Let's Talk over Drinks
One thing defines this year’s grape growing season: drought. Sure, year-in and year-out we have weather challenges with viticulture in Texas, but this year the lack of rain was the most significant factor impacting our vineyards.
Let me put this in perspective. In a normal year, we get about 32 inches of rain on our Kuhlken Estate Vineyard just north of Fredericksburg, Texas. This year by the end of July, we only had 3.5 inches of rain. The rains never came. The driest year I’ve ever farmed.
The drought and extensive heat were really hard on the vineyards in the Texas Hill Country. The lack of rain began impacting the vines during the winter, causing a delay in bud break this Spring. Budbreak came about two to three weeks later than usual, which is the latest I’ve seen in 17 years of farming.
Kuhlken Estate Vineyard is in a phase of rebuilding. We have replanted significant portions of the property over the past two years with almost 6,000 new vines in 2021 and close to 7,000 more this year. The drought made it hard on the young vines. We had to irrigate with well water almost non-stop to keep them alive. We were in survival mode. The one-year-old vines had better root structures and were more drought tolerant, but the newly planted vines needed a lot of water. We were watering in 12-hour stretches across 14 zones for 11 weeks straight.
Despite the late bud break, we had an early harvest in the Hill Country and in the High Plains. The intense heat spurred the grapes to ripen quickly pushing up the sugar levels. We are three to four weeks ahead of our typical harvest dates. In 2019 we harvested in mid-October, but this year we were done by the end of August. We usually have a lull between completing the harvest in the Hill Country and starting our work in the High Plains. Not this year. We were bringing in grapes from both AVAs at the same time, which required more planning and logistics to bring in the grapes and process them in the cellar. It was a fast-paced harvest.
Small Lots in the Hill Country and High Plains
We did not harvest grapes from the Kuhlken Estate Vineyards this year with the acreage all replanted in the past two years. Our Petite Sirah started producing second-year fruit, but we cut it to allow the vines to continue to mature for future vintages. We expect to get more than a ton of grapes from that block next year, and 3 to 5 tons an acre in a couple more years.
We manage Loyal Valley Vineyards near Fredericksburg, and we picked a beautiful crop there this year. The Mourvèdre looks excellent with larger, high-quality clusters. I can’t wait to taste this vintage when it is ready in a few years. The Cabernet vines produced a pretty light crop with small, tight clusters. I’m confident it will make stellar wine.
Our team worked closely with our grower partners in the High Plains. David Kuhlken, as always, was our field general in the vineyards directing our work. I made decisions on the ground about when to pick grapes in each block that we manage in the High Plains. Fortunately, we had excellent crops from the blocks managed by our long-term growers at the Bingham Family Vineyards and Reddy Vineyards. The Viognier, Graciano, and Tempranillo all look fantastic. We got excellent Roussanne and Tempranillo from Lahey and other vineyards. We also picked a beautiful lot of Mourvèdre and gorgeous Grenache for rosé from Desert Willow Vineyards near Seminole, Texas and look forward to these wines.
And Then the Rains Came
We were very lucky that we were able to pick all of our fruit before the rains came in late August and early September. There has been seven inches of rain since we harvested. It looks like Spring at Kuhlken Estate Vineyards now with all of the rain. We have wildflowers now. It is a blessing to have this rain, as we still have two months of growing season for our baby vines. This will give the vines a nice long rest before they need to begin producing next year. We will guard against winter damage by watering and applying Zinc.
Small But Excellent 2022 Vintage
While we had high-quality fruit from our vineyards, the crop yield tonnage was down across the board for all vineyards that we work with. We had smaller clusters, and smaller berries on the vines, resulting in lower weight of the crop per acre. Where we typically have harvested four 4 tons per acre, we picked two tons this year. A huge benefit from smaller berries is that we get more skin with each lot, which leads to greater structure, color and more phenolics in the wine. The wine will be awesome in this vintage, but we will just make less of it.
Even though the overall quality of the grapes is excellent, we have some challenges. Much of the fruit came in with high pH, and low acidity. High pH is difficult because if the juice isn’t handled with care, it allows for bacteria to get into the wine. With the compressed harvest schedule and fruit coming in from both regions at the same time, it was a tricky year for winemakers, and our winemaking team was certainly up for the challenge.
While we wait for the 2022 vintage to be ready, we get to enjoy the wines made from the beautiful harvests of 2018 through 2021. Open a bottle with your friends and family and raise a toast to another successful harvest.
During the winter, when the vines are dormant, we spend time pruning the vines to ensure the vines have the right balance between the number of shoots and the number of buds, which eventually produce grape clusters. Thankfully we escaped serious winter freezes this year, so there was no damage to the vines as there was last year with “Snowmageddon.”
Now that Spring is in full swing, the vines in Kuhlken Vineyards have sprung back to life. We started to see bud break on some vines, like our grenache, in mid-March. By early April, many of our vines were pushing leaves and shoots with the fresh, vibrant green colors invigorating the landscape.
We are currently revitalizing the whole vineyard at the Kuhlken Ranch. Last year we planted almost 6,000 new vines. This season we are training those baby vines into trunks with two-buds. We just started planting close to 7,000 more vines, which will help us to be close to filling our 12-acre site. Let me tell you, planting 7,000 vines requires quite a lot of drilling and digging soil. This year we are planting several of our preferred varietals including Graciano, Tinta Amarela, Tempranillo, Alicante Bouschet, and Teroldego.
At the Mercy of Mother Nature
Our growing season this year will be impacted by the extreme drought at Kuhlken Ranch. Until this week, our last rain was on November 24, 2021. Thankfully we had a good downpour this week, but it hasn’t erased the drought. I’ve been irrigating a lot to give those baby vines a drink. Irrigation is necessary because of the early development stage our vines are in. Young vines do not have the root structure of a mature plant and the roots can dry out very quickly. We’ve had to reprioritize a lot of our work this Spring to fix our drip tubing to make sure each vine is getting the water it needs.
The drought has also affected our bud break this year. I have never seen such a late occurrence as this year with our buds breaking about 3 weeks later than in a typical year. The later bud break could also move our harvest schedule from August to well into September. The summer weather will dictate our harvest dates.
Loyal Valley Vineyards
We are very excited to add Loyal Valley Vineyards near Fredericksburg, Texas to our farming schedule and vineyard management. We kicked off our pruning season at Loyal Valley in February and have been managing the early stages of growth now in Spring. Loyal Valley Vineyards has 1.5 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon, 1.5 acres of Mourvèdre, and 2 small blocks of Tempranillo and Tannat. The vineyard is close to 12 years old and has some nice mature vines. We are expecting to harvest six to nine tons of high-quality fruit from Loyal Valley Vineyards this year.
After we finish planting we will focus on vine training at Kuhlken Vineyards and canopy management at Loyal Valley. I’m really looking forward to getting our new vines trained and bringing in some exceptional fruit from Loyal Valley.