It has been an interesting half-decade for Northwest grape growers and winemakers, and it looks at this point as if Mother Nature will not be creating too many headaches for them this fall.
In Washington and Oregon, wine grapes appear to be on track or even a bit early, and harvest is expected to begin before Labor Day weekend.
Let’s take a look back at the previous four vintages and the roller coaster they’ve given growers and winemakers a ride on.
This was looking to be a warm, near-perfect vintage in Washington until a sudden frost occurred Oct. 10 that all but ended the growing season three weeks early and left growers and winemakers scrambling to bring in grapes immediately. Winemakers in western Oregon were given a break and brought in their grapes without too many issues related to weather.
In Washington, this was the coldest year since 1999, with few red grapes being harvested before Oct. 1 — a full two weeks later than normal. Many wondered if it might be a lost vintage, but patience paid off, as growers and winemakers worked hard into early November. Oregon also was extremely cool, and the late-ripening crop was susceptible to migratory birds, which stopped and feasted on the precious Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris and Chardonnay, decimating much of the crops — often by as much as half.
If Washington winemakers thought 2010 was cold, then what was 2011? The new standard for a cool vintage. First, a November 2010 freeze crippled vineyards across the valley, especially in the Horse Heaven Hills. Then bud break was two to three weeks late, and vines never caught up. Harvest began even later than 2010, pushing into the third week of September. Harvest went into November. Oregonians saw this as another miracle vintage, with one winemaker equating it to being down to his last strike with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning before the rally began. It was not unlike 1991 and 1999, when a late, dry push helped deliver the grapes.
In Washington’s Columbia Valley, this looked more like most of the prior decade, with the grapes being on a normal track and ripening without issue. Harvest started around Labor Day and ended around Halloween, just as it should. In fact, a few winemakers told us they felt guilty because 2012 seemed so easy after the prior three vintages. The result was a record harvest just shy of 200,000 tons of wine grapes. Western Oregon winemakers also fared well, dealing with the usual amount of rain during harvest and dodging any big storms that might wash out the vintage.
And this year? Growers and winemakers are still in their crossing-our-fingers mode, but they are set up to begin harvest in Washington as early as the last week of August in some areas and right around Labor Day in others. The only problem might be that it is too early and too warm. Winemakers prefer a bit of extra hang time for their grapes so their juices can develop into something complex.
In Oregon, Willamette Valley winemakers are expecting their crop to be at least 10 percent to 20 percent lower than normal because of poor weather in June when the grapes just were beginning to form. However, they are pleased with what is on the vines because of warm temperatures and otherwise dry weather.
While everything looks good, Mother Nature can still step in at any time and change things. However, Washington and Oregon grape growers and winemakers are set up to take advantage of this year’s so-far stellar weather, and this leaves a sense of optimism as we head into harvest around the first week of September.Eric Degerman and Andy Perdue run Great Northwest Wine, a news and information company. Learn more about wine at www.greatnorthwestwine.com.