Excitement Among the Vines: Temecula Valley Winemakers Count Down to Harvest
While you have probably just parked yourself in front of your air conditioning vents for the foreseeable future, the vines out there in Wine Country are working hard to produce the fruit that will go into your favorite Temecula Valley wines. And, as we swelter through these dog days of summer, our attention begins to turn to the approaching harvest season.
It’s been an interesting year for this sun-soaked wine region. It may seem hard to remember right now with temperatures in the 90s but it wasn’t too long ago that Temecula Valley was going through an unusually long and cold winter, with some parts even seeing snow and hail. After quite a few dry years, Temecula also saw ample winter rainfall as well as a slower start to the summer heat.
What does this all mean for the vines? We caught up with a few Temecula Valley winemakers to get their take on the 2023 harvest season, and what we can expect for this year’s vintage.
STILL A WAYS TO GO
Everyone we spoke to says that harvest is still at least a few weeks away. “We are projecting starting harvest the last week of August this year,” says Wiens Family Cellars winemaker Brian Marquez. “We are about three weeks behind the last few years.”
Most in the region agree, noting the difference in weather patterns this year. “Due to the extended cold weather and rain this year, we are estimating that harvest will begin around the 3rd week of August with our white varietals,” says Kristina Filippi, winemaker at Wilson Creek. Notes Olivia Bue, winemaker at Robert Renzoni Vineyards. “We have picked as early as July 13th back in 2016, but average for our Estate Pinot Grigio is typically first week in August.”
Things are running even slower over at Mount Palomar Winery, with winemaker James Rutherford noting that they will likely start picking in mid-September, a month later than they normally do. Winery owner and winemaker Nick Palumbo of Palumbo Family Vineyards is ready for anything. “Over the years we have looked to the second week of September as our launch point for harvest; but, as we all know, this is agriculture and things can change quickly, so we need to be ready for whatever mother nature sends our way,” he says.
Renato Saís, who makes wine for several Temecula Valley wineries, including Akash and Avensole, is encouraged by the slower pace of this year’s growing season. “From the unexpected amount of rain during late winter and spring, to the cool, rainy weather through late spring, everything popped late – bud break, flowering, berry set, and cluster set,” he says “Late July and no verasion? That tells me that even in Temecula, slowly but surely is possible. We’re expecting great quality – all we need is good, even ripening this summer and a successful harvest. The rest will take care of itself.”
A GOLDEN YEAR
From all accounts, 2023 could be a great year for Temecula, with conditions allowing the vines just the right amount of stress to create concentrated, flavorful fruit. The blend of cool and warm, dry, and moist conditions has led to longer hang-time for the grapes. This longer ripening process provides additional complexity and depth in both white and red wines. “It’s always better when we can stretch out our growing season with a later-starting harvest,” says Erick Erno, assistant winemaker at Bel Vino Winery. “The longer the growing period time between budbreak, flowering, and ripeness to harvest gives the grapes a better chance for fuller flavors and richer wines.”
Bue is confident that this year’s weather patterns mean great things for the 2023 harvest. “Thanks to the extended winter, consistent rainfall, and cool temperatures through spring, I feel very optimistic about the grape quality in Temecula Valley this year,” she says. “The vines were able to rest in dormancy to prepare for next season. The steady rainfall really allowed the water to slowly integrate into the soil, breaking down all salts and absorbing more essential nutrients, ultimately producing a happy, healthy atmosphere for vine growth. Yields are looking relatively higher than in the last few years as well.”
While many Temecula Valley locals were amazed by the heavy rains and cooler temperatures this past winter, most winemakers are careful to note that this is what Temecula weather used to be like regularly. “It looks like after a couple years of early-season harvests, we are back on track for what we would call ‘normal,’” says Palumbo. And, he likes what he’s seeing. “So far, we are pleased with the quality, and the yields are also on the upswing after a few lean years,” he says.
When it comes to wine, however, yields and canopy growth need to be carefully managed, since quantity without quality is never a good thing. While winemakers are delighted to see these higher yields, a lot of work goes into making sure there is still concentration and intensity of flavor as well. “We have been doing a lot of shoot thinning, leaf pulling and other work in order to balance the yield to vine ratio and we are excited to see what all this work provides,” says Palumbo.
“For canopy management, it’s always best to start with higher vigor situations that can be balanced with shoot thinning, rather than starting with low vigor,” echoes David Raffaele, winemaker at Somerset Winery. “We’ll see in the next coming weeks if and how heat can change things, but so far so good.”
As we move into the thick of summer, anticipation is high. There’s a palpable excitement in the air, and all eyes are on the vines.
For wine enthusiasts, the next few months present a golden opportunity to experience the energy of harvest season firsthand. Many wineries offer harvest tours, wine tastings, and events that will give you an insider’s look into the winemaking process.
Winemakers are also always happy to share what they’re most excited about with the coming harvest.
Marquez has earned a reputation for producing stellar white wines with high acid and gorgeous aromatics, and it looks like this year’s harvest will bring more opportunities to showcase his talents alongside fellow Wiens winemaker Joseph Wiens. “For the whites we are most excited for our vermentino,” he says. “And for the reds we are looking forward to working with Nebbiolo for the first time this year.”
Known for their leadership in regenerative agriculture and sustainability, Wilson Creek will be harvesting the results of these efforts. “The wines that I’m excited about and show a lot of promise this year are our Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel from our regeneratively farmed blocks,” says Filippi. “I’m also excited about our Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Barbera, and Petite Sirah.”
Gershon Bachus winemaker Dakota Denton feels good about the potential for quality and great yields this year, but he’s also looking forward to releasing wines from previous vintages that have been aging in barrel for quite some time. “I’m most excited this year for our 2018 Aquilo Act I, a 100% Cabernet Sauvignon,” he says. “We also have Act II and Act III (both Cabernet Sauvignon) coming out this summer.”
Lovers of Rhône varieties should have lots to look forward to as these are showing a ton of promise as well. “I’m really excited about out Estate Syrah this year,” says Doreen Prince, winery manager at Churon Winery. “It’s going to be beautiful!”
“Sangiovese always seems to look good around here and the Syrah and Viognier look especially promising,” adds Palumbo.
As Palumbo notes, Italian grapes also shine most years in Temecula Valley’s Mediterranean climate. “I’m excited for our 2023 Vermentino, and looking forward to differentiating the contrasting flavors, textures and overall styles by fermenting in three different tanks – cement, amphora, and stainless steel,” says Bue. “Barbera is also another personal favorite to make due to its natural high acidity, berry-forward flavor, and earthy tones. We just received a 93 pts from Wine Enthusiast for our 2020 Barbera, along with a 93pts on our 2018 Riserva Estate Barbera.”
Rick Buffington, owner and winemaker at Cougar Winery, has moved mountains when it comes to getting unique Italian grape varieties recognized by the TTB in California. It comes as no surprise that he loves to work with some of these indigenous varieties. “I’m most excited about the Ciliegiolo this year,” he says. “We should get twice as much as last year and the grapes look fantastic”
Rutherford adds a few other interesting players to his list of grapes he’s feeling good about this year. “We are looking forward to our return of our reinvigorated Sangiovese as well as our Carmenere, which looks particularly good,” he says. “It will also be a good year for Charbono as the fruit set was low, however the flavors will likely be more concentrated.”
Sometimes it’s not what’s on the vine but what happens in the cellar that gets winemakers’ gears turning. “Our Estate Reserve Chardonnay is always fun to work with because of the aging in oak barrels that gives those complex, layered flavors and rich tones that make it a fun wine to pair with food,” says Erno. “But truly each year gives a new foundation to fall in love with a wine or grape once again since no two harvests are the same and that makes it so unique.”
Like Erno, Saís feels the excitement is in the unexpected when it comes to harvest. “After 14 vintages here, I still experience something new,” he says. “It always surprises me how different every vintage is, no matter how many years we have been making wine. That’s truly the beauty of this industry.”