Montesquieu Winery 2011 Harvest Review: At Home and Abroad

November 9, 2011, by: Lisa Duff Khajavi

Red Hills Lake County November 4, 2011 photo by Hélène Mingot

A Challenging Year Bears Us Brilliant Fruit

Napa and Sonoma

No two harvests are exactly alike—each year brings its own unique mixture of variables to the table work with. As the years pass, we at Montesquieu Wines understand more and more just how fortunate we are to have a team with so much experience to draw from. This year is no exception, as growers and vintners around the world were on their toes with an especially challenging growing season!

It has been a very unusual vintage pattern this year, to say the least. Spring was very wet and cool, which caused late bud break resulting in a reduced yield as well as projections for a later than average harvest. Overall it was a very moderate summer with hardly any days in the 90s. As we reported in early September, the projections were for a light and late harvest, with concentrated yet balanced fruit.

Then came more rain through September, accompanied by persistent humidity. And then came more rain the first week of October.

We spoke last week with our winemaker Hélène Mingot in the cellar at our Howell Mountain facility to hear her thoughts on the 2011 harvest in Napa and Sonoma. Even though she had numerous cellar duties to attend to, Hélène was happy to take the time to share some good news.

The last two weeks have been fantastic with heavenly weather,” she reported. “Our fruit tastes great!” She was elated, because at various times cool and rainy conditions pushed back harvest projections later and later. There were even a few moments when our team wondered when ripening would ever happen!

Many other producers with lower elevation properties, especially the valley floor areas, struggled with botrytis and other challenges that come with humidity like dilution of the grapes from too much water. Turns out this vintage was for those with nerves of steel, and plenty of experience to rely on!

Fortunately for us, the magic formula to escape the humidity issues turned out to be our choice of particular high elevation parcels, combined with the fine tuning of a highly skilled team. All of our parcels fared beautifully, which was the result of meticulous vineyard management and the advantage of drier, high-elevation parcels which benefit from ample breezes and additional sun exposure above the fog line.

Phil Coturri and Stephane Derenoncourt review our Charlie Smith Parcel in early October

There is no doubt we have distinct advantages—Stéphane Derenoncourt and Hélène both have extensive experience with the brooding maritime climate in Bordeaux, which was an important factor when selecting our Napa and Sonoma parcels. They know first-hand which terroir will produce glorious fruit with minimal intervention. Granted this was a particularly tricky vintage for most, and we certainly spent even more time tending the vines than usual, but the results are very good!

By November 3, all of our Napa and Sonoma blocks had been harvested. Our Stagecoach Merlot came in by October 21, and the Cabernet Franc harvest was completed by November 2. Our Charlie Smith Cabernet came in by November 3. The evening of November 3 marked the beginning of harvest for our Red Hills parcel in Lake County which was finished by Saturday November 5.

Lake County Red Hills Cabernet ready for harvest photo by Hélène Mingot

Turns out the Red Hills harvest coincided with the first frost of the year for the region. This shows just how late harvest happened—it is quite unusual to pick when there is frost!   There was no drawback for the grapes—it actually kept them nice and cool which is ideal. Severe cold before the vines go into dormancy can be damaging to the vines, but the temperatures were way too mild for that scenario to occur.

All of our parcels have light yields this year, with marvelous intensity of flavors. “It’s too early to say exactly how the vintage will show style-wise,” Hélène said. “But the fruit is excellent, and it tastes awesome, so we are in really great shape.”

Hélène said this has been unlike any vintage she has experienced in Napa, with atypical weather patterns. “It seems like we were just wondering when the grapes would finally ripen, and now here we are with wonderful fruit!” She is very happy and excited to get started with work in the cellar to see how our fruit evolves. We’ll be sure to keep you posted!

Across the Pond

Napa and Sonoma weren’t the only regions in the northern hemisphere with unusual conditions this year. As summer ended, vintners in Spain, France, Italy and other Old World regions were picking grapes two or three weeks early, due to a hot, sunny spring that accelerated the growing season and threatened to over-heat the grapes in some areas. Below are a few notes of interest about harvest in some of Europe’s major wine-producing areas.


For most of June, European winemakers were looking at the earliest harvest ever. “April, May and June were very hot, with summer temperatures,” said Stéphane Derenoncourt. “Water scarcity was felt very early.” Grapes were three weeks ahead of the usual growing cycle by the end of June. In Bordeaux, things got too hot for some. Stéphane added that vines planted in soils in lesser terroirs that retain too much moisture in normal years did better in 2011′s dry conditions. Once again vineyard management expertise was key as grapes withered if growers removed too many leaves.

In Sauternes and Barsac, it has been a very early harvest, even earlier for most than the heat-wave 2003 vintage. Overall in France for 2011, there looks to be an increase in yields of 6% compared to 2010.


The harsh winter conditions and a hotter-than average spring meant the vines were three weeks ahead by July, but the autumnal summer slowed this down. But picking started early – August 19 in a few villages, with most crus starting on August 24 – making this the second-earliest harvest in the history of Champagne since 1822!

During harvest the weather was erratic, which included stifling heat, very cool mornings, hot sun and thunderstorms, sometimes even hail. This unpredictable weather lead to a slowdown in grape maturation, particularly Chardonnay, and some producers temporarily suspended the harvest.


In Burgundy, three weeks of rain brought botrytis to some vineyards. “It does not mean that we will make bad wine, just that we will have to work harder,” said Jeremy Seysses of Domaine Dujac. “Botrytis is a reality in Burgundy. We have to sort almost every year and this year will be no exception.”


Wine output in Italy fell to the lowest levels in more than 60 years this year, as many of its regions were hit by an extremely hot and dry summer. The harvest was a full two weeks or more ahead of schedule due to the high temperatures. Italian growers’ increased efforts to prune grapes to improve quality also helped to reduce quantity, the report said.

Wine yields in Tuscany fell 15 percent from 2010, while Piedmont saw a 10 percent fall in yields this year. Sicily, one of Italy’s largest wine producing regions by volume, plunged 25 percent. Veneto, Italy’s largest wine making region, fell 5 percent.


In Spain officials report an overall trend of high-quality and low yields, which are looking to be at least 5% lower than 2010.


Ernst Büscher, of the German Wine Institute, reported that overall the vines came in about two weeks ahead in comparison to the long-term average. And that so far the red varietals seem to be in a particularly good position, very deep in color and flavor.

Southern Hemisphere

Australia and New Zealand

Overall, 2011 brought wet weather to both New Zealand and Australia, forcing vintners to fight off rot. Areas of Australia faced heavy flooding and cooler weather resulted in longer hang time, ripe tannins and lower than normal alcohol levels. In New Zealand, temperatures were warmer than average, which meant a constant struggle against mildew and botrytis. Winemakers in both countries report lower yields, but good quality fruit.


An early frost in Mendoza set the tone for an eventful 2011 vintage for winemakers, who also were challenged by high winds, hail, drought and heavy rain. Cooler temperatures delayed maturation, but the warm and beautiful Indian summer conditions were just what winemakers hoped for. As a result they are predicting elegantly styled wines, with higher acidity levels than usual.


Yields were down due to a cold and long spring which led to low fruit set. The long slow harvest stretched well in to May which allowed the grapes to ripen steadily and evenly, which has most vintners very optimistic, with winemakers reporting marked aromatics, freshness and balance for the vintage in general.

With such an unusual year, the topic of climate change has been discussed, and the extent to which the variability in the season posed difficulties for growers. Climate change expert Dr. Greg Jones, from the University of Oregon, traveled to Portugal, Spain, Italy and France this summer and reported grape growers had to be particularly “creative” by adjusting trellising, pruning, irrigation, use of cover crops and the like.

All around the globe Mother Nature kept growers and vintners busy this year with a roller-coaster of conditions – all of which underscores the dynamic nature of vineyards as well as the ongoing importance of a skilled and experienced team in the vineyard and in the cellar. We’re grateful that our harvest was in good hands, and we look forward to tasting the wines that will emerge from this exciting vintage and sharing our findings with you!


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