The fall harvest throughout the West has turned more exciting than any winemaker or grape grower would prefer. We have written over the last several weeks about the challenges California has faced so far, so we felt it was appropriate to cover the goings on closer to home, in the vineyards of Washington, Oregon and Idaho. And there has been much going on to be sure!
No need to rehash the weather in Coeur d’Alene. Last weekend, we could all see the huge snowflakes that fell throughout Saturday and much of Sunday. The cold temperatures wrecked many late yielding tomato plants and other tender foliage. While it didn’t snow as far south as Walla Walla, Yakima and other grape producing regions around the Northwest, these other regions have seen a similarly cold and wet snap over the last week.
First, for the good news. The majority of white grapes and early ripening reds, like Syrah and Merlot in Washington and some of the Pinot Noir in Oregon, have been harvested with good to great results. Harvest crews were working non-stop leading into last weekend’s cold and wet weather to get as much fruit harvested and into the fermenters as they could. We have heard from many growers and winemakers that the crop of white wine grapes from vineyards around the Northwest look nothing short of spectacular. This is no doubt the result of near perfect growing conditions over the summer.
Similarly, they are singing the praises of early ripening red varietals like Syrah and Merlot. One of our favorite winemakers, Rich Funk, at Saviah, said, “I have never been so happy with our Rocks Syrah, thinking this is a blockbuster year for our estate vineyards located in the cobbly soils of the Rocks District.”
Now for the more challenging aspects of the recent weather. The frequent downpours, while nerve wracking and challenging for the logistics of harvest, actually have not created any real damage to the crop. The canopy on the vines (this is the layer of leaves that overhang the vine) has been left full, as the warm, dry and moderate summer has allowed ripening without the need to drastically reduce the canopy. This is a real bonus as the leaves help protect the grapes from the rain. In addition, just as we experienced in California a couple weeks back, the rains have been followed up by some stiff breezes, which helps to dry the grapes.
The rapid and severe cool down is playing havoc with the grape chemistry right now. This is the bigger and more frightening challenge. This cold snap, according to many growers in all three grape producing states, has caused both the acid levels or pH, and brix a measure of the sugar level in the grapes to drop. This is affecting late ripening varietals in Idaho and Washington, like Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Petite Verdot, Malbec and some others. In Oregon, it is affecting the cooler Pinot Noir growing sites and in the southern part of the state, the later ripening Bordeaux varietals. Grape growers are beginning to feel a sense of urgency for some warm, sunny weather, to bring the grape chemistry and ripening back into line. Risks are greatly increasing as growers and winemakers wait for the warm weather to return, as the frequency and severity of cold, wet weather increase as we move into October and November. While “hang time” for grapes is generally good, as it increases the flavor profile on the grapes, the proper weather conditions are necessary for the additional time to be positive. Cool, wet weather over an extended harvest will greatly increase the risk of mold and rot.
Only time will tell if some warm, sunny days materialize to bring grape chemistry and ripeness into line. While we wait, we send good thoughts to our friends in the wineries and vineyards around the Northwest. They have far more invested, and harvest seasons like this will certainly test their fortitude.
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George Balling is co-owner with his wife, Mary Lancaster, of the dinner party, a wine and gift shop in Coeur d’Alene by Costco. The dinner party has won the award for best wine shop in North Idaho twice, including for 2018. George is also published in several other publications around the country. After working in wineries in California and judging many wine competitions, he moved to Coeur d’Alene with Mary more than 10 years ago to open the shop. You can also follow us on Facebook at facebook.com/#!/dinnerpartyshop.