Near-perfect Willamette Valley harvest hums along

by | Sep 19, 2014 | Grapes, News, Oregon wine | 0 comments

Melissa Burr is the head winemaker at Stoller Family Estate in Oregon's Dundee Hills.

Melissa Burr is the winemaker at Stoller Family Estate in Oregon’s Dundee Hills near Dayton. She is nearly done with harvest – at about the same time she would normally just be  getting started. (Photo by Andy Perdue/Great Northwest Wine)

DUNDEE, Ore. – Pinot Noir is coming in faster than it ever has in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, thanks to a warm vintage with near-perfect conditions.

“We’re almost done,” said Melissa Burr, head winemaker for Stoller Family Estate in the Dundee Hills. “It’s incredible. We’ve never had such a compressed harvest.”

Burr, who is in her 12th harvest at Stoller, started picking Pinot Noir on Aug. 27 for sparkling wine and Sept. 8 for still wines. At this point, she has 75 percent of her grapes brought in and should have most of the rest of her fruit in the cellar by next week. In most vintages, she would be starting harvest next week, she said.

This was a similar story elsewhere in the Willamette Valley.

Gary Horner, head winemaker for Erath Winery in the Dundee Hills, brought in Pinot Noir last week from the Umpqua Valley for its large “Oregon” bottling and picked some higher-tier Dundee Hills properties Thursday.

“I’m happy, but I’m also doing the weather dance,” Horner said.

A trace of rain was measured Thursday in the Willamette Valley, but it wasn’t a concern.

“The road was wet this morning,” Horner said. “But I’m not going to cancel a pick for that.”

Next week, Horner will begin bringing in grapes from his newest vineyard, Willakia in the Eola-Amity Hills northwest of Salem. Horner got Chardonnay from Willakia last year – before Ste. Michelle Wine Estates purchased the property – and made Erath’s first Chardonnay since Ste. Michelle bought the winery in 2006.

Now, Horner is drooling over the Pinot Noir he will soon receive.

“It’s insane, it’s absolutely gorgeous,” Horner told Great Northwest Wine. “We’re like kids in a candy shop with that vineyard.”

Horner spent four years at Bethel Heights Vineyard and another three at Witness Tree Vineyard, both in the southern Eola-Amity Hills, but this will be his first experience with Pinot Noir from the northern end of the appellation. He said the soils are much different, and the result will likely be a darker fruit profile.

Horner already is planning to craft a vineyard-designated Pinot Noir from Willakia – and possibly separate bottlings by block or even clones of Pinot Noir within the vineyard. He already produces no fewer than 16 different bottlings of Pinot Noir – including four from Prince Hill Vineyard in the Dundee Hills.

Unusually dry conditions slow part of Willamette Valley harvest

Oregon wine

Jim Bernau is founder and CEO of Willamette Valley Vineyards in Turner, Ore. (Photo courtesy of Willamette Valley Vineyards

Farther south at Willamette Valley Vineyards near Turner, CEO Jim Bernau has brought in just a little fruit.

“The acids are a little high,” he said. “We could stand some more ripening, so we’re holding off even though the brix (sugar levels) are high.”

This has been a remarkably warm, dry vintage in the normally cooler and wetter Willamette Valley.

“When you have beautiful weather, you have beautiful fruit,” Bernau said. “And we have that.”

Rollin Soles, owner/winemaker at ROCO Winery in Newberg, said high acids often appear during dry years because grapevines have more difficulty performing photosynthesis without moisture.

“It’s been extraordinarily dry,” Soles said.

He said his vineyards have irrigation, and he has made great use of them this year, which has helped his grapes ripen evenly.

“With our little bitty irrigation system, you can’t overwater,” Soles said. “We’re not set up for big-time irrigation like Eastern Washington or California. We’ve been watering, but it’s been pretty judicious compared with Eastern Washington.”

Washington’s Columbia Valley, where nearly all of the state’s vineyards are planted, has received about 3 inches of rain this year and relies completely on irrigation to get its vines through summer.

Soles said the Willamette Valley’s weather has been similar to what Sonoma County experiences every year, and his biggest problem has been protecting his crews.

“Our forklift drivers have to put sunblock on,” he said with a chuckle.

During harvest, most Willamette Valley grape growers and winemakers keep a keen eye on weather forecasts, and a weather system is predicted for the middle of next week that could drop as much as a quarter inch of rain.

Winemakers are unperturbed.

“I’m not concerned,” Soles said. “I’m predicting a beautiful Indian summer, similar to 2002. I remember how easy and glorious that was.”

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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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