Judging by early results from the unusually early start to this year’s harvest, California’s 2016 wine grape production could total no higher than average, if that much, reports Jeff Bitter, vice president of operations for Allied Grape Growers cooperative.
The prospect of a light crop has left some buyers scrambling to line up fruit, pushing up prices on the spot market from last year and holding out the promise of restoring balance to the state’s wine industry, which currently is sitting on excess supplies of some varietals.
Harvesting of the earliest-maturing varieties in the far-south end of the Central Valley began the first week of July. Farther north in the Valley’s main wine-grape producing area from Fresno and Madera Counties to the Lodi area, growers began picking lower-sugar varieties for sparkling wines as well as Pinot Grigio and Muscat Canelli for still wines in the last week of July, Bitter notes.
“So far, yields have been coming in under earlier estimates,” he says. “Nothing is coming in heavy.”
Bitter speculates the past three and four years of drought is taking its toll on production as vines direct some of their energy from producing berries to simply surviving the stress of limited water supplies. That, for example, might have reduced differentiation of last year’s fruit buds which gave rise to this year’s crop.
Spells of hot weather in June and July didn’t help either, stunting berry growth as vines responded to the heat. What’s more, growers are seeing some fairly loose clusters, indicating a less-than-strong fruit set following bloom.
Meanwhile, sugar readings, including those of red varieties, are rising quickly – another indication of a smaller crop, he notes. “Brix levels are going through the roof. Early wines, like Pinot Grigio and Muscat Canelli, have been reaching or even exceeding target Brix levels earlier than usual.”
This will require wineries to adjust their processing to deal with higher alcohol content and changes in the acids and pH ratios resulting from over-ripe grapes, he notes.
Bitter predicts a quick end to this year’s harvest. “It’s coming on fast and furious,” he says. “I don’t see it dragging out.”
Expectations of a light crop this year have stabilized spot market prices of some wine grape varieties and lifted prices of others, depending on the region. “Even the market for Chardonnay, which was weak a year ago due to surplus grapes, has strengthened considerably this year,” he says.
North Coast spot market prices have increased significantly, Bitter reports. “Not a lot of North Coast grapes are available this year,” he says. “There are multiple bidders, especially for Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir. Supplies of certain white varieties, like Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Blanc, are also short. If you want to buy in this area, you’ll have to get in line.”
In the Central Coast, he expects availability of Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignon, which was extremely short last year, to remain limited this year. Also, the Pinot Noir crop here appears to be light, Bitter notes.
Overall, a light 2016 California wine grape crop could pay off for both growers and wineries, Bitter notes.
“It would help correct the over-supply of wine at the lower end of the market and should encourage buyers in the upper end to look at alternative areas where supplies are currently high,” he says. “That would help balance the industry and achieve our quest for stability in the market.”