Higher yields as Arizona wine grape harvest nears

Higher yields as Arizona wine grape harvest nears

Mother Nature, elevation, and other factors will likely produce a good wine grape crop in Arizona this year. "The 2014 crop looks slightly larger than last year – our largest to date,” says Kent Callaghan, Callaghan Vineyards, Elgin, Ariz. At Flying Leap Vineyards, wind wreaked havoc this spring in vineyards, resulting in average-to-poor pollination and thinner clusters.

The 2014 Arizona wine grape harvest is only a few weeks away and most growers are expecting higher yields, depending on the area.

Vineyards lower elevations including Charron Vineyards in Vail, Ariz., located southeast of Tucson in south central Arizona, will begin harvesting grapes in mid-August. The higher elevation vineyards will pick fruit into October.

“The 2014 crop looks slightly larger than last year – our largest to date,” said Kent Callaghan, Callaghan Vineyards winemaker, Elgin, Ariz.

Callaghan’s harvest last year was “set and late but (with) great quality potential.”

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Ann Roncone, Lightning Ridge Cellars owner and winemaker in Elgin, added, “If we get through monsoon season without any damage, this will be a bumper crop - no question.”

Roncone says the closest year with this much fruit was 2010 tied to heavier rain and snow during the 2009-2010 winter.

“Surprisingly, this year’s distinctly mild winter hasn’t made for particularly early bud break and in terms of ripening (but), the crop is about where it should be this time of year.” 

Curt Dunham, owner and winemaker of Lawrence Dunham Vineyards specializes in Rhone varietal production at 5,000-ffet-in-elevation in the Chiricahua Mountain foothills in southeastern Arizona.

“With bud break coming about two weeks early, we were preparing for the potential for an early harvest,” Dunham said. “Now possibly due to a relatively cool month of May, we don’t really anticipate an early harvest happening right now as the grapes look about right on schedule.”

He expects to pick white grapes in late August and red grapes in mid-September. Dunham’s grapes appear smaller than last year but with a good fruit set.

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Flying Leap Vineyards owner Mark Beres said, “Following an unusually mild winter, our vines at our properties in the Kansas Settlement in Cochise County broke buds in mid-March, leading with Sangiovese as always.”

Usually, vines at the estate vineyard break bud 4-6 weeks after the Kansas Settlement vineyards, and 2014 was consistent with that trend.

Strong winds

Unrelenting strong winds which caused challenges in April and May were mentioned by many of the vineyards. Average daily wind speed in the area was 20-plus mph with numerous days with peak gusts above 50 miles per hour.

The wind damage is worse in Kansas Settlement than in Sonoita-Elgin.

“The wind wreaked havoc on our vineyards, resulting in average-to-poor pollination. As a result, we have thin clusters this year in several varietals, but it seems worse in Grenache Noir,” Beres said.

MJ Keenan, owner and winemaker of Caduceus Cellar and Buhl Memorial Vineyard, has six vineyard sites in the Verde Valley ranging from one acre to 30 acres, each in fairly diverse settings.

Keenan’s vineyards are high in elevation with southeast facing slopes to a dry farmed floodplain.

“Across the board, everything woke up a bit early,” Keenan said.

“The high heat and heinous winds toppled 35 percent of the shoots in our Syrah blocks and have required watering about two times a week. The winds also helped thin our crop and the increased evaporation rates have kept the berry size in the ideal range for premium wine grape production.”

The Monsoon season is behind schedule so far this year making water a concern.

Dunham said, “We typically get some afternoon monsoon buildups in June and some heat relief with a bit of humidity.”

With the first monsoon rain on July 1, the plants are slightly stressed from the heat.

“We have had high temperatures in the low-to-mid 90’s for almost the entire month of June so the rain is welcomed,” Dunham said.

Severe drought

In addition to the winds, Dunham had a severe drought with no measurable rainfall since March.

The ongoing dry spell and early, extreme area heat are forcing us to task our groundwater to our well's capacity,” said Beres.

“Overall, we expect a below-average yield this year across varietals, but with concentrated flavors, due to Mother Nature having thinned our crop for us naturally.”

He added, “Veraison is still eluding us, and we expect to begin harvesting in mid-to-late August in Kansas Settlement and mid-to-late September at our estate vineyard in Sonoita-Elgin.”

“The strength of the forthcoming monsoon will be a key thing in both parched areas. Due to the El Nino and prolonged dry spell, we expect violent afternoon thunderstorms in southeastern Arizona, so we've inspected and set our surge protectors and stocked up on spare parts for our irrigation system (i.e. solenoids).”

Roncone agreed, “The vines should start to change color pretty soon (veraison), which means their nutrition needs (will) shift. Keeping an eye on the micronutrient levels is important. For nutrients, it is like Goldilocks’ time of the year – not too much, not too little – it needs to be just right.”

Looking good

Kief Manning, owner-winemaker at Kief Joshua Vineyards in Sonoita agreed.

“Harvest is looking really good,” Manning said. “We had a couple of small bouts of frost this spring, but it was very spotty and didn’t seem to do much damage.”

The season has been very hot and dry so Manning is anticipating harvest several weeks early – late August - most likely with Viognier and Riesling.

Chris Turner, vineyard manager at Caduceus Cellars and Buhl Memorial Vineyard, echoed Keenan’s comment about the early awakening in the vineyard.

“It was mid-March when the historic 80-acre Al Buhl Memorial Vineyard in Kansas Settlement (Cochise County) emerged,” he said. “This is our first year farming grapes down south and one of the things we have learned is that the extreme weather conditions created added stress to our vines.”

Keenan said, “We narrowly missed the late spring frost, and knock (on) wood we haven’t seen any significant hail yet this season. Not much rain to speak of either.”

When you add all that up, Keenan says you get a very early harvest a minimum of two weeks earlier in all vineyards.

On June 30, Keenan saw the Tempranillo berries at our northern and southern Arizona sites begin to change color and expects the other varieties to follow in mid-July.

Callaghan agreed with Beres, “Clusters are looser on all varieties, thanks to a windy May and June.”

However, Manning disagreed, “Flowering and fruit set were huge this year probably due to zero rain during flowering and the fact that the spring winds started later. So there were no interruptions,” he said.

Large crop

Many vineyard owners statewide are predicting another big crop and very high quality vintage. This is needed to continue building Arizona’s reputation for producing good wines made with Arizona grapes.

Manning added, “We are bottling round the clock to try and get tanks emptied for the large crop we are expecting, and due to the large harvest we had last year.” Dunham agreed, “I don’t want to be caught off guard like last year which required a lot of last minute barrel and tank orders so we are making space in the winery now.”

Roncone expects a normal harvest season from late August through late October. Monsoon season may tweak that a bit, but the fruit now may be slightly early.

His Muscat Canelli, Malvasia, and Primitivo grapes should be the first fruit harvested.

Arizona wines continue to receive recognition with consumers and respected publications, plus awards in competitions with the best wines in the world.

The number of vineyard acres is growing, wine production is increasing, and the wine quality is recognized.

Abundant opportunities

Peggy Fiandaca, president of the Arizona Wine Growers Association, said, “The opportunities of the Arizona wine industry continue to be abundant with our regions demonstrating the ability to grow exceptional grapes.”

“Arizona winemakers produce wines that are distinctive and gaining a strong reputation,” Fiandaca said.

“If growth continues on this positive trajectory,” Fiandaca said, “The Arizona wine industry can be the next billion-dollar wine region like Washington and Oregon.”

(Note: Western Farm Press thanks the Arizona Wine Growers Association for their contributions to this article.) 

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