Purple berries begin to show up in Washington vineyards

By on July 10, 2015
Sagemoor Vineyard Syrah, a Washington vineyard, is beginning to show a change in color.

A purple berry on a cluster of ripening Syrah was discovered Thursday at Sagemoor Vineyard in Washington’s Columbia Valley. The change in color, known by the French term veraison, is about three weeks early this year in Washington. (Photo courtesy of Lacey Lybeck/Sagemoor Vineyard)

In a vintage that so far has defied the record books for heat, Washington wine grape growers this week are beginning to see veraison – the time when grapes begin to turn from green to purple or, in the case of white wine grapes, green to yellow.

“We just found a few clusters of Syrah starting to turn,” said Lacey Lybeck, vineyard manager at Sagemoor Vineyards along the Columbia River north of Pasco, Wash. “There’s nothing on whites yet, but on random vines, you’ll see some purple berries.”

Traditionally, veraison begins toward the end of July or the first week of August.

Dick Boushey, owner of Boushey Vineyard in the Yakima Valley and vineyard manager for several Red Mountain properties, also reported finding veraison.

“We saw some at Col Solare in Malbec, Merlot and even Cabernet Sauvignon,” he said. “I’ve heard rumors about it at Cold Creek and up in Mattawa. I’ve even seen a little at my place. It’s amazing.”

Kevin Corliss, vineyard operations director for Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, confirmed he was receiving reports of veraison in vineyards on Red Mountain, in the Horse Heaven Hills, at Cold Creek and on the Wahluke Slope.

“We had a meeting (Thursday) morning, and I told the staff not to count on taking vacation in late August,” he said.

The first report of veraison came from Paul Champoux in the Horse Heaven Hills. The former owner of Champoux Vineyards found the first hints of purple in a block of Marquette on June 30 – a full six days earlier than last year.

Marquette is a cool-climate red variety developed by the University of Minnesota to handle harsh winters in places such as Minnesota, Wisconsin and New York. Champoux decided to put in a half-acre a few years ago because he went to Marquette High School in Yakima.

“The birds are zoning in on it,” Champoux told Great Northwest Wine. “I’m going to have to get that netted.”

Last year, Champoux picked his Marquette on Aug. 18, when he brought in 1.6 tons of fruit. This year, he expects it to come in even earlier.

“It’s about a week to 10 days earlier than last year,” he said.

Champoux, who sold his shares of the vineyard he made famous, said he hasn’t seen any veraison in Lemberger, which traditionally is quite early.

Harvest could begin in 4-5 weeks

Malbec changes color in Col Solare, a Washington vineyard.

This cluster of Malbec was photographed last year in early August at Col Solare’s vineyard on Red Mountain. (Photo by Niranjana Perdue/Great Northwest Wine)

Victor Palencia, director of winemaking for Columbia River’s Edge Winery in Mattawa and owner of Palencia Wine Co. in Walla Walla, said that because of the record heat wave that has kept the Columbia Valley sweltering, he could be harvesting in a month or so.

“We’ll probably start between Aug. 10 to 15,” he said.

Palencia said this is an anomaly, as he will be picking a small amount of Pinot Gris from young vines – barely enough to fill a fermenter. He said harvest probably won’t get geared up until the third or fourth week of August and into full production until the first week of September.

“Sauvignon Blanc in the middle of August? That’s pretty wild,” he said. “It’s taking a toll on my summer plans. I usually try to relax a little before harvest planning begins.”

Boushey said he doesn’t think the idea of an early harvest has sunk in with state winemakers.

“People do a lot of bottling this time of year,” he said. “Some winemakers I’ve spoken with said they’re getting new tanks in at the end of the month. There might be grapes coming in right behind them. I don’t think they really believe it.”

Kent Waliser, general manager of Sagemoor Vineyards, told one winemaker that he could be picking Sauvignon Blanc by Aug. 20, a full five days ahead of last year.

“It’s hard to see how we can’t be somewhat earlier than last year,” Waliser said. “If you made the wrong vacation plan, you might miss it.”

Washington vineyards begin to cool slightly

Washington vineyards are on the Wahluke Slope.

Last year, berries began to change color on the Wahluke Slope in mid-July, a couple of weeks earlier than normal. (Photo by Andy Perdue/Great Northwest Wine)

Temperatures, which have hit triple digits every day for the past two weeks, are supposed to drop into the mid-90s this weekend and next week in the arid Columbia Valley.

This will likely put the vines back into full ripening mode, as they’ve mostly shut themselves down during the heat wave to protect themselves. Boushey said his vines barely slowed down.

“It’s amazing,” he said. “If you’re keeping the vines somewhat healthy, they keep moving right along.”

Boushey figures he’s a week ahead of last year’s historically warm vintage and a full two to three weeks ahead of normal – “whatever that is anymore,” he quipped.

Lybeck said Sagemoor has used overhead sprinklers for about 15 minutes per day, which cools the vineyards by about 20 degrees.

“It keeps the vines healthy and really keeps them moving along,” she said.

Lybeck is new on the job as of early July, moving to Sagemoor from Milbrandt Vineyards on the Wahluke Slope. She said she saw veraison on July 15 last year at Clifton Bluff Vineyard on the western end of the appellation.

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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