A big harvest of top-quality grapes is good news for producers and consumers of California wine.
California’s large grape crop of 2023 is great news for wine lovers. Last year is by all accounts a superb vintage for quality wine – and there will be plenty of it.
The total of 3.67 million tons crushed is 8 percent more than in 2022, according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture’s annual grape crush report. Moreover, California is poised to make more of the wines people love, and less of the supermarket wines that fewer people are buying.
For example: There will be more white wine. More Napa Cabernet. More Sonoma Chardonnay. More Central Coast and Mendocino County wine. And while inflation isn’t going to be suddenly reversed, the law of supply and demand should keep prices from rising.
This happened even though grape broker Glenn Proctor of the Ciatti Company said many tons of fruit, even from good regions, never made it to the crushpad.
“We continue to believe that the potential crop out there was bigger than 4 million tons,” Proctor told Wine-Searcher. “There was still unpicked crop in Sonoma County. Not just there.”
California‘s grape harvest peaked by size in 2018 at 4.3m tons, but has not topped 4m tons since. This is the largest grape crush of the last four vintages.
Proctor said that a lot of fruit in 2023 was rejected by buyers because it unexpectedly ended up weighing more than the winery had contracted for. As near-perfect weather continued through August and September, grapes continued to get bigger because there was no weather event, like a heat spike, to stop them.
“This is more than people wanted,” said Steve Fredricks, president of Turrentine Grape Brokerage. “It would have been really big if all the grapes had been harvested.”
That said, with wine sales slow, it’s good news for the wine industry that what was harvested should be more in line with what consumers want.
For example, the growth in consumption of white wines relative to reds is mirrored by a 15.3 percent jump in total white grape harvest, compared to a 2.4 percent increase in red grapes. This is not a one-year aberration. Red varieties made up just 53.4 percent of the state’s grape crush, the lowest in 20 years except for 2020, when many wineries harvested white grapes early but left red grapes on the vine because of fire and smoke late in the vintage.
Also, every region of the state crushed more grapes than in 2022 except for the largest one, District 13, which includes hot, dry Fresno and Madera counties. Even in a down year in 2023, District 13 accounted for 26.9 percent of all grapes from California. These are the grapes that go into the cheapest bottles, and the crush of those was 7 percent smaller.
Everywhere else was up. Napa County crushed 28 percent more red grapes and 32 percent more white grapes than in 2022. Sonoma County (including Marin County‘s tiny production in its reporting district) crushed 26 percent more red grapes and 31 percent more white grapes. The numbers were similar all up and down California’s coast.
“It’s good news for consumers. It really is,” Fredricks said. “It’s going to increase the selection and the quality.”
But it’s not great news for anyone sitting on bulk wine. Everyone in the wine supply chain – distributors, restaurants, retailers, even wineries themselves – is trying to reduce inventory. As good as the 2023 California wines may be, they will be released to a challenging market.
“I got a call the other day from somebody who said, I would pour it down the drain rather than sell it at the price I was offered,” Proctor said. “I’m just telling people what the market is.”
Here are a few statistical highlights from the report:
We can’t expect wine prices to drop because prices paid per ton for grapes were the highest ever, up 13.6 percent over 2022 for red grapes and 6.4 percent for white grapes.
While the crop size gap between red and white has narrowed, the price gap is larger than ever. Red grapes cost wineries 84 percent more than white grapes. Red grapes cost wineries 54 percent more than white grapes in 2016 and the price gap has steadily increased since.
Chardonnay, at 17.5 percent of state production, barely topped Cabernet Sauvignon (17.3 percent) for the most-crushed grape. There are actually about 6.5 percent more Cab vineyards than Chardonnay vineyards in California, so this might represent both lower yields and some Cab not being harvested in 2023. The state is stuffed with unsold bulk Cabernet from previous years, and that’s going to be even harder to sell now because wineries can choose between lesser-regarded vintages and already-highly-touted 2023.
You can win a trivia contest by asking someone for the top three wine grapes by crop size in California. Third is French Colombard (7.9 percent), followed by Pinot Noir (7.7 percent), Pinot Gris (6.3 percent), Zinfandel (6.1 percent) and Rubired (5.3 percent). French Colombard goes into a lot of cheap white blends.
Highest average prices per ton tend to be for grapes that there isn’t much of. The high-price leaders for whites are Ribolla Gialla, Gray Riesling, Roussanne, Flora and Sauvignon Gris. For reds, Cabernet Franc is a big exception, as there’s a fair amount of it and it fetched the highest average price. But after that came Grignolino, then a significant dropoff, then Charbono, Negrette and Aleatico.
I don’t want to encourage people in Fresno to plant Cab Franc. The reason for the high price is that fully a third of the Cab Franc in the state is planted in Napa County. “It’s a blender,” Fredricks said. “There aren’t generally going to be Cabernet Franc-based products.”
There is not to my knowledge any data source that tracks average alcohol percentage of California wines. But you can get at it through looking at the average degrees brix, which is a measure of sugar in the grapes. Almost all of the sugar will be converted into alcohol, so the higher the brix, the higher the alcohol in the finished wine. Let’s take the flagship California wine, Napa Cabernet Sauvignon, as an example. Last year the average brix was 25.2. In 2022, a warmer year than 2023, it was 25.6. The 2023 number is likely a reflection of the vintage. But in 2013, it was 26.3, in 2014 it was 26.0, and in 2015 it was 26.1. Napa Cabs are indeed getting lower in alcohol despite the weather generally getting hotter – and 2023 wines will be even lower than the trend.
If you like Napa Cabernet, start making space in your cellar. Not only is 2023 supposed to be a great vintage – there was 27.4 percent more of it! Maybe also check your credit-card limit.
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