Veraison comes early to Washington wine grapes

By on July 15, 2014
The Wahluke Slope in Washington state is one of the Columbia Valley's key grape-growing areas. Washington wine grapes are an important crop.

Harvest began early last year on Washington’s Wahluke Slope. On Monday, veraison was spotted in Malbec in a Wahluke Slope vineyard, signalling an early start to the final ripening phase of this year’s wine grape harvest. (Photo by Andy Perdue/Great Northwest Wine)

With one of the earliest reports ever of grapes beginning to change color in Washington state, 2013 is shaping up to be one of the warmest vintages on record.

On Monday, a grape grower reported to Ste. Michelle Wine Estates that it was seeing berries starting to turn purple in a Malbec block on the Wahluke Slope, said Kevin Corliss, vineyard operations director for Ste. Michelle.

“It’s pretty early,” Corliss told Great Northwest Wine. “’87 was pretty early. ’92 was pretty early. I’m not sure they were this early.”

Typically, grapes begin to change color – a process called veraison – during the first week of August in Washington. A year ago, veraison also was quite early, with reports coming in before July 20. That was two weeks earlier than normal.

Washington wine grapes likely to be another record

Washington state wine grape harvest is expected to top 200,000 tons in 2013.

Last year, Washington harvested 210,000 tons of wine grapes. With new vineyards coming into production, this is likely to result in another record crop in 2014. (Photo by Andy Perdue/Great Northwest Wine)

In addition, Corliss sees another record crop this fall, with Washington’s wine grape harvest expecting to exceed last year’s 210,000 tons.

Corliss is in the middle of his mid-summer crop estimate, and his established growers are seeing similar to slightly larger crops compared with 2013. With several hundred acres of vines coming into partial or full production this year, this will undoubtedly lead to a larger crop not only this year, but also for seasons to come – barring weather issues.

Ste. Michelle Wine Estates uses about two out of every three grapes grown in Washington, so its estimates tend to drive what happens across the state.

According to Washington State University, 2014 is slightly ahead of the warm 2013 vintage – and at least a month ahead of the historically cool 2011 vintage.

Heat is on for Washington wine grapes

Wade Wolfe is the owner and winemaker at Thurston Wolfe Winery in Prosser, Washington.

Wade Wolfe, owner and winemaker of Thurston Wolfe Winery in Prosser, Wash., walks through a vineyard in the Horse Heaven Hills. (Photo by Andy Perdue/Great Northwest Wine)

And it’s only going to grow warmer this week, as temperatures across the vast Columbia Valley will hit triple digits for the next three days – and will be blistering for the next 10 days.

This concerns grape growers, who will need to be extra careful while tending their vineyards. Here’s why: When temperatures go above about 95 degrees, wine grapes will “shut down” and go into survival mode – and photosynthesis abruptly halts. If this happens by mid- to late morning and lasts through evening, these are prime hours during which grapes will not ripen.

Thus, even though the vineyards are accumulating heat, the grapes are not coming any closer to ripeness.

“We’re losing eight to 10 hours of ripening each day,” said Norm McKibben, owner of Pepper Bridge Winery in Walla Walla. “That doesn’t damage anything, but it does delay them a little bit. We’re way ahead of schedule, so it doesn’t worry me.”

To prepare for extreme heat events such as this week and next, growers across Washington wine country are taking extra precautions.

“We don’t stop the water,” said Todd Newhouse, who farms his family’s Upland Vineyards on Snipes Mountain, a hill near Sunnyside in the Yakima Valley. “Our soils are fast-draining anyways. With this heat, we don’t dare stop the water for very long.”

Ideally, Newhouse likes to water in the mornings when there is less chance of water evaporating before it hits the soil. However, he can’t water all of his vines at once, so he runs his irrigation system whenever he can.

He’s also concerned about equipment breakdowns.

“When you have this kind of heat, things can go wrong,” he said. “When a water line breaks, usually it’s a couple of days before you can fix it. Normally, grapes will give you a couple of days (without being watered), but in this heat, you have to think ahead. It’s another reason to keep them hydrated – in case something doesn’t work. You just try to stay a little bit ahead.”

This chart from Washington State University shows how 2014 is comparing with previous vintages and long-term averages with regards to heat units.

This chart from Washington State University shows how 2014 is comparing with previous vintages and long-term averages with regards to heat units.

Wade Wolfe, owner and winemaker at Thurston Wolfe in Prosser, echoed Newhouse, saying grape growers “just need to make sure they don’t run short on water.”

He said this is the time of year when growers go through their vines and pull leaves to expose the fruit. But with this extreme heat, too much leaf thinning could lead to sunburned grapes – something that winemakers want to avoid.

“We won’t have any development this week,” he said. “It’s just a matter of making sure the vines don’t get stressed during this period.”

Patricia Gelles, owner of Klipsun Vineyards on Red Mountain, said the 2014 vintage has been close to perfect so far, and it seems the Columbia Valley always heats up in mid- to late July.

“It’s been just perfect so far,” she said. “We didn’t have a bad winter, and we had a reasonable spring. We often get hot spells – but not quite this hot. The weather is the one thing over which we have no control.”

About Andy Perdue

Andy Perdue is founding partner of Great Northwest Wine LLC and a longtime wine columnist. He is a third-generation journalist who has worked at newspapers since the mid-1980s and has been writing about wine since 1998. He co-founded Wine Press Northwest magazine with Eric Degerman and served as its editor-in-chief for 15 years. He is the author of "The Northwest Wine Guide: A Buyer's Handbook" (Sasquatch, 2003) and has contributed to four other books.

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