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Third year’s the charm for grape harvest

Without reflecting on whether they were naught or nice, one thing is sure: Christmas 2015 came early for western Colorado grape growers.

Chard OM research 2015

Harvesting the 2015 Chardonnay at Colorado State University’s Ram’s Point Winery near Palisade.

A conflation of factors – plenty of late-season moisture in 2014, a mild winter and more moisture going into the growing season last spring – resulted in a grape crop that was larger, much larger in some cases, than even the most-optimistic grower would imagine.

The 2015 harvest “was fantastic,” said John Barbier of Maison La Belle Vie Winery in Palisade. “For the first time in 11 years, it was best I’ve seen.”

Barbier farms four acres of grapes, which he says gives him more control over the quality of his fruit.

Bruce Talbott of Talbott Farms in Palisade, who is the state’s largest wine-grape grower with about 130 acres of Vinifera grapes along with another 30 acres of cold-hardy hybrid varieties, said his crop this year came in well over early estimates.

“We knew there was a good crop but as we went through harvest we realized we had far more than we thought,” Talbott said. “We’d go out and start picking and say, ‘This looks like a normal crop,’ but then we’d pick 50 percent more than we thought.”

And it wasn’t over-cropping; there simply were more grapes – high-quality grapes – out there than anyone expected.

“Before harvest we estimated our crop would be around 460 tons and we came in something around 587 tons,” said Talbott, his voice still reflecting the immensity of the crop. “That’s 125 percent of what we thought when we started.”

And it wasn’t just in the Grand Valley. Growers in the North Fork Valley also report unexpectedly generous crops.

2015 Nancy's merlot

Some grape growers across western Colorado this fall reported their biggest harvest in a decade or more.

“Our crop this year was huge, the biggest I can remember,” said Devon Petersen of Alfred Eames Cellars in Paonia. “The berry size was good and the quality was excellent.”

And here’s the kicker: No one is claiming 2015 was a perfect year.

A cool, wet spring delayed the growing season by about two weeks or more before summer really kicked in.

While suitable heat spikes in August and September provided the necessary heat-degree days for maturation, the delayed entry resulted in some later-ripening varieties barely making it to ripe before the onset of cool fall weather.

“Shorter season varieties like Chardonnay, Gewurtztraminer and Merlot did fine,” Talbott said. “In fact, our whites, especially, had amazing production.

“But the longer-season grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and the Italian varietals, those need a whole season to finish ripening.”

Devon Petersen, who along with his father Eames makes noteworthy Pinot Noir and other varieties in the North Fork Valley, said the short summer there was a bit brief for Pinot Noir.

“Our (Pinot Noir) grapes got ripe but I would liked another week or so,” he said.

He held up two fingers less than an inch apart.

“Oh, the quality is very good but we were that close to being perfect,” he said, shaking his head. “Maybe two days before the grapes were perfect, it started to rain and we had to pick.”

Everyone said they could have done a few things differently to manage this year’s bumper crop, but then, how often does something like this happen?

“This is an anomaly,” cautioned Talbott. “I don’t see it happening again.”

Take it from Eames Petersen: If it does happen again, it likely won’t be next year.

‘It seems every three years we have a really big harvest,” he said, reflecting on previous vintages. “You go back to 2009, and then 2012 and now this year. It’s strange how it’s worked out that way.”

Strange? Yes. But nice? Yes, again.

(In my original article appearing in the Dec. 9 issue of The Daily Sentinel, I misstated the acreage of grapes farmed by Bruce Talbott. The correct total is reflected above.)

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