As winter settles in across Washington wine country, the frantic work of harvest, fermentation and pressing is all but behind winemaking teams.
For the most part, wines have completed their secondary malolactic fermentation – at least those that go through the process that softens their acidity – and that means Washington winemakers are able to begin to reflect on the new vintage in barrel and tank and assess the quality of what is to come.
So far, all signs point to the historically warm 2015 vintage as being superb across the board.
“It’s extraordinary,” said Chris Upchurch, winemaker and co-owner of DeLille Cellars in Woodinville. “We’re seeing deeper concentration than we’ve ever seen before. The concentration is just fabulous. We expect to make really incredible wines.”
From bud break to the conclusion of harvest, 2015 was always ahead of the typical calendar in Washington wine country. Bud break was a couple of weeks early, as was bloom, veraison and harvest – which began a month sooner than typical.
Tossing out the calendar
Upchurch told Great Northwest Wine that 2015 was a year to “throw away the calendar and don’t worry about what day it is.” In other words, if you normally picked a certain vineyard around Oct. 15, that was out the window this year.
“The whites are already showing themselves to be vibrant,” he said. “The Syrahs are good. Merlots and Cabs are even better. We just had to throw away the calendar and pay attention.”
Rich Funk, owner and winemaker of Saviah Cellars in the Walla Walla Valley, agreed.
“I think we have some crazy good wines,” Funk said. “I was pretty scared going into this vintage when bud break was two weeks early, bloom was two weeks early and we had some winter damage from last November. Thank goodness we didn’t have any problems.”
Indeed, after a string of more than 10 days in the Columbia Valley that topped triple-digit temperatures, the weather settled down and never seemed to let up until mid-September when they began to cool a little.
“Every year has its challenges,” Funk said. “But we didn’t have any weather issues during harvest. We didn’t have to start a single wind machine. There was no pressure except it was earlier.”
Funk said the harvest started much earlier than normal, and getting out into the vineyards every day was important.
“Things were moving pretty quickly,” he said.
But harvest wrapped up so early, Funk and his crew even had time to go fly fishing on the Grande Ronde River the last week of October – when normally they would be picking Cabernet Sauvignon and other late ripeners.
Red Mountain reds beginning to evolve
Charlie Hoppes, owner and winemaker for Fidelitas Wines on Red Mountain, grew up in the Yakima Valley and has been in the Washington winemaking game for nearly 30 years. Until 2015, he thought he’d seen it all.
Normally, Hoppes and other winemakers look at Labor Day as their last respite before the 60-day march of harvest that wraps up around Halloween. This year, the grapes simply would not wait.
“I’d never dealt with that kind of heat before,” he said. “Going into harvest, we were more aware that things could get out of control. I’ve never picked so much fruit in August – ever. We had so much fruit in the door by Sept. 1.”
Hoppes gets almost all of his grapes from Red Mountain, and he’s just now able to begin assessing what is in barrel.
“We’re done with ML (malolactic fermentation). We’re topping barrels and doing some maintenance,” he said. “The fermentations weren’t problematic. We got through them more routinely than we did with the 2014s.”
In fact, Hoppes is a bigger fan of his ’15 reds so far than he is with his ’14s.
“We’ve got a lot of great Cabernet in the door,” he said. “You’re always going to be good with Merlot because it’s so early. The quality is pretty darned good.”
Funk said he had to be really careful during fermentation because he feared that with the higher sugars he was seeing in his grapes, tannin extraction was going to be tricky.
“I think we nailed it,” he said. “I don’t think we missed the boat. I think we have some really nicely balanced wines. I would have to say Cabernets are our strongest so far. They’re big and bold and full bodied.”
Extra work in vineyard during 2015
Because of the excessive heat in June, winemakers and growers had to work extra hard in July and August. Much of the problem was sunburned fruit that could cause off-flavors in the cellar.
“We had to make some extra passes through the vineyard after veraison,” Funk said. “Syrah and Merlot had a little sunburn, but we were able to get that out. Cabernet weathered the heat pretty well.”
“We had some problems with sunburn,” he said. “But that’s the key to having a good vineyard manager. You just hand sort it out and cut your yields. You get in there and do the work and clean up what needs to be cleaned up. As a result, the wines are pretty spectacular.”
Thanks to the early harvest, work in the cellar is a couple of weeks ahead of normal, and winemakers are keeping an eye on their barrels at a slower pace through the next few weeks. As they wrap up their blending and bottling for their 2014 reds, they’ll begin to look at where their 2015 wines begin to fit into their programs and portfolios.
“There’s some pretty good wine here,” Funk said. “They’re nicely balanced. The acids held in there. We didn’t end up with big, flabby, hot wines.”