Concluding just-drinks' harvest reports for 2006, we cross the Atlantic to take a look at the 2006 crop in the US. Anne Brockhoff reviews the harvest in the country's largest and most prominent wine region California, while Ben Cooper reports on this year's vintage in Washington and Oregon.

California

California's 2006 grape harvest proved a nail-biter, with a protracted growing season and a drop in yields. Production is expected to reach 3m tons this year, down 21% from 2005, according to USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service. Still, that's actually closer to normal, experts say.

"It was a decent crop, with yields pretty close to average across the board," says Nick Frey, executive director of the Sonoma County Wine Grape Commission. "Growers were anxious to get the harvest in, but they're optimistic about quality."

Napa and Sonoma county vineyards got off to a slow start after below average spring temperatures delayed bud break, which was a boon, since berries were still green when record-breaking heat hit in mid-July. August and September were cool and foggy, further slowing ripening.

October rains damaged portions of the Chardonnay crop, but Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc and other varieties benefited from longer-than-normal hang times, and the NASS and winemakers say quality looks good. "It was a long and late harvest and one that has produced extraordinary wines that are rich and well balanced," says Daniel Baron, winemaker at Silver Oak Cellars in Oakville.

"This was a vintage that required growers and winemakers to be ever vigilant," adds Bill Knuttel, winemaker at Dry Creek Vineyard in Healdsburg. "At the least, it is a very good vintage."

However, storage proved a challenge for an industry still reeling from 2005's record 3.8m-ton harvest. Tanks and barrels remain full, and that problem will persist until those wines sell through the market, Frey says.

This year's smaller harvest was a relief especially for growers in the Central Valley or other regions that supply large producers of value wines, says Barbara Insel, managing director of MKF Research LLC in St. Helena. "Wine sales are growing steadily 10% year-on-year, but that's more so on the higher end, over US$15 a bottle," Insel says. "Wines under $8 are not doing so well, and that affects storage in the Central Valley."

Ample supply also means tepid pricing. Wine grape prices collapsed after the so-called "grape glut" earlier this decade. Prices began stabilising last year, Insel says, but growers with excess grapes or grapes not already under contract still struggled to find buyers this year.

That's particularly true for Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, which are in abundant supply. However, Pinot Noir prices strengthened due to stronger demand for Pinot wines. Chardonnay also showed some recovery, partly because rain damage reduced the crop, but also because "Chardonnay was really starting from the bottom," Frey says.

While price pressure and oversupply in recent years prompted some bulk wine grape growers to rip out vines, acreage is holding steady in premium growing areas. Sonoma County is even seeing limited new plantings for the first time in three years.

Washington
 
In Washington State, where around 30,000 acres of vineyards are currently cultivated covering more than 20 wine grape varieties, the Washington Wine Commission (WWC) is anticipating a high quality harvest for 2006, thanks in no small part to the region's warmest summer for ten years. The WWC's communications director Deborah Daoust described the estimated crop size as "moderate", at around 123,000 tons.

Abundant spring rains prepared the soil for the long, warm summer and early sugar accumulation resulted. Cooler weather in the third week of September provided for long hang time for Merlot, Cabernet and Syrah.  Overall, most of the state's grape growing areas experienced early maturation and harvest but maturation was slower at higher altitudes, notably along the Blue Mountains in the Walla Walla appellation, and the harvest was also affected by spot rains during the third week of October. 

Although the summer was very warm and dry, cooler temperatures during the ripening period have resulted in good acidity, especially in the growing areas known for high quality Riesling, the WWC reports.  Colour development in the reds has been "exceptional".

A solid freeze during the first week of November allowed for some harvesting of grapes that had been left on the vines for ice wine. Washington wine company Chateau Ste. Michelle welcomed the freeze in Eastern Washington, harvesting ice wine for only the fifth time in its history on 31 October. The winery picked both Riesling grapes (at 36 brix) and Chenin Blanc grapes (at 37 brix) to make two different ice wines this year.

Oregon

The Oregon Wine Board is anticipating mature flavours from the 2006 wines, and the plentiful quantity will increase general consumer access to quality Oregon wine. Throughout the entire state, a warm and dry growing season with little rainfall and no disease pressure resulted in a rare combination of robust yields and great quality, the Oregon Wine Board said.

"The surge in popularity of Oregon wine has led to a noticeable shortage in the marketplace," said Ted Farthing, executive director of the Oregon Wine Board. "The rare combination of greater yields and ideal flavour development will allow our industry to restock those empty shelves and continue to satisfy adventurous wine lovers."

Thanks to fine weather at bloom and an extended, warm growing season, growers with heavier crop loads than in the past were blessed with fully ripened and mature fruit. Overall, yields are well up from the previous two harvests, when smaller fruit sets and climatic factors reduced volumes.

Fruit set was ideal with a mild spring, although wetter in some regions than others. Months that followed were warm and dry, with short-lived heat spikes in June and September, advancing fruit ripeness. Continued warmth in September and October, despite intermittent cooling rains, resulted in a compressed harvest, conducted at a frenzied pace by many wineries.

In the Willamette Valley, increased yields brought overall harvest volumes back to historic levels and higher. Advanced ripeness produced higher sugars and moderate acids but also concentrated flavours and balance. Growers thinned but ultimately saw larger crop loads, and are expecting very high quality Pinot Noirs from the 2006 vintage.

In Southern Oregon (Umpqua, Rogue and Applegate Valleys), a warm, wet spring initially slowed the development of grapes but warmer weather moved in to accelerate ripening. According to the Oregon Wine Board, favourable weather conditions resulted in even and full ripeness for varieties that sometimes struggle to ripen in cooler years, and more structured wines with maturity and ageing potential are expected.

The Eastern Oregon (Columbia Gorge, Columbia Valley and Walla Walla Valley) region saw a delayed growing season, but warmer temperatures in July made up for this. The crop size is up on last year and the 2006 wines are reported to be well balanced with full flavours.

Record volumes are expected from the Walla Walla Valley, but this is partly attributable to an expansion of the vineyard area, and there are some reports that yields of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah are actually down from 2005. A cool, wet spring delayed development by approximately one week and July brought extremely warm temperatures. A cool-down period returned in late-September, slowing the ripening period. Harvest came at a moderate pace, with a four- to six-week period for most producers that ended before the freeze set in at the end of October.