As harvest wraps up in the Pacific Northwest, many vintners are pleased with the 2017 vintage, but some will remember this year for the dozens of wildfires that swept through the region while the grapes were developing on the vines. The fire season started in July and lasted for months, burning hundreds of thousands of acres in Washington and Oregon and blanketing the cities of Seattle and Portland in smoke and ash. The flames came within a few miles of some vineyards, but didn't inflict any damage, unlike the devastating wine-country wildfires in California.
There are scattered reports of smoke taint in some areas, but the largest growing regions dodged the worst of the smoke. Winemakers are optimistic about the quality of the wines.
Plumes of smoke lingered over vineyards in the Columbia Gorge and Southern Oregon AVAs during veraison, when grapes change color. That led many vintners to take extra precautions. Studies conducted by the Australian Wine Research Institute have shown that grapes are most susceptible to smoke taint between veraison and harvest.
"I think it could have been one of the best vintages ever if we had not had this smoke," said Herb Quady of Quady North in Southern Oregon, a growing region that's home to 22 percent of the state's vineyard acreage. Starting in August, smoke from the Chetco Bar and Miller Complex fires darkened the skies over the Rogue Valley and Applegate Valley appellations for nearly a month. A storm arrived in early September, helping clear the air of smoke as vintners picked their grapes.
Quady found smoke taint in some of his wines as they came out of the fermentors, describing it as a "smoked meat character." But he said it's not to the level that he feels a need to declassify the wines. He used research from Australia to guide his winemaking protocols, such as limiting skin contact on wines that showed a high degree of guaiacol, one of the compounds that is a marker for smoke taint. "I think we are going to have some great wines," said Quady, who is happy with his Grenache and Viognier. "I'm not that worried about it."
Barbara Steele, cofounder and winemaker at Cowhorn, has not tasted any smoky characteristics in the wines from her estate in Applegate Valley. She says the smoke may have delayed grape development, but weather was ideal during harvest. She believes the wines will be plush and soft on the palate. "I don't think the smoke will be what we talk about in this vintage."
Farther north, the Columbia Gorge appellation, which straddles the Oregon and Washington borders, endured fewer smoky days, but the fires drew closer to some of the vineyards.
Robert Morus, winegrower at Phelps Creek Vineyards, says winds pushed the Eagle Creek fire to within four miles of his 34-acre estate. Heavy smoke lingered in the vineyards for nearly a week. Morus says that the grapes and finished wines he tested showed smoke taint. "I do not anticipate we will release a Pinot Noir for 2017," he told Wine Spectator via email.
How extensive the smoke influence is remains to be seen. Peter Rosback of Sineann says he won't know whether two of the vineyards he works with in the Columbia Gorge will be affected because the grapes are still fermenting. "You really have to wait until the wine goes dry to check," he said.
"Smoke issues can be highly variable," explained Morus. "One site gets impacted and another only a few miles away can have no detectable issues." He thinks his white wines from the Washington side of the appellation look the most promising. Tests showed they endured significantly less smoke exposure—and white wines are not fermented on their skins, where the smoke compounds are concentrated.
Willamette Valley producers are relieved that most of the smoke stayed away. "I'm pretty confident that we won't have smoke taint," said Rollin Soles of Roco, who produces wines from several subappellations, including the Dundee Hills and Chehalem Mountains. He sent in samples of his young wines to be tested and they all came back negative for the compounds that indicate potential smoke taint.
Soles says the 2017 vintage was completely different from the previous three years, when vintners harvested their grapes earlier than normal. The wet, cool spring delayed flowering for the region's Pinot Noir vines until late June, setting the stage for a later harvest. Hot, dry conditions prevailed through the summer. Fruit set was higher than average. "Guys that thinned [bunches] made incredible wines," said Soles. "There is a fresh fruit component and complexity that comes out in the wines."
Lavinea winemaker Isabelle Meunier started harvesting her grapes the last week of September, after a few days of rains helped refresh the soils. "We started our harvest a little later than some, taking advantage of the slow flavor development to promote fuller skin and tannin development," she said via email. Mild weather allowed her to pick at her own pace into October. "The new Pinots are very pure, with nice floral and red fruit notes; and with judicious tannin management, we managed great textures and mouthfeel."
Wildfires in central and eastern Washington worried vintners in the Columbia Valley, the state's largest growing region. But there are no reports the smoke influenced the wines. "We were really lucky," said Juan Muñoz-Oca, head winemaker at Columbia Crest, who works with vineyards throughout the region. "We did not get enough smoke [for it] to be an issue."
The main issue for vintners was a cool and wet spring that pushed budbreak back by two weeks. Muñoz-Oca opened his grapevine canopies early on to allow more sunlight and promote growth. But a very hot summer accelerated the season and pushed ripening back on track. He says the weather was ideal during harvest, with warm days and cool evenings producing ripe wines with bright acidities. "I appreciate the wines because they really express themselves," he said, adding that they are more nuanced than in past vintages.
If the smoke had any impact on the vintage it was to slow the ripening of the grapes. Bookwalter winemaker Caleb Foster says that was "due presumably to reflectivity of various wavelengths of light off the smoke haze." He picked his first grapes Sept. 10 and believes that Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon are the standouts this year. "2017 aligns with the warm, ripe years so many people love from us in [Washington]," he said.
It could be several years before vintners know the full impact of the fires on their wines, but they caution wine lovers not to dismiss the vintage. Rosback, who works with vineyards in Oregon and Washington, has experience with smoke taint. While winemaker at Owen Roe he produced the Ex Umbris 2004 from Syrah that had picked up smoky notes from a wildfire. "[The smoke] made the wine more interesting," he contends. The wine earned a score of 91 points.