Washington vintners are calling 2016 the longest harvest they can remember. The extended season allowed their grapes to ripen slowly, with early reports indicating a good vintage, especially for the state's Cabernet Sauvignon.
"Once we got everything in the door and got our fermentation done we were pretty happy," said Trey Busch, winemaker at Sleight of Hand in Walla Walla Valley. He is impressed by his Cabernets from Red Mountain and Horse Heaven Hills. Like many vintners, Busch started picking in August and didn't finish until late October. Some other crews were still in the vineyards as late as mid-November.
Juan Muñoz-Oca, winemaker at Columbia Crest, said the vintage offered, "The best of both worlds." It was one of the earliest growing seasons on record. April and May were warm and dry with temperatures jumping into the triple digits by early June. Muñoz-Oca says budbreak, bloom and veraison were all the earliest he had ever seen in Washington. But cool temperatures arrived midsummer and continued through harvest, slowing ripening and helping preserve freshness and elegance in the finished wines.
Auclair owner Charlie Auclair picked his Sauvignon Blanc in Red Mountain two weeks earlier than normal. "The reds were much closer to normal harvest dates as things cooled significantly in late August into September and October, allowing for longer hang times and optimal picking dates," he said.
The hot start led to a large crop, with vintners reporting larger berries and cluster weights. K Vintners winemaker Brennon Leighton says he dropped fruit from every vineyard, "sometimes up to 50 percent of the crop before veraison and up to 30 percent after veraison just to get down to the yields we wanted." Those who managed their yields were able to achieve concentration in their wines. Still, overall yields for the vintage shattered records. According to Vicky Scharlau, executive director of the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers, the state's vintners crushed 292,000 tons of grapes.
A series of storms in mid-October presented the biggest challenge. Most varieties had already been picked, but vintners in cooler appellations, including sections of the Yakima and Walla Walla Valleys, scrambled to pull in their grapes. "I don't think the rain impacted the quality because at that time [winemakers] were into Cabernet Sauvignon, which is really resilient," said Marty Clubb, owner and winemaker at L'Ecole No. 41.
Now that fermentations are complete, winemakers are reporting refined yet powerful wines with good acidity and moderate alcohol levels. "Incredible wines will come out of this vintage if you were able to manage the heat and extend the growing season," said Leighton.