A cold spring, a cool summer and a little sunshine at the end of the season makes harvest time interesting for Willamette Valley vineyard owners and wine makers. East, west and south, the winemakers were preparing for harvest all summer long. Now, with the grapes in the barrel, winemakers are smiling with the results. When the bottles are uncorked, fingers are crossed for no sour grapes.
Ankeny Vineyard Winemaker Andy Thomas said that the crop season was a lot shorter than usual. “We had to drop a lot of fruit in order to keep ripeness even,” said Thomas. The cool growing and shorter season were two double whammies that made the industry have to shuffle.
“As far as quality goes, as far as I can tell, quality might be good; it might be exceptionally good. The juice tastes good. At this point we go with what we’ve got.” Ankeny Vineyard, near Jefferson, specializes in Pinot noir, Pinot gris, and Marechal Foch. “This wine that we are working on right now will be released in about two years. We hope that when it is opened we will be talking about the wine, not the weather. Although those of us who had their hand in the wine always remember the weather.”
The weather shift is blamed on an El Niño current. The front kept temperatures from getting high, and grapes took longer to achieve peak ripeness. “We kept hoping ripeness would catch up. It did in the end, but we had to let it [the fruit] hang longer. But we were able to get what we had ripe enough,” said Thomas.
Pete Buffington has been in the wine industry for forty years. He and his business partner, Marsha Buffington, own Abiqua Wind Vineyard, near Silverton. “This year’s weather was a winery and wine grower’s nightmare,” Pete said. “I think those of us that managed to get their crop off will survive. But long-term it will reduce the overabundance of fruit and hold prices steady, and on the wine side, it should hold wine prices steady.”
“Our vineyard was planted in 1978. It was one of Oregon’s earlier vineyards in the Willamette Valley. The Pinot gris vines were purchased from David Lett, one of the founders of the Oregon wine industry, the first person to bring Pinot gris to Oregon. Preventive management helped fight off the mold and mildew that challenged growers.
So dropping fruit early, in July rather than September, means wineries are removing the least ripe fruit and will end up with higher quality in the picking bin come harvest.
“Originally I was going to let the birds have the Pinot noir, but I decided to fight through it, and I didn’t give up. There was a lot of fruit that didn’t get harvested this year.”
This year’s whites will come out in February and July, according to Buffington. “With the reds, there is no telling. Surprises can happen in the barrel. You never know. They don’t call the Pinot noir the wine of tears for nothing. It makes winemakers cry,” said Buffington.
Cherry Hill Vineyard in Rickreall guards 88 acres of Pinot gris grapes. They are very pleased with the ripeness of fruit this year. “We had a weather window that opened up; it brought sunshine and heat,” said Ken Cook, winemaker and vineyard manager. “Our sugars are lower, but all the pH numbers were just right and the number one issue really always revolved around ripeness and flavor. We really came around. Beautiful color, great complex flavor and really good ripeness. I guess to sum it up, I have a good feeling it is going to be a good vintage.”
Cook agreed that the weather in the area can be quite different. “From what I hear, echoing the sound from the industry, most folks are going to tell you that they are happy with the quality. The only negative is the sugar levels, but that is not normally of high importance. It’s all about flavor and development, and this crop was worth the wait.”
“A lot of people didn’t get what they wanted,” Cook said. “But that is just the nature of the business. The bottom line is, it’s all about farming and you are at the mercy of Mother Nature. A great percentage of wine quality is right from the vineyard. It’s about protecting the quality of fruit we receive and to craft it to a great product. That is just part of it. From a vineyard manager and a winemaker’s perspective it makes it exciting. It’s about the hope and promise of a better vintage than the last one. We are always looking on the horizon for a better vintage, for perfection.”