The 2008 growing season presented growers with a wide range of challenges, as the weather conditions swung wildly all year long. By the end of the year, an early and smaller-than-normal crop produced wines that range from good to very good in quality. It is a year to approach a bit cautiously as quality is variable, with the best wineries making exceptional wines and others struggling in the difficult conditions.
The year started out with wild winter storms bringing rain and damaging winds around the first of the year. Spring followed with record dry conditions and an early bud break. Frost became a major problem, taking its toll on yields in many regions, down 20-50% in some vineyards. Days were beautiful, but plunging temperatures at night plagued growers for weeks. Growers used irrigation to insulate and protect the vines and then, within a week, a severe heat spike had them doing a 180-degree turn. Just as vines were entering flowering, growers were irrigating to cool the vines in temperatures that reached triple digits. The result of the wild weather was a reduction in the number of clusters, with smaller berries and a smaller crop forecast. The dry conditions also resulted in less canopy development, but in the coming cool summer, this would not be problematic, and the smaller fruit load would have a better chance of ripening. The dry weather also minimized concerns for rot, disease, and pest issues.
The precocious spring initially had growers thinking early harvest, but summer was cool and dry, and the early gains were given back as ripening proceeded at a much slower pace. Harvest began just a little ahead of normal, with grapes for sparkling wines starting around the second week of August and whites towards the end of the month.
At the end of August, the cool summer came to a halt. A week of hot temperatures that lasted through Labor Day sent grapes into a ripening frenzy and created a rush to get harvest underway as sugars began to surge. Earlier-ripening grapes like Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Merlot, whose harvest is usually spread out over several weeks, began to hit their numbers at the same time. That forced many growers to work overtime to get them in all at once, straining work crews and increasing demands on cellar space and fermentation tanks.
After the heat wave, a period of fine, dry, cool weather settled in, allowing a more leisurely pace to harvest, to the relief of vineyard and cellar workers. Grapes could be allowed to slowly ripen and develop, a big factor in the final quality of the vintage. Light rains in early October didn’t have any real impact, and growers were able to take advantage of the long hang-times and pick at optimum ripeness. While Paso Robles also had to deal with freezes in October, much of the state was singed by wildfires. Some vineyards suffered smoke damage — the smoky haze that some felt, which impacted available sunlight and ripening, just added to the extremes growers faced in 2008.
The late-season weather during harvest brought this challenging year to a better conclusion than many might have expected at the end of the summer. It was a smaller than normal crop, a bit variable in quality, but the best growers produced some excellent wines with good concentration, depth, and a cool, refined elegance.