October 31, 2005

Harvest 2005 – Old School in the Northern Willamette Valley

Harvest this year was my favorite yet. That’s not hard to say, considering my one prior harvest – very part-time at that – at a California winery in 1999, along with ongoing experiments with small batches of homemade wine here in Oregon since 2001. But this year I made a break through and worked harvest many days for an artisanal wine producer of pinot noir and other varieties. And I’m homebrewing a small barrel of pinot noir that I’m excited about.

Unfortunately, the weather in the northern Willamette Valley didn’t exactly cooperate. It wasn’t a total washout, though I’m sure the press will pitch it that way. Still, a dry and moderately warm growing season ended promptly on September 30 when the clouds rolled in, around 2 inches of rain fell, and cool weather rolled in for good. In Portland, we barely hit 70F for the whole month of October and saw on and off rain, nothing as dramatic as September 30 but enough to keep winemakers on their toes. This was old school Oregon, like the harvests you hear about from before 1998, which began a recent string of pretty straightforward harvests.

The winery I worked at likes to pick earlier than later, striving for ripe but not overripe grapes that produce food-friendly wines without too much alcohol. Sure enough, pretty much everything that came in before the big rains on September 30 looked perfect. At this winery, that meant nearly half of the total harvest and all of the estate fruit. So things started very well.

Then the skies opened and harvest was on hold for a few days until we dried out a little bit. When picking resumed under generally clear but cool skies, the grapes still looked good but came in wet. Sugars in many lots after the rain were lower by 1 to 2 brix, or percent sugar, compared to lots picked before the rain. While flavors in the initial lots remained good, as harvest continued over two more weeks, lots from increasingly higher elevations seemed slightly less ripe, as if they had needed another week or two of better weather to reach full potential. Rot was only a minor issue issue, probably due to the cool weather and healthy condition of the grapes before the rain.

All in all, October was not ideal, but what are you going to do. 2005 will of course produce some nice wines, especially if your tastes run to more elegant, nuanced wine. After the recent warm years where burly, alcoholic wines have become the norm, I’m also curious to see what local producers – especially the newer ones – turn out of this old-school Oregon vintage.

More soon on my harvest experience, and my homebrewing.