November 12, 2011

Harvest 2011, part 1 - it's a miracle

Yes, always.

Seriously, that has to be the answer if anyone ever again asks if the harvest is going to turn out. After this year, how could you say any different?

In the brief history of wine grape growing in Oregon's Willamette Valley, this year was historically cold and late. How late? Bud break in Pinot noir vines that should be in full swing in mid-April was still happening after Mother's Day because spring was so wet and cold. Flowering should happen by mid-June. This year it finally occurred on and after the fourth of July for the same reason. But the weather was great for flowering, meaning that lots of flowers that might have been knocked off by June wind and rain actually set as fruit, making for a potentially huge crop that might never get ripe. So growers immediately went into major triage mode, cutting off lots of new grape clusters to reduce the size of the crop in the hope of making sure what remained on the vines would actually ripen. Crop thinning happens every year, but this year it was more important than ever.

A nice benchmark for grape growing locally is that you might harvest grapes 100 days after flowering. So when flowering peaked in early July, I wrote here that we might begin picking around October 12. Ideally you would get more than those 100 days to further develop grape flavors and tannin, but this year that would put harvest into late October and early November for the coolest sites. If you don't know Willamette Valley weather, understand that we have warm and dry summers that often last into October. This is a great place for grape growing. But ask any kid around here - come Halloween it's usually cold, wet and windy. You really don't want to be sitting there in July thinking about harvesting grapes around Halloween, so you can imagine how hard it was to stay optimistic this year.

July proceeded to be relatively cool though dry, with August continuing the dry streak and summer temperatures finally coming on strong. I believe we didn't hit 90F locally until mid-August, ridiculously late for such a benchmark. Then the season began to turn in our favor. September was warmer overall than July and we entered October still facing a mid-month start to harvest, but on the cusp of something special if the weather held out.

It didn't, at least at first. Early October saw a quick change to autumn with cold temps and rain. Immediately we saw media reports of a ruined harvest, before any grapes had been picked. I'll admit, it was hard to remain optimistic, but what choice did we have? Then the skies cleared and the rest of October was amazingly mild and notably dry, perfect for ripening grapes. Finally, on October 20 it was time for our first pick of the season, at Armstrong vineyard on Ribbon Ridge.

How did it go? The picture at the top shows the sunrise October 20 from Bell Road as I made my way out to the vineyard. No fog, no rain, just a beautiful, perfect morning that told me we indeed had something special about to happen. Stay tuned for part 2, which won't take another month to write up. Harvest is finally about done and I couldn't be more excited for the results. Plus, now I have a little free time again.

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