Oregon and Washington like to stress their cool-climate viticulture, but 2010 has taken that to a bit of an extreme.
In Washington, vintners are harking back to 1999, one of the coldest summers on record for the winegrowing areas. It just never got hot for very long this year, and the vines were way behind as the normal start-picking date approached. They actually had several rain events in September and October, the most recent a series of showers over the past weekend, which almost never happens.
In Oregon, they are accustomed to rain coming during harvest, so the occasional showers that swept through in September and early October didn’t bother anyone. But it followed a cold summer, some say the coldest since 1991.
Vintners were hoping for a repeat of 2008, in which moderate October temperatures and sunny skies followed a cool summer, producing the state’s greatest vintage ever for Pinot Noir. But rain arrived in force over this past weekend, with 1.8 inches falling in Newberg (the northern end of Willamette Valley) on Saturday and Sunday. It’s still raining as I write this on Monday morning.
Knowing the storms were on the way, many scrambled to get all their grapes in last week.
“Well, I have to say I have had easier vintages,” wrote Mike Etzel of Beaux Frères, just a few miles west of Newberg. He decided to pick Oct. 17, partly because of the oncoming weather, but also because birds were feasting on his grapes in unprecedented numbers. “We had daylight patrols with shotguns to scare the fruit-eating birds away. But the bird pressure continued to get worse. We lost outside rows near trees to the dirty bastards. Then we had a week of very good weather and sugars began to inch upward, so we waited a bit longer.”
He picked at 22° to 23° Brix, which should result in alcohol levels around 13 percent or lower. Everything was in by Friday. Etzel said he likes the flavors in his grapes.
Ken Wright, who makes wines from vineyards in several subappellations, remembers 1991. “We harvested several vineyards in November that year and were concerned at the time that the wines would not be as expressive as hoped. Once the wines had some age, though, that year produced some of the best balances we have seen.” The wines have aged well, he added, having tasted four bottles in the past three months.
With moderate, clear weather in the 10 days leading up to this past weekend, Wright reported that the grapes from most of his sites are happily fermenting. “They are ripe without excessive sugar levels,” he wrote. “The long time on the vine gave us flavor and aroma development that Pinot needs to be compelling.”
Dick Shea started picking his Shea Vineyard Oct. 15. “2008 broke our prior record for hang time, and 2010 broke that record,” he wrote. “Alcohol levels will be in the 12.5 to 13.5 range, high enough to give a good mouthfeel and low enough to satisfy those who are disturbed by the trend to high alcohol. Those people will consider this a great vintage, I believe.”
Shea also got his entire vineyard picked before the rain, tempering the relief by noting, “Quantities were low to quite low. Damn!”
In Washington, the cold summer forced many growers to drop green bunches so that the remaining fruit could ripen normally. Although this will result in lower yields in these vineyards, the results have winemakers smiling.
“We’re getting good ripeness at low sugars,” reported Doug Gore, chief winemaker for Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, echoing his Oregon friends. Actually, Gore is responsible for an Oregon winery, Erath, where winemaker Gary Horner got 95 percent of his grapes in before the weekend storms. “Gary read the weather well. Three weeks ago I was worried, but it’s looking good.”
Gore has high hopes for Merlot, but all the reds look good despite elevated acidity levels.
“October made the vintage,” wrote Bob Betz of Betz Family Cellars, which buys grapes mostly from cooler sites in Yakima Valley and Red Mountain. “Hot temperatures, well in the 80s and beyond in warm sites, brought sugar and phenolic ripeness to excellent levels. What lagged is acid drop. It’s not excessively high but blending will be more important this year than ever.”
In his fermentations, Betz noticed more distinction and definition by variety and vineyard. “Not everything was ultraripe, where character converges,” he noted. “Great color and intense fruit, and it will be our responsibility to achieve balance in the cellar through maturation and blending.”
“It has been abnormally cool,” wrote Marty Clubb of L’Ecole No. 41 in Walla Walla, which makes its wine from both Walla Walla and Columbia Valley vineyards. “Yields are way down, particularly in Walla Walla. We pruned harder than normal because of the bad economy. Yields on Walla Walla reds are running under 2 tons per acre on average.” Normal yields are closer to 3 tons.
“That said, color, flavor and physiological maturity have been running ahead of the numbers,” Clubb said.
L’Ecole harvested its last reds Friday, in front of this weekend’s weather. Acidity levels are the highest in 10 years, he allowed, but so far the vintage has not been affected by frost, as was last year’s. “Despite the roller-coaster ride,” he added, “I think this one may tip into ‘outstanding’ given the high quality on the reds.”
Finally, Hugh Shiels of DuBrul Vineyard and Côte Bonneville Winery, lowered his yields by dropping fruit during the summer. Clients are raving about quality, he said. He finished picking his last Syrah Friday. “Color is unbelievable,” he wrote. “It took a second wash to clean the tank of the color after (transfer to barrel). Everyone here is waiting for Cabernet to mature, however.”
Shiels noted that vineyards that didn't drop fruit aren't getting the maturation levels. “Most of all, this year will show the quality sites and management teams.”
Chris Cullina — Dundee, Oregon, USA — October 26, 2010 3:43pm ET
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