In our July blog about this year’s growing season, we explained how below freezing temperatures in November of 2020 affected our Sauvignon Blanc vines. Now, with the harvest complete, we’re adding fire and drought to the equation!
Most of you already know that Northern California Wine Country has been plagued by wildfires over the last few years, and almost every North Bay winegrowing region has been directly impacted by flames. There are also indirect impacts of smoke from fires that can be many miles away. Thankfully, in 2020 Lake County avoided a major fire, but the northern part of neighboring Napa County was hard hit and air quality in the entire region was poor-to-bad for well over a month.
This impacts vineyards in several ways; the odors of smoke can directly alter the flavor of the grapes; the filtered sunlight can slow ripening and the deposits of ash can have dramatic fertilizing effect. Even a thin covering of ash across a vineyard can amount to 4 tons per acre and it contains an amazing array of microminerals such as phosphorous, potassium, selenium, aluminum and copper. These are rare finds for the vines and they absorb them eagerly, banking the precious fuel for future metabolic activity. This is what we saw at Dancing Crow this year and the result was extremely vigorous canopy growth, building on a similar effect from the frost recovery described in the July blog.
Surprisingly, the primary method of reproduction for grape vines is not fruit and the resulting seeds, but the canes themselves because when these touch the ground they will begin to root. It is extremely efficient form of reproduction as every cane roots (100%) whereas perhaps only 1 in 500 seeds will produce a viable plant. (This is also why grapevines can be so easily cloned with a simple cutting). We trellis and train vines partly to prevent the canes from reaching the ground and thus encourage more fruit formation. With such potent canopy growth this year the vines said to themselves (as translated by winemaker David DeSante) “If we keep this up there’s no way we won’t reach the earth sooner or later. Who needs grapes?” The result was a smaller than usual crop, building again on the effects of the earlier frost damage.
Average yearly rainfall in Lake County ranges from 34” to 38’ depending on location and this year to date at Dancing Crow Vineyard we’ve received just over 14”. This is basically the same as a damp year in Phoenix and similar to the extreme conditions that are prevailing across the state. The lack of water further restricts the growth of the vines and can be especially significant later in the year when the condition of the leaves has a great impact on acidity levels in the fruit.
This all sounds rather dire, and it is certainly a challenge for our viticulturalists as both wildfires and drought may be the trend rather than the exception going forward, but the good news is that lower yields tend create higher quality wines and this certainly seems to be the case for 2021 – we saw near perfect chemistry at harvest with lovely fresh flavors and excellent acidity. This may well turn out to be a classic vintage.
In our Old Stake Vineyard, where many of the vines have been in the ground for a good many years (back to 1901 in some cases) we saw yields 10% above normal! We believe this is due to the soil composition in the Kelsey Bench where we see three distinct layers; alluvial at the top, volcanic below that and clay at the bottom, around 12 feet deep. Any water that drains through the Bench on its way from the Mayacamas mountains towards the Big Valley and Clearlake is held by the clay where the deep roots of the old vines can access it. In this very particular location, the old vines thrived as though there was no drought at all.
It is also worth noting that the recent fires destroyed many trees in the hills and mountains which means less water is being taken up by their roots and some waterways, both above and below ground, are showing a surprising flow despite the lack of rain.
This is the kind of complex micro-differentiation between growing areas that is the essence of that much maligned term “terroir.” It is also what makes grape farming so interesting. The wine made from each year’s grapes will express these differences more clearly than any other agricultural product.