Winemaker Pauline Lhote Calls the Harvest Mood in Napa Valley ‘Celebratory’ and Fruit Quality ‘Excellent’ Despite Water Challenges this Growing Season
Sparkling wine maker Chandon California officially and ceremoniously announced the start of Napa Valley’s wine harvest on August 4th, with Head Winemaker Pauline Lhote calling one of the first picks of the 2021 season. Grapes for California’s sparkling wines are often harvested earlier than those of still wines, and Chandon began harvesting grapes around 2:00am, bringing in almost 32 tons of Chardonnay from its Yountville estate vineyard. Kicking off Napa Valley’s first harvest season post-quarantine, the Chandon team gathered together for the winery’s traditional first pick celebration as Pauline led a sparkling toast to “all we have been through together this past year and a happy, safe and successful harvest.”
One of the biggest challenges for Napa Valley grape growers and wineries this year was water. As part of a larger drought pattern emerging statewide, different regions within Napa County received between 60% and 70% less rainfall than is average this rainy season. Asked how weather conditions will impact this year’s wine quality, “In spite of the lack of rain and a few significant heat spikes, I am feeling incredibly optimistic about the quality of 2021 and excited to see some gorgeous, flavorful fruit with excellent acidity ready to come in,” said Pauline.
But these results didn’t come without some creative adjustments from Pauline, her all-female winemaking team, and Chandon’s veteran growers. Meticulous water management and a new approach to irrigation was needed this year, including increased irrigation earlier in the growing season to compensate for a dry winter and a high volume, less frequent irrigation program to compensate for low reservoir levels and conserve water as the season progressed.
…I am feeling incredibly optimistic about the quality of 2021 and excited to see some gorgeous, flavorful fruit with excellent acidity ready to come in,” said Pauline.
Also, given early spring cluster thinning to account for California’s dry winter, the yield in Napa Valley is down somewhat from previous years. But Pauline says, “What we lost in quantity in 2021 we’ll make up for with exceptional quality and flavor concentration. Every year is different in the vineyards, and just like our colleagues at Chandon’s six wineries around the globe, we know that delicious sparkling wine is not just a matter of growing conditions and harvest, but also a matter of experience and expertise during assemblage.”
Also, according to Pauline, “We are extremely fortunate that wine grapes use comparatively little water in the world of California agriculture, and that Chandon is able to farm for quality, not quantity.” Pauline and her team will also carefully manage picking schedules over the next four to six weeks, ensuring grapes are harvested at night and hit the press still cool and in prime condition. Once there, the grapes will be slow-pressed and sorted into separate tanks – each batched and handled according to its own texture, flavor, and character.
As one of the first sparkling wineries in the U.S. – and the first French-owned sparkling wine house in Napa – Chandon has had almost 50 years to perfect the pick and learn to gauge Napa Valley’s fruit quality. The verdict, according to Pauline, who is celebrating her 16th harvest at Chandon this year, “I’m confident that the 2021 vintage will produce wines of excellent, high quality. The Pinot Noir we’re bringing in has beautiful fruitful aromas, great flavors, and good acid, and the Chardonnays are exuding balance, with generous aromas and fantastic flavor development.” As far as the downside to an early start to this year’s sparkling wine production, says Pauline, “You have less time to sleep!”
Soon after Pauline popped the cork on a bottle of Chandon Yountville Vintage Brut she reflected on last year and the harvest ahead. “The magic of winemaking is capturing a place or a moment in time in a bottle. I think the 2021 vintage will taste that much better because of everything we’ve been through together this year.”