The Columbia Valley’s topsy-turvy weather is turning the 2016 vintage into one of the most unusual in Washington wine history.
“I don’t know if I’ve seen a year like this before,” said Damon LaLonde, who manages several vineyards on Red Mountain and his own French Creek Vineyard in the Yakima Valley. “I’ve had a hard time just figuring out how to irrigate. I don’t know what normal is anymore.”
According to Washington State University, 2016 began as perhaps the warmest vintage on record, racing ahead through a warm spring and leaving expectations that harvest could begin even earlier than the 2015 crush. A year ago, the warmest year on record saw harvest begin Aug. 6 at Red Willow and Artz vineyards – plantings on opposite ends of the Yakima Valley.
But in the past three weeks, temperatures in the 70s and 80s have slammed the brakes on the accumulation of heat.
Dave Minick oversees vineyard operations for Seattle-based Precept Wine, which owns about 3,000 acres of vines in Washington – and more than 4,200 acres across the Pacific Northwest.
“That week before July 4, we got all that cool weather,” he told Great Northwest Wine. “It made things stop, which isn’t a bad thing. In June, we were probably tracking almost a week ahead of last year, which is really starting to get out there. Now, we’re a little behind last year.”
Precept tracks heat accumulation in its own vineyards, and its records show that all six of its locations are now well behind 2015 but still a little ahead of the warm 2014 vintage.
“Personally, I’m glad it’s slowed down,” he said.
Washington wine harvest still to be early
None of this means that Washington’s wine grape harvest will begin later than usual – or even on time. In typical years – with 2012 being the last average vintage – harvest begins around Labor Day.
Viticulturists are growing weary of trying to predict the beginning of harvest this year because of the strange weather that has included days of intense heat followed by highs in the 70s – all intermingled with rain.
“It’ll probably start the third week of August,” said Dick Boushey, who owns Boushey Vineyards north of the Yakima Valley town of Grandview and also farms several vineyards on warm Red Mountain.
Kevin Corliss, vice president of vineyards for Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, said his best guess right now is that he might start bringing in a little Sauvignon Blanc in the second or third week of August.
Minick, who brought in his first Chardonnay for sparkling wine last year on Aug. 8, thinks it will be about Aug. 12 to 15.
“It’s kind of early to pin it down,” he said. “I know it’s not going to be the 8th again.”
LaLonde was picking grapes for sparkling wine last year on Aug. 18, and he believes it could be the same or even a few days earlier this year.
“But it’s impossible to predict,” he said.
Boushey doesn’t want to hurry along his vineyards because he sees the later months as the key to great wine.
“We have all of September and October,” he said. “Those are the two best months in Washington.”
Viticulturists manage heat
Compared with last year’s heat-stressed vines, growers see much healthier vines in 2016. Boushey said he has adjusted his strategies to accommodate the warmer vintage.
For example, he has allowed the vines’ canopies – the leaves – to be a little bigger.
“My two best blocks last year had a little bigger canopies,” he said. “We picked later, and the numbers were a little more balanced.”
With 2016 being the fourth consecutive warm vintage in Washington, Boushey and other growers are dealing with the heat a little better.
“We’re learning,” he said. “We’re hiding the fruit more. Hanging a little more fruit – maybe just a half-ton more – pushes you into cooler temperatures.”
Boushey is wary of picking too early and going solely by sugar accumulation. He would rather slow his vines and let the fruit hang around a bit.
“In 2013, we had a warm year, then it cooled in September,” he said. “Some picked too early because sugars were up. Those who waited two to three weeks got more refined tannins without a lot of sugar accumulation. You gotta have the flavor without the harsh tannins.”
Vintage appears to be large, healthy
Meanwhile, there’s plenty of color out in the vineyards. Veraison – the French term for when grapes begin to change color – was spotted this year in late June and began to show up more consistently the second week of July. That’s a full three weeks earlier than average.
The temperature dips have slowed veraison, growers said.
“We started to see a few berries getting soft and turning color around July 8,” Corliss said. “We were waiting for things to really change, and they just sat there.”
But now veraison is charging forward again.
“This past weekend, I went to Red Mountain and Cold Creek Vineyard, and the change has been amazing,” he said. “We’re well into veraison now.”
He’s also seeing Cabernet Sauvignon changing color, a red variety that historically is one of the last to ripen in Washington. This, Corliss fears, could lead to a harvest that is a little more compressed.
Growers said they are pleased with the health and size of their crops.
“I expect a pretty clean vintage,” said Corliss, whose company uses two out of every three grapes grown in Washington. “The crop is pretty healthy.”
LaLonde said he’s had to be more diligent with combating mildew because of rain that has occurred about every three weeks. But he’s happy to do that rather than walk his vineyards under triple-digit temperatures.
“It’s been a beautiful year out in the vineyard,” he said. “Eighty-eight degrees is heaven.”
Minick not only has been trying to figure out this strange season, but he’s also had to worry about wildfires. A 4,000-acre blaze July 14 rolled up against his Skyfall Vineyard, which is across Interstate 82 from Red Mountain. A half-dozen Chardonnay vines were singed, and Washington State Universiry is sending out researchers to look at the affected fruit and study it for smoke taint.
Washington’s largest wine grape harvest to date was in 2014, when winemakers brought in 227,000 tons of fruit. Last year, it fell off slightly to 222,000. Thanks to a healthy crop that hasn’t been stressed by heat, the tonnage isn’t likely to go down.
In fact, this could well be another record year because of several hundred acres of new vines coming into production in the Horse Heaven Hills, on the Wahluke Slope and on Red Mountain. Most new vineyard plantings are Cabernet Sauvignon, with the bulk going to Ste. Michelle Wine Estates. This year, it is conceivable that Cabernet Sauvignon could exceed 50,000 tons for the first time, as last year’s number was 47,400 tons.
Harvest numbers typically are released each February.