As expected, the Washington wine industry’s 2016 harvest for grapes was a record.
The Washington State Wine Commission released statistics Wednesday morning, and the 2016 Grape Crush Report showed a record crop of 270,000 tons harvested last fall, eclipsing 2014’s record of 227,000 tons.
Leading the way was Cabernet Sauvignon at a stunning 71,100 tons, making it by far the king of Washington wine.
“That’s a lot,” said Kevin Corliss, vice president of vineyard operations for Ste. Michelle Wine Estates. “I knew it was going to be big.”
Cab now makes up 26 percent of the state’s total production and is the first grape to crack 70,000 tons in one season. That figure surpasses the state’s entire crop of 1999.
Corliss has a good handle on the state’s grape crop because Ste. Michelle uses two out of every three wine grapes grown in Washington. He said Cab acreage increased a bit more than 5 percent last season. This doesn’t include vineyards coming into full production, something that takes up to four years after vines are planted.
“What we see going forward is steady growth,” he said. “Cab is still king.”
Merlot, Syrah still growing
Following Cab is Merlot, with 48,400 tons, up from 3,200 tons last year. Syrah is the No. 3 red grape in Washington, at 21,300 tons, up from 16,000 tons last year.
Both Merlot and Syrah have been difficult sells on store shelves in recent years, so some might scratch their heads over this increase. Bob Bertheau, head winemaker for Chateau Ste, Michelle – the state’s largest and oldest winery – explained both of those grapes are useful in blends.
“I view them as universal donors,” he said, indicating they help soften Cabernet Sauvignon, making it a better wine, a tradition going back to European winemaking.
From a logistics standpoint, having a little Merlot and Syrah in each new vineyard planting is smart, Corliss said. Both grapes tend to ripen early in September, so getting them fermented and out of the way when the onslaught of Cabernet Sauvignon starts coming in is easier on the wineries.
Riesling, Chardonnay, enjoy growth
For white wines, Chardonnay reigns. Last fall, winemakers brought in 45,000 tons of Chardonnay compared with 42,000 last year.
Meanwhile, Riesling continues to retreat, with 41,300 tons harvested last fall compared with 44,100 tons last year.
Corliss said Chardonnay is growing at a slow, steady rate. The drop in Riesling, he said is expected and he believes that the amount available in Washington is balanced with what consumer demands are.
For the first time, Bertheau said, Chateau Ste. Michelle’s production of Columbia Valley Chardonnay is the same as his Columbia Valley Riesling production: around 900,000 cases. He said “We’re on pace for consumer demand.” He added that red wine production at Ste. Michelle is keeping pace with the right wine production: about a 3-to-1 ratio.
The growth is being led by plantings in the Horse Heaven Hills. Leading the way, of course, is Cabernet Sauvignon with nearly 6,700 acres in the Horse Heaven Hills having doubled since 2009. Where red wine acreage and Horse Heaven’s top 10,000 acres in 2016 for the first time, white wine acreage crept up to nearly 4,000 acres, led by Chardonnay.
Part of Corliss’s job at Ste. Michelle used to keep his crystal ball clean.
“We look at a 10-year supply-and-demand horizon,” he said.
Based on his projections, Cab probably will cracker 10,000 tons next year.
He said winter damage from this year’s large amounts of snow in the Columbia Valley did not look too bad. But damages are slight and limited to vines, which can easily be retrained.
Corliss seems slightly surprised by the slow growth in Malbec, which jumped from 2,400 tons last year to 2,700 tons last fall. He attributed that to the fact that most Malbec is in high-tier programs, therefore tonnage per acre is naturally lower. He expects Malbec to continue to rise in popularity in tonnage in years to come.