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Californian producers predict 2023 vintage will be ‘finest in years’

Published:  21 November, 2023

Following a late harvest and thus extra ripening time, Californian producers are predicting the 2023 vintage will be one of the ‘finest in years’, according to the Wine Institute – the membership board representing Californian wineries.

Harvest began late throughout California, running anywhere from two weeks to a full month behind normal timing. Many varieties reached maturity simultaneously, leading to a compressed harvest, whilst some wineries are expected to continue picking grapes into late November.

California accounts for approximately 80% of total US wine production, making it the world’s fourth-largest wine-producing region, and yields are reportedly up in many of its most notable sub-regions.

Steve Lohr, J. Lohr, president and CEO at J. Lohr Vineyard and Wines in San Jose, noted that the growing season was cool, wet and late for all his company’s vineyards, from Napa Valley to Monterey County to Paso Robles. J. Lohr picked its first 2023 grapes on 2 October.

“The thing that’s remarkably different this year is the sugars,” he said. “They’re coming up, but they’ve been slow. And the pH is lower than it has been in previous years across the board. 

“It’s been a nicely balanced year, and the quality has been so high. It has been really wonderful to see. The flavours are just off the charts, particularly for Pinot Noir and Syrah, as well as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc.”

As a result, yields are 20% to 25% higher than the initial estimates of Lohr’s vineyard team, and grapes reportedly arrived in pristine condition.

“I think the wines are going to be really rich and flavourful with maybe a little higher acid than normal,” Lohr added.

“This vintage may be similar to 1997 and 2005, where you have really high quality and higher-than-normal yields.”

Alpha Omega, in St. Helena, experienced a similarly wet winter and spring, with cool to moderate temperatures.

“We did drop some fruit and got a bit more aggressive with leafing to expose the fruit to the sun to help counter the cool temperatures and promote ripening and green character degradation,” said winemaker Matt Brain.

The fruit showed deep colour, complex flavours and aromas with good acidity levels, according to Brain. The resultant yields reportedly varied from average to heavy in some areas. 

“I love the complexity of the vintage,” he said. “I think that the sub-AVAs will be quite distinct this year, truly revealing the appellation and soil type.”

At Benziger Family Winery in Glen Ellen, Sonoma County, grapes also matured at a slow and steady pace.

“You could almost hear a sigh of relief coming from the soil from the abundant rain this winter,” said Lisa Amaroli, director of winemaking. 

“The vines grew vigorous canopies, which took some management to tame, but it also set us up for a long growing season. We were able to cut back irrigation by 50% or more and not water some blocks at all.”

Harvest began on 21 September, which was the latest start for Benziger since 2011. Amaroli estimated that 60% of the expected volume came in during a condensed, two-week window.

Meanwhile, Scheid Family Wines in Greenfield, Monterey County, began harvesting its sparkling wine grapes in late August – just a week past the average start date – but, overall, the season ran approximately three weeks behind. As of 16 October, the winery had picked just 40% of its acreage, compared to 80% at the same time in 2022.

“Mother Nature has been on our side and temperatures have been ideal during the past month,” said Heidi Scheid, the winery’s executive vice president. “With a late start, there is always the concern that we will get rains before harvest is complete.” 

To mitigate the risk, the winery dropped fruit in some late-ripening varieties. This was one of the coolest growing seasons in recent history, Scheid noted, characterised by heavy winter rains that replenished soil moisture, leached salts from the soil and increased vine vigour. 

“Both quality and yields look terrific this year,” she said, “and a lot of that is due to the abundant rainfall in the winter.”