Or better yet, exceptional quality with not much quantity. Maybe that would be a better statement for the vintage. In either case, harvest started on August 22nd (the earliest ever) and finished on October 2nd (the second earliest ever). But to understand a little bit more of vintage, we need to look back just a hint earlier.
A drier and relatively warm winter for 2014-2015 caused the vines to bud out the earliest we’ve ever seen. A normal bud break for our Chardonnay would be the third week of March to the first week of April. Even with these bud breaks, frost is the major concern for the health of our harvest.
However, the bud break for Chardonnay in our high-elevation vineyards was the last week of February! I can’t tell you if this impacted the lower tonnages in the field, or if it’s the drought (or rains during flowering in May, etc.), but varieties that we pruned earliest seemed to have the smallest crop loads (compared to normal).
In the end, even though our harvest started unusually earlier, the actual amount of time from bud break to harvest was consistent with “normal” years.
So overall, the first aspect to take away from the 2015 vintage is that our production was down overall by some 30-50% depending on the variety. This is a statewide phenomenon to varying degrees with some regions being hit harder than others.
Although wine marketing and the media have done a good job of proliferating the concept that lower yields equal higher quality, this isn’t necessarily true. The opposite of over-cropping vines (or any fruit) does produce lower quality. That is a known fact. But just because we have a smaller crop doesn’t immediately mean higher quality.
But for this year, we seem to be blessed with incredible color and extraction on the reds and clean, fresh fruit characters on the whites. No doubt, people will start talking about intensity being the result of the drought (as less water for the plant means less water for the fruit which means less dilution of character). Once again, the opposite is correct in that over-watering vines produces diluted characters in the juice. But “under-watering” doesn’t necessarily mean more intensity. Instead the vine could shut down in a defensive mode and stop ripening the fruit (with a lack of water).
But all of this is mostly trying to explain something (fruit quality) by looking at just a couple aspects of the growing conditions. And unless you dry-farm your vineyards (which very few people do), you would be irrigating some to compensate for the drought. In our vineyards, we have soil-moisture monitors read every week throughout the growing season letting us know how much water is available to the vine (up to 5 feet in depth). This information is integrated into a database system looking at the last 40 years of farming as well as weather conditions coming up during the next week. We can then make well-informed decisions about irrigating that both focus on conservation and grape quality.
In all, we irrigated once during the growing season at Madroña, and we’ll put on one post-harvest irrigation to keep the vines healthy before going dormant.
The point is, I can’t say the intensity of the juices from the 2015 vintage are due to drought conditions. That could be part of it, but ultimately it’s more complicated than that. But I do know that we are super excited about the wines we’re tasting, and they’re only 3 weeks old! Inky black, great balance and wonderful fruit characters so far are the hallmarks of the vintage.
And I’ll take quality over quantity any time!