Cooler Weather Promises Photo Finish for Northwest Harvest

Cooler weather arrives; water concerns alleviated by spring rainfall

by Peter Mitham
wine pinot gris northwest
Clusters of Pinot Gris near maturity as harvest approaches at King Estate Winery in Oregon.
Eugene, Ore.—A sudden drop in temperatures means fall is taking hold in much of the Northwest as growers press on with harvest of the 2016 wine grape crop.

July broke the 14-month series of record-setting temperatures both domestically as well as globally, and early fears of late-season drought conditions setting in have been dampened by precipitation that’s dropped between 90% and 150% of normal rainfall from southern Oregon to the northern Rockies.

“The estate is entirely dry farmed. We saw some stress by the end of last year, whereas this year the canopies are a lot more lush and green,” Ray Nuclo, director of viticulture at King Estate Winery south of Eugene, Ore., told Wines & Vines last week. “It was a lot less stressful of a year, just due to soil moisture.”

The tally of growing degree-days at locations around Oregon underscore the moist, cool conditions. The tally for 2016 through the end of August for McMinnville in the Willamette Valley stood at 2,059 versus 2,187 in 2015. A similar spread was logged in southern Oregon, where King Estate brought in its first fruit, with growing degree-days in Medford totalling 2,906 (98 less than last year).

The most dramatic spread was seen in Milton-Freewater, Ore., with a difference of nearly 500 units. This town in the Walla Walla Valley AVA had 2,673 growing degree-days.

Conditions in the region also have been favourable to growers north of the state line who have been steadily bringing in their fruit under cooler conditions in the past week.

“We are about 100 tons in so far,” reported Marty Clubb, winemaker at L’Ecole No. 41 in Lowden, Wash., just east of Walla Walla.

The cooler weather has been excellent for the grapes, because it’s allowed other components to come into balance with sugars.

“Color, acid, pH and balance looks really good so far,” he said. “Berry size is larger than normal (due to a cooler than normal July), so cluster weights are up.”

This translates into a prospect of greater yields, and what will likely be Washington’s largest harvest on record. To date, the largest harvest was in 2014, when 227,000 tons were picked; this year could easily exceed 235,000 tons. Clubb anticipates that there might even be fruit left to spare.

It’s a similar scenario in British Columbia, where growers have sights set on a strong finish to 2016.

While storms swept through many parts of the B.C. interior this summer, delivering precipitation and cooler weather across the region, the vineyards surrounding Black Hills Estate Winery south of Oliver seem poised to deliver an abundant harvest of top-quality fruit.

Winemaker Graham Pierce of Black Hills Estate Winery in Oliver, B.C., received Semillon grapes last month, and he hopes to continue the harvest with Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc next week. Brix and acid levels in Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah are all coming into balance, and Pierce believes they’ll benefit from a warm, temperate period of hang time.

It’s a shift from this spring, when hot weather kicked vines toward véraison a week earlier than 2015.

“Everything got out of the gate really, really fast, so once you had that momentum going, things continued on,” he said. “We were like, ‘Holy smokes, this is going to be crazy.’”

Cooler weather provided welcome relief, and with the turn of the seasons putting a cap on temperatures, the only thing standing in the way of a photo-finish is an early frost.

“Our best-case scenario is high 20ºs C at this point,” he said. “But that’s where we really like to see the ripening, around 25º to 28º C,” (77º-83º F) he said. It’s “where you get a lot of that really good flavor development.”

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