“The 2021 vintage was all about patience”- Mark Neal. His 54th harvest year in Napa”
Drought years bring sporadic weather. Starting 2021 with the second year of the drought left us with an extremely long frost season, tempered heat, light rain during the season during pollination and many days of fog during the summer. Each day felt like a new challenge in 2021, however it is something Mark has seen before with years like 1976 and 1977. Napa is blessed to have a climate like the Mediterranean, which is influenced by the fog. The fog rolls in from San Pablo and the nearby coast throughout the night and controls the warmth of the day. This year was exceptional by the number of fog days, keeping the morning cool while still gaining the warmth needed during the day and the UV rays to photosynthesize. Mother Nature and climate are important aspects for wine quality each vintage. So is the farmer! However, the climate makes the most influence in terms of terroir. It takes alot for the other two that contribute to terroir (soil and topography) to change.
The amount of foggy mornings in 2021 was amazing and much needed. It reminded me of the great vintages of the 70’s through the mid 90’s. It helps the grapes slowly ripen vs. ripen quickly in dry, hot heat. Wines have more balance, integration and depth from years withlonger seasons. “It’s all about patience and looking at full phenolics and really understanding the harmony in the field,” says Mark.
The winter was dry, mild and less than half of normal rainfall, no different than 2020.
Bud Break – mid March in 2021
This season “shifted” earlier this year because of the drought and a bright, sunny spring. Remember – a vintage begins with budbreak and ends with harvest. Does this affect the grapes if it’s early, late or right on time? Not too much, because they still operate on the same calendar no matter when the season starts. Are there factors that can speed up and slow things down? Yes but not by much.
At this point of the farming year, the biggest battle is frost. Frost can come in during early spring and freeze the new leaves off the vine. If frozen in the late spring, this can completely ruin the harvest year. There are many ways to protect from frost including wind machines, water sprinklers, and smudge pots. Keeping the cover crop below the fruit height is very important.
“The timing to use these tools is the bigger game. It could be a matter of 30 minutes that vineyards could be frosted if not protected in time. For frost nights we depend on alarms to wake us up as early as 3am to daybreak and watch temperatures on each ranch every 30 minutes to just after daybreak. The coldest part of the day is when the sun rises over the mountains.”
— Mark Neal
Drought years cause a lower dew point (moisture) in the air which can significantly drop temperatures and cause a dry frost which is worse than mornings with high dew points. This year, we had 42 nights of frost compared to an average of 11 per spring over the last decade. Vines can frost at 32 degrees Fahrenheit, so there are many factors to pay attention to.
Flowering & Pollination – April in 2021
This vintage started early with a shift of budbreak by 20-30 days than normal, flowering & pollination also shifted forward about 20-30 days. At this point, thoughts of a potentially earlier harvest season than normal was on its way. Wine grape flowers are self-pollinating plants but there are some years that are not always successful due to inadequate (or less than ideal) weather patterns. For example, like years 2011 and 2015 it rained during pollination, knocking off flowers and causing most farmers to lose approximately half their crop those years.
Fruit Set & Berry Swell – early/mid May thru June
After pollination, the fruit is “set” and those berries swell with water, acids and proteins. During this time of the year, farmers need to control the vine , monitoring irrigation as well as canopy management. A vine left in the wild will source more of its energy in creating leaves and tendrils to climb for light rather than focus on those carbohydrates for the fruit. Canopy management includes leafing (removing extra leaves) and green thinning & suckering (removing extra clusters). This allows more air flow if it rains and enables farmers to control how much light is received by the grapes.
Farmers and winemakers alike religiously look at a specific time during the growing season: the 45 days between berry set and veraison. This crucial +/- 45 days will determine when harvest approximately will happen and how much crop farmers & wineries will have for the vintage.
This season the amount of foggy mornings and warm days was remarkable and brought back the memory of the 70s through the mid 90’s in those notable vintages. It was incredible to see the wet fog back. It actually gives me chills to see the fog back in the mornings to curb the potential hot days to be cooler, because that’s really where the wine quality starts specially from berry development through to veraison and there after.
Veraison – mid July in 2021
Things are moving pretty quickly at this point. Grapes finish swelling to their size (which varies due to drought, heat, elevation, variety, clone, and more) and are now converting water to sugar. Around the valley, grapes turn green to purple in a matter of a week.
Harvest – late August too late October
This time of the year, winemakers and farmers are out multiple times a week to determine cluster weight, volume, acids, ph, brix (which are old school). In the past decade or so we have added in other determining phenolic factors. This would include seed, grape skin maturity and tannins ripeness. The whole farming aspect is different between growers, and the decision to pick is very different from winemaker to winemaker. We haven’t seen many days over 100 degrees like we did in 2015, 2017, 2019. This high temperature affects how much color and tannin the wines will have. 2021 was less consistent in temperature which caused most winemakers to play the waiting game to harvest. For us at Neal Vineyards, we decided to wait and then it really cooled down which allowed our fruit to hang longer than most. Our Howell Mountain Block 7 was actually the first Cabernet Sauvignon grapes to be received. With patience, watching the weather closely, tasting the fruit, and seeing the results from our lab we ended up harvesting the rest of Howell Mountain and finishing around October 22nd. We typically harvest our Rutherford valley floor Cabernet Sauvignon grapes first but this year that wasn’t the case either. We pulled in our fruit right before the rains during the last few days of October. This further demonstrates that this year was very unpredictable. Through weather extremes and drought, Mark has seen these kinds of years many times before. With his hands on experience here in the valley, he knows how to farm these years to produce the same high quality grapes
This year will be a winemaker’s year.
Years like this one, with sporadic weather where farmer’s had less control due to mother nature, will be what Mark calls “winemaker years.” On the contrary, years like 2005, 2007, 2012, 2018 are “grower years” because mother nature was kind and easy to work with and in turn it is easier to make good wine.
We are extremely confident of our two winemakers, Martin Mackenzie and Jeff Keene, who have been working diligently & passionately every day. In January 2022, our winemakers will release their notes and perspective on the 2021 vintage and what is happening in the cellar.