Short Season Expected to Yield Wine Records

Grape growers in Northwest say warm, dry conditions created 'abundant' fruit

by Peter Mitham
Grape clusters are dumped into the crusher-destemmer at Lange Estate Winery & Vineyards in Dundee, Ore. Harvest at the estate vineyard ended Oct. 5, though it is ongoing in parts of Oregon and British Columbia.
Dundee, Ore.—Overlooking his family’s estate vineyard in early March, winemaker Jesse Lange was optimistic as he pointed to the new plantings that are allowing Lange Estate Winery & Vineyards to boost production for the family’s Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. A warm start to spring had encouraged hopes for early bud break, backed by long-range forecasts that suggested the year could bring generally favorable growing conditions (see “Northwest Vineyards See Bud Break”). 

Taking a break last week in the wake of harvest, Lange told Wines & Vines that his initial optimism hadn’t been disappointed.

“To say it was a dream vintage—it was pretty close,” he said. “It’s been pretty wonderful on the whole.…It was warm, to be sure, but it seemed a lot more even, without those spikes we’ve seen in other years.”

The result was a marathon harvest that began Sept. 12 and ran through Oct. 5, when the final clusters of Pinot Noir were brought in from the estate vineyard.

“So, nearly three-and-a-half weeks of picking, but I thought it was stretched out really nicely,” Lange said. “I didn’t have to flip any fermentors or hold off picking anything out in the field because we didn’t have the capacity here.”

And capacity was indeed a question for other facilities, particularly custom-crush operations, as harvest volumes were set to break records this year (see “Large Harvest Floods Custom-Crush Wineries”). 

Lange expects the final tallies to show that the amount of Pinot Noir harvested from his vineyards this year was four times what the same vines yielded five years ago. The gains are compounded this year by ideal growing conditions that allowed Lange to crop a little heavier than in other years.

“We did a little quality thinning, but I didn’t do a whole lot of quantity thins; in fact, I think it was a good year to maybe crop things a little bit higher,” he said. “If you dropped fruit too much, it would definitely accelerate the ripeness.”

Too many grapes ripening too early would have put greater pressure on the vines’ capacity than what occurred, while thinning for quality allowed fruit to move from sorting table to press to fermentor without delay.

“If you did your quality thins in the vineyard, you could pretty much rock ‘n’ roll at the winery,” Lange said.

Similar stories could be heard across the Northwest, from the Rogue to the Okanagan valleys. By some estimates, growers were looking at yields up by as much as 25% at some sites.

The scene in Washington

The Columbia Gorge Winegrowers Association issued a glowing series of statements from its members, including Marlene Woodward of Oak Ridge Vineyards in Husum, Wash.

“It’s the most abundant harvest we’ve had in the 19 years we’ve been here,” she said.

While harvest across the region generally ranged from the last week of August through mid-October, the Columbia Gorge typically experiences a compressed timetable that ran from Sept. 7 to Oct. 23 this year.

Its growing season was also shorter, with bud break a week later than the 10-year average and harvest arriving two weeks earlier than average.

But an abbreviated growing season and harvest promises a long finish when the season’s wines are ready to be bottled. The Columbia Gorge Winegrowers Association contends that the right amount of rain early in the season combined with good heat accumulation will likely ensure “an impressive vertical” when the wines are finished.

“The flavors are phenomenal, as good as I’ve ever tasted,” said Adrian Bradford of Lyle, Wash.-based COR Cellars. “There’s just something really high quality about the grapes this year.”

Straight A’s in B.C.
Similarly, in British Columbia, steady warmth allowed growers to savor a Goldilocks season of sorts in which everything was just right.

“This year has been one of the best growing seasons that I can remember,” remarked Garron Elmes, winemaker at Lake Breeze Vineyards on the Naramata Bench near Penticton, B.C., since 1995, in a note to wine club members. “Temperatures were warm but not scorching, and we have had very little rain or pest pressure.”

Similarly, a vintage update from winemakers Bob Ferguson and Tim Watts of nearby Kettle Valley Winery was equally glowing.

“We are looking at potentially excellent conditions,” they said as harvest kicked off the second week of October. “The reds’ flavors are very bright fruit, with loads of acid and good sugar levels. Most of the whites are ready, and like the reds, acids remain good with very ripe fruit flavors."

Back in Dundee, Lange said the flavors promise “plush” and “opulent” wines, though his own focus will be ensuring that varietal typicity shows through.

“It’s a phenomenal growing season, and we made good on it,” he said.

The question as vines shut down for the winter and growers in the Okanagan register their intentions for ice wine production is: What’s next?

“Vintages like this can lure you into a false sense of security,” Lange said.

With the heat of 2008 and 2009 erased by the chill of 2010 and 2011, and now two years of relatively stable conditions, growers have a moment of calm to prepare for whatever next year might throw at them. 

Currently no comments posted for this article.