Telltale signs are all around — leaves change from green to golden tones and hues of red, days begin to shorten, vintners free up tank space by bottling the last of the previous vintage while fermenters are cleaned and put at the ready.
Crush in Southwest Washington’s wine country is upon us, and with another record-setting summer, 2015 is bound to go down in the history books as a very good year. But do warmer summers truly equate to an earlier harvest? The short answer: it depends.
Approximately 65 miles north of the Willamette Valley, Southwest Washington enjoys a similar climate to the fertile land of pinot noir country — warm summer days, cooler nights and potential for September rains right when harvest appears to be around the corner.
“Everything looks beautiful right now, and I’m excited right now — but I don’t want to get my hopes up,” said Gary Gouger, owner and winemaker at Gouger Cellars Winery. “Roots take the water up very quickly, so if heavy rains came for an extended period of time, you’d get berry split. So, there’s a fine balance between factors.”
Light rains aren’t as alarming as a severe weather event like the one experienced the last weekend in August, but the recent warming trend has been viewed as encouraging for vineyard owners, even to the point of allowing more local harvesting. This works for earlier ripening varietals such as whites, which are at their prime with a lower alcohol content and crisp acid flavor profile, and even thin-skinned reds like pinot noir, which does so well in Northern Oregon and Southwest Washington due to the moderate climate of this growing region.
Fuller-bodied reds such as merlot and cabernet sauvignon occupy less acreage in Clark County due to their need for a moderate to hot growing climate and preference for a longer hang time, but success is being found here. Still, the decision of when to harvest these grapes can be a nail-biting proposition as the risk of powdery mildew (aka fungus and mold) is introduced in wet conditions. So close to harvest, vineyard owners opt not to spray with sulfur because it inhibits the growth and reproduction of yeast, as well as causing off flavors in the wine, according to Michele Bloomquist, owner and winemaker at Heisen House Vineyards.
“This year things are looking really good,” Bloomquist said. “That nice early spring — it was dry when the plants bloomed, so there’s a good fruit set here locally, so there’s an abundant crop. … And we’ve had a nice hot summer.”
A matter of timing
A sometimes overlooked consideration with warmer summers is the possibility of grapes ripening too soon but not truly being ready in terms of overall structure. A slow and steady ripening season without prolonged hot days (grapes actually shut down when temperatures exceed 95 degrees) or excessive rainfall is ideal.
Still, some Clark County winemakers lean toward 2015 being only slightly early. The area has experienced a recent warming trend that could prove cyclical.
“Last year (harvest) was almost late,” said Jeremy Brown, owner and winemaker at Rusty Grape Vineyards. “I think that we’ve had such weird falls even on the east side that the base line of what’s on time or late is skewed. Then you talk to older guys, and they say we used to regularly crush in September and then it shifted to October. This year is definitely early. I think the four or five weeks that were initially predicted were moved more to three weeks early, but maybe it’s just about on time.”
With each harvest, the experience level of local winemakers continues to increase, more tasting rooms open and more acres are planted in grapes. Every crush is another opportunity to explore what the grapes have to offer and to bring out the best of that year, regardless of early or late harvests.
The number of Clark County wineries currently stands at 16, with at least another seven in various stages of the permitting process, and a dozen vineyards are growing for area wineries.
Grape diversity has enjoyed a steady increase year over year in Clark County. For instance, Bethany Vineyard & Winery grows pinot blanc, pinot gris, chardonnay and riesling along with pinot noir on its 26-acre estate vineyard in Ridgefield. Three Brothers Vineyard & Winery maintains rows of tempranillo, cabernet sauvignon, merlot and syrah. And mar?chal foch, a grape often planted to make Beaujolais-style wine, has proven successful at Battle Ground’s Olequa Cellars for its inherent resistance to powdery mildew and early ripening capabilities.
Area wineries also pull varietals from the Columbia River Gorge, Willamette Valley, Eastern Washington and California. Bringing grapes in from drier climates allows some crush activities to begin even earlier, like the recent load of merlot that Pomeroy Cellars picked up from the Yakima Valley on Sept. 1.
“We crushed a ton of merlot yesterday, and that was kind of our first batch, if you will. Everything looks really good and it’s definitely early because of the warm weather. I don’t know how intense the flavors are because of the early ripening. We’ll see how that goes,” said Dan Brink, owner and winemaker at Pomeroy.
He went on to note that harvest has occurred about four days to a week earlier every year for the past three years, using 2012 as a baseline.
The fruits of Clark County’s 2015 crush will be available in the form of whites being released in the late spring/summer of 2016 and reds in the summer/fall of 2017.