MONDAY, AUGUST 14, 2023. BY RANDY CAPAROSO.
Featured image: July 22, 2023: onset of veraison in old vine Grenache (planted in 1942) in Lodi’s Mokelumne River appellation.
What happens during veraison
During one particularly long, bumpy drive up on Mendocino Ridge, Marchelle winemaker/owner Greg La Follette once broke the monotony by telling this joke: “Have you heard about the winemaker who died and went to heaven? I haven’t either!”
But I will tell you one thing that gets winemakers’ juices flowing: The annual period of veraison—from the French word, véraison—takes place in vineyards in the Northern Hemisphere around this time of year.
Veraison is most visible in red wine grapes, when skin colors turn from green to brilliant shades of red, blue, or purple, like colorful balloons hanging on vines. The change in colors is a signal that grapevines are about halfway through the process of yielding fully ripened grapes. Once red wine grapes begin to turn color, they are usually harvested within the next 40 to 50 days.
Mohr-Fry Ranches’ Bruce Fry (left) with visiting master pruners in Marian’s Vineyard (Zinfandel planted in 1901) on July 11, 2023, more than a week before the onset of this year’s veraison.
In actuality, this year’s veraison (in the 2023 vintage) is taking place two to three weeks later than it has in recent years. In a conversation this past Wednesday, Lodi‘s Mohr-Fry Ranches VP of Operations Bruce Fry told us, “Veraison is over two weeks later than last year, but you can’t really say later than ‘normal’ because no one really knows what normal is any more. Mother Nature is in control, and she can fool all of us, all the time.”
Progression of 2023 veraison among Lodi’s old vine Zinfandel: (top) Zinfandel during pre-veraison on July 4; (middle) beginning stages of veraison on July 22; (bottom) nearing completion of veraison this past week on August 8.
“During this time, final berry sizing is completed via cell expansion rather than cell division. For white grapes, there is a softening of the berries. For red grapes, there is an increase in color pigment known as anthocyanins. If shoot tips have ceased growing, wood ripening also takes place—this is called periderm formation. This is very important as the commencement of periderm formation also signals the grapevine to collect carbohydrates in the permanent woody structure.
“This is also a time when the plant should be switching over from vegetative [i.e., growth of leaves and canes] to reproductive [i.e., fruit] strategy. If shoot tips are still growing at this point, the commitment to reproductive strategy will not be as complete. This includes the production of secondary compounds such as color and flavor molecules.”
In the past, La Follette has also described the transition to “reproductive strategy” in terms of grapevines beginning to produce, in plainer English, more colorful, sweeter grape bunches. In the wild, ripening fruit is the key to attracting animal life—the idea, as Charles Darwin once wrote in On the Origin of Species, that “beauty” in fruit serves as a “guide to birds and beasts in order that the fruit may be devoured and the manured seeds disseminated.” Hence, the plant world’s fulfillment of the basic commandment, “be fruitful and multiply.”
Marchelle Wines’ Greg La Follette with ancient vine (over 130 years old) Mokelumne River-Lodi Flame Tokay, still undergoing veraison, transitioning from green to vivid pink colors.
Grapevine fruit, in other words, starts to become attractive not only to birds and beasts but also draws intense interest from one of the animal kingdom’s more interesting species: winemakers!
Prognosis of the 2023 Lodi vintage
Bruce Fry is a great source of information because his family-owned Mohr Fry Ranches farms over 600 acres of grapes (19 different cultivars) in two parts of the Lodi appellation, all of it according to LODI RULES for Sustainable Winegrowing. They sell their grapes to some 25 wineries, ranging from boutique-size local producers such as St. Amant and m2 to humongous-sized corporations such as Treasury and Constellation. According to Mr. Fry:
“2023 is a little behind recent years because we had a cool spring. The recent heat spikes don’t do much to speed things up because vines shut down at higher temperatures. We usually start to take sugar samples as early as mid-July. This year we won’t start until next week.
Veraison among old vine Mokelumne River-Lodi Zinfandel (planted in the mid-1920s) this past week, on August 8, 2023.
“Last year we started picking Pinot gris [a.k.a., Pinot grigio] on the 15th of August. As of August 9, the Pinot Gris hasn’t even started veraison [note: although Pinot Gris is a white wine cultivar, the skin colors of the grape are usually reddish]. I’m guessing we’ll pick Pinot Gris this year during the first week of September.
“In the past, we’ve started picking old vine Zinfandel as early as the last week of August. This year I don’t expect to start until the third week of September. Marian’s Vineyard, our oldest block [i.e., own-rooted Zinfandel originally planted in 1901] is usually picked several times over a period of a couple of weeks. This year it will probably take until the end of September to get it all in this year.
“2023 won’t be the latest vintage we’ve ever had. 1998 was very late because it rained all spring long and the weather was cool the entire year—we weren’t done picking until Thanksgiving!
“Otherwise, this year’s grapes will probably be picked in about the same order. Zinfandel is among the first grapes to be picked. The ‘late reds’—which includes Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Petite Sirah, and Alicante Bouschet—will come in in late October, maybe early November.
“If anything, 2023 will be another example of what makes wine growing so much fun. There is something different every day, not all of it expected. That’s farming!”
July 22, 2023: close-up of veraison among old vine Zinfandel in Lodi’s Mokelumne River appellation.
Randy Caparoso is a full-time wine journalist who lives in Lodi, California. Randy puts bread (and wine) on the table as the Editor-at-Large and Bottom Line columnist for The SOMM Journal, and currently blogs and does social media for Lodi Winegrape Commission’s lodiwine.com. He also contributes editorials to The Tasting Panel magazine, crafts authentic wine country experiences for sommeliers and media, and is the author of the new book “Lodi! A definitive Guide and History of America’s Largest Winegrowing Region.”
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