PHOENIX - Last year's harvest was described by Kent Callaghan, winemaker with Callaghan Vineyards located in Elgin and a pioneer in the Arizona wine industry as "wet and late but great quality potential."
The 2014 harvest season is only a few weeks away and this year like past years is anticipated to be very different. It is the nature of farming in Arizona's wine country.
Vineyards located at low elevations such as Charron Vineyards in Vail, Arizona (just southeast of Tucson) start bringing in their grapes in mid-August and the higher elevation vineyards will be harvesting into October. "The 2014 crop looks slightly larger than last year - our largest to date" Callaghan said.
Ann Roncone, owner and winemaker of Lightning Ridge Cellars in Elgin, "If we get though monsoon season without any damage, this will be a bumper crop, no question. The closest year we had this much fruit was 2010, which I believe was because of the heavier rainfall 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, the crop is about where it should be this time of year."
Curt Dunham, owner and winemaker of Lawrence Dunham Vineyards specializes in Rhone varietals growing at 5,000 foot 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," he 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. However, we project white grape picking in late August and the red grapes starting to be harvested in mid-September. The berries seem a bit smaller than last year but we have a good fruit set."
Flying Leap Vineyards is reporting an interesting growing season thus far. According to owner Mark Beres, "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." "In general, the vines at our estate vineyard break bud 4-6 weeks after our Kansas Settlement vineyards, and 2014 was consistent with that trend."
Unrelenting strong winds which caused challenges in April and May were mentioned by many of the vineyards. Beres said, "Average daily wind speed in the area was 20-plus mph, with numerous days seeing peak gusts in excess of 50 mph. 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 to be the worst in Grenache Noir."
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. His vineyards include high elevation southeast facing slopes to 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 made watering almost a two times a week event. But 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 a bit behind schedule 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." But with the first monsoon rain not appearing until July 1, the plants are a little 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."
"In addition to the winds, we've 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 continued, "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 shift. Keeping an eye on the micronutrient levels is important. For nutrients, it is like Goldlilock's time of the year - not too much, not too little - it needs to be just right."
Kief Manning, owner/winemaker at Kief Joshua Vineyards in Sonoita agreed, "Harvest is looking really good. 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 we are anticipating harvest to be possibly a couple weeks early. We're probably looking at starting harvest at the end of 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."
"We narrowly missed the late spring frost, and knock wood, we haven't seen any significant hail yet this season," Keenan said. "Not much rain to speak of either. When you add all that up you get a very early harvest; minimum of two weeks earlier in all vineyards." "On June 30 we observed the Tempranillo berries at our northern and southern Arizona sites had begun to change color and expect the other varieties to follow 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.
Many vineyards statewide are predicting another big crop and very high quality vintage which is exactly what is needed to continue building Arizona's reputation for producing great wines made from 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."
On the other hand, Roncone said, "It is really looking like it will be a normal harvest season for us, which is late August through late October. Monsoon season may tweak that a bit, but with how the fruit looks now, it shouldn't be exceptionally earlier than what we are used to. Our Muscat Canelli, Malvasia, and Primitivo are always the first to be harvested."
Turner said, "Historically, our harvest begins the first week of August and ends with our Jerome Nebbiolo harvested in early November."
Arizona wines continue to receive much recognition with consumers and respected publications as well as 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 being recognized.
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, and Arizona winemakers producing wines that are distinctive and gaining a strong reputation. If growth continues on this positive trajectory, the Arizona wine industry can be the next billion-dollar wine region like Washington and Oregon."
The Arizona wine industry will celebrate the fruits of their labor at the annual Festival at the Farm at South Mountain November 14 and 15. The Arizona Republic announces the winners of the annual wine competition at a reception on Friday November 14, at Quiessence at The Farm. At the festival on Saturday, participants can taste the award-winning wines, sample wines while talking to winemakers from around the state, attend educational seminars, listen to music, enjoy a picnic lunch under the Pecan trees, and hopefully walk away with the winning bid for an incredible live/silent wine auction packages.