignon from all over the state has great variety typicity without green characteristics.” Marty Spate, vice president of winemaking and winegrowing at O’Neill Vintners & Distillers in Parlier, Fresno County, said the season progressed without extreme heat events or impacts from wildfire smoke. Not only that, but fruit quality is excellent across the board, and especially for Petite Sirah. “We source grapes from up and down the state, and the most consistent item of note this year is how good the fruit looked and tasted,” he said. “We are seeing intense levels of fruit characteristics, fine quality of tannins and well-balanced chemistries and acidity. I can say with confidence that our 2021 vintage is shaping up to be one of the best in the past decade.”
In Santa Barbara, winegrowers experienced a moderate growing season, with harvest timing in line with, or a bit behind, the historical average. “Weather during the ripening period was about as ideal as you could ask for in Santa Barbara County,” said Tyler Thomas, winemaker at Dierberg Vineyard in Lompoc. “We had cool mornings and ample fog, with little-to-no heat events.” Other than some canopy variability early in the season, the vintage proceeded as normal and yields came in at or just below historical averages. Wines are showing great depth of flavor at lower potential alcohol levels and higher acidity. “We are very excited about the ability to promote energy in wines with terrific depth and generosity,” says Thomas. “The Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir wines especially seem to display this quality.”
Read the full 2021 California Harvest Report here.