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Rain, Rain, Go Away!

Weathermen have delivered an unpleasant forecast for this Tuesday, rain and plenty of it. Northern California is due to get at least 2 - 3 inches of rain in one day. In some places, like the Sierras, as much as 8 inches may fall.

This is a bad time for a big rain in wine country. While many wineries have already harvested the majority of their grapes, some have not. The bulk of the white wine grapes and Pinot Noir are happily fermenting by now. Red varietals that take longer to ripen, especially those in cool climate areas, are still hanging on the vines though. Particularly at risk are Syrah, Zinfandel and, in some areas, Cabernet Sauvignon.


Why the concern? There are three primary reasons. In order of increasing importance they are physical damage, mildew and rot, and excessive plumping of the grapes.

Extremely hard rains can damage the fruit. If the storm is wild enough, grapes may be bruised, the skins broken and, in extreme cases, bunches may actually get knocked off of the vines. This is much more of a risk with hail. Fortunately, hail is unlikely right now.

The second issue is the potential for mildew or rot. This can occur if the post-rain weather isn’t warm and/or windy enough for the surface of the grapes to dry quickly.   As you would imagine, mildew and rot don’t make for tasty wine. The winemakers I talked to this weekend don’t expect serious rot or mildew to result from this storm though.

The most worrisome issue is simply that the grapes are thirsty now and a big rain may plump them up too late in the season. For high-quality red wines, you want a high ratio of skin to juice. You want small berries. That is one of the reasons good draining soils are so important for top wines. Too much juice dilutes the flavors, tannins and color.

When rain comes earlier in the season, the vines drink up and the grapes get juicy but there is plenty of time for the soil to drain and the grapes to slim down again in the summer heat. Now, however, there may not be enough warm weather left for that to happen. Growers can let the grapes hang and hope that they dehydrate a bit. But that puts the fruit at risk of frost damage. With plump grapes, you get less concentration. Frost damaged grapes are totally unusable.

Job one for farmers is to reduce risk. Since all of the winemakers and winegrowers had plenty of warning about the incoming storm, they have been rushing to harvest over the past few days. They would rather have grapes that are slightly less ripe than ones that are too juicy or, worse yet, damaged.

Early harvest can also cause issues though. Is there room in the wineries’ fermenters for all of the grapes? Are the grapes’ sugar levels high enough and acid levels low enough? How is the phenolic ripeness? And, if everyone is in a rush to harvest, are there enough vineyard workers available? Growing grapes and making wine are not low-stress occupations.

This article is original to Copyright 2010 NorCal Wine. All rights reserved.

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