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Pinot Noir leads the way in a promising Santa Cruz Mountains fruit set

“Vines in such good, healthy condition as they are now might well mean great bud differentiation for the 2018 vintage,” Foxx says.

With fruit set in the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA completed in the third week of June viticulture consultant Prudy Foxx was more than a little pleased with conditions in most of the vineyards, especially the Burgundy varieties.

Based in Santa Cruz, Calif., Foxx Viticulture works with wine grape growers throughout the appellation. It includes 1,500 acres of vineyards and straddles the Santa Cruz Mountains between Monterey Bay and the Silicon Valley.

“I’m excited about the set,” she says. “It wasn’t perfect, but it was close to it, especially in vines that bloomed a bit earlier, before the June gloom and a showery week early in the month. The mild, favorable May weather conditions produced a consistent set in the Pinot Noir. I really like the formation of the clusters this season with their classic shapes and even-size berries.”

Growers here are likening it to 2010, she notes.” I don’t think this year’s set was like the blockbuster 2013, but I do think it’s a full crop, at least in the Burgundies and Rhones.” 

The consistency of the clusters, combined with strong root and cane growth, resulting from abundant winter rainfall and even spring weather, also bodes well for the longer term, she adds.

“Vines in such good, healthy condition as they are now might well mean great bud differentiation for the 2018 vintage,” Foxx says.

This year’s bloom occurred about a week later than last year and seems within normal range, not counting the unusually early flowering of the recent drought years. For the appellation, as a whole, the bloom began in early May and continued into mid-June. However, for individual vineyards, the bloom came and went in two to three weeks with about 10 percent of the clusters straggling behind.

Foxx points to the Pinot Noir set as particularly promising. “Because it’s the most environmentally sensitive of the varieties we grow here, just about any nutrient deficiency or temperature fluctuation during the Pinot Noir set can result in big and little berries or even pure shatter, depending on the clone and site.

“This is the kind of year when, because of the very distinctive shapes of the clusters, you know which specific clone of Pinot Noir you’re looking at.” 

A late spring rain did contribute to some shatter in some sites with late full bloom, she adds.

“We’re seeing a notable percentage of classic hens and chicks formations and some outright shatter of clusters,” Foxx says. “This seems to be especially the case in some Bordeaux varieties and late-blooming Burgundies. Dense canopies that developed from the big winter rains compromised some clusters during late spring showers because they did not dry out as quickly.”

The vines have taken advantage of the abundant winter water in the system to produce numerous laterals and vigorously-growing canopies. And that has added to the workload in the vineyards, Foxx said.

“We’ve needed to go through the vines several times to keep up with the growth,” she says. “Compounding the problem is a scarcity of qualified workers, due to competition from higher paying row crops and a general reduction in the labor force because of the current political climate.”

The wet soils also flushed out damaging salts that had been building up in the root zones during the drought, she adds, clearing the way for vines to access natural minerals in the soil. “This makes for stronger vines in the long run, but, short-term, it ramps up pressure to clear canopy for light and air penetration.”

Shoot thinning and leaf pulling was in full swing as the season progressed into the last half of June. While this year’s large canopies require more work to keep air flowing through them to reduce disease risks, they probably helped protect the young fruit from the sun and searing temperatures in mid-June when a heat wave spread over much of California, she notes.

Foxx is expecting veraison to begin in the vineyards on the east side of the Santa Cruz mountains at the middle of July, followed two to three weeks later on the west side as clusters turn translucent and color.

Meanwhile, another consequence of the wet winter is excessive weed growth. Thousands of weed seeds just waiting in the soil for the right conditions to sprout have flourished in the vineyards this season. “We’re seeing weed species we haven’t seen in years.” Foxx says.

Most of her growers rely on mechanical methods to control weeds. Typically, they go into the vineyards with their weed-fighting tools about once each spring. This year they’ve already battled the weeds back two or three times. Even her growers using herbicides have had to spray their vineyards more than once this spring, she notes.

Overall, the vineyards in her area are very clean in terms of disease. However, some growers have had to contend with the perennial outbreak of late-season mildew in some of the more sensitive vines or vines with more vigorous canopies, as well as those unprotected by a consistent spray program.

In addition to an uptick in mite numbers, she reports some of her vineyards are under increased pressure from mealybugs and the ants that seek out the honeydew produced by the mealybugs.

This may reflect the impacts of the drought of the past several years. In fact, she reports finding the largest infestations of insect pests as well as some types of root and wood diseases especially in vineyards that produced a large crop and experienced greater water stress during the past three years of drought.

“Like some other viticulturists, I suspect that irrigating vineyards to support a heavy crop during the drought wasn’t enough to prevent vine water stress,” she says. “That left them more vulnerable to insect and disease damage. So, I’m advising growers whose vineyards experienced a lot of drought and/or nutrient stress to be especially watchful for these external disease threats this year.”

Looking farther ahead, Foxx sees the potential for a great season for wine grape growers in her area.

“If growers are diligent in caring for their canopies and monitoring their vineyards for insect or disease infestation, this could well be a fantastic year,” she says. “With the kind of healthy cluster structures we’re seeing now, the fruit should be able to better withstand any environmental extremes later in the season. The well-formed berries offer a great opportunity for development of complex phenolic compounds in the fruit and excellent flavors in the wine.”

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