#4 Story: Stellar Harvest Shaping up

First Published in the November 2009 Edition

By Karl Klooster

Northern and Central Willamette Valley

The overall outcome for 2009 is excellent, with ripe, well-balanced fruit, large, even clusters and heavier than average crop load despite aggressive thinning.

Winegrowers began bringing in fruit from younger vines and lower elevations during the latter days of September. Then they had to hold off until more mature vineyards at higher elevations and in cooler microclimates reached full physiological development.

The weeklong waiting game paid off in spades. Completion of picking in the vast majority of vineyards came over the first weekend in October. By Oct. 3, more than 90 percent of the Northern and Central Willamette Valley 2009 harvest was in the winery.

Longtime industry members agreed they had never seen so much dehydration in Pinot Noir, but were confident that minor winemaking adjustments would ameliorate brix readings of 24 or more.

Dessication, the process of drying up, did not affect white varieties and only scattered instances of botrytis were evident in either reds or whites. Lovely flavor profiles and conentrated juice appeared to be well balanced by unobtrusive tannins, good pH levels and firm acidity.

Following are a few comments from around the area:

Laurent Montalieu of NW Wine Co and Soléna Cellars: “Everything is looking really good. We’re getting the highest sugars I’ve ever seen, along with great concentration and nicely balanced tannins.”

Maria Ponzi of Ponzi Vineyards: “Across our estate, everything was bountiful and beautiful.”

Matt Novak of Results Partners: “The flavors are there. Acids and tannins are balanced, and cluster weights are eye-popping.”

Steve Doerner of Cristom: “All I can say is, it looks like a great vintage, again!”

Southern Willamette Valley

King Estate in Lorane is Oregon’s largest winery as well as its largest estate winegrower. According to winemaker Jeff Kandarian, they achieved better overall ripeness in 2009 than in 2008, which is saying something.

Harvest began for them on Sept. 25, when slightly under-ripe grapes were picked for the winery’s new sparkling wine program. Although they are awaiting a final delivery of fruit from Southern Oregon, the last estate blocks were brought in Oct. 16.              

“We got exceptional color, near perfect acids with no need for any adjustment and even, ripe seeds, which is unusual here,” Kandarian said. “I think it’s going to be a spectacular vintage.”

At nearby Sweet Cheeks Winery, the story was similar. “We had a very good growing season,” General Manager Lorrie Normann said. “Heat units were similar to 2006. Our entire harvest lasted just six days. We started on Oct. 6 and were done on Oct. 12.

“We’re quite happy with what we got. Very clean fruit. Brix in the low 20s. Beautiful flavor profiles.”

Umpqua Valley

One of nine wineries situated just outside Roseburg, Abacela Vineyards has had notable success with Spanish as well as French varietals. Owner Earl Jones initially predicted that picking would begin by mid-September, but he was off by 10 days.

“Must have been those heat spikes,” he said. “It all came in quickly. We were 90 percent done within 2 1/2 weeks.

“This is going to be a very good vintage. Our Tempranillo, Albariño and Syrah are all as good as it gets. Grenache had some botrytis, which I’ve never seen before.”

North of Roseburg and closer to the ocean, the late ripening varieties planted at Brandborg Vineyard in Elkton benefit from a long-cool flavor maturation, if the weather cooperates.

In addition to its own wines, the winery does custom crush for others. Owner Terry Brandborg said the first grapes arrived Sept. 24 and continued into the third week of October.

 “We have good flavors and moderate alcohols,” he said. “There are a few grapes still out there and they’re continuing to get carbohydrates from the roots. One block of Cabernet could come in as late as mid-November.”

Rogue, Illinois, Applegate Valleys

RoxyAnn Winery’s estate vineyards are located in one of Oregon’s warmest and most consistent growing areas just east of Medford. Managing Director Michael Donovan called the 2009 harvest, “Outstanding. Our best to date.”

The growing season was drier and hotter than ever. They worked with Matt Novak of Results Partners as well as a consultant from California on irrigation and cultivation protocols.

“We are finding out what really works here in Southern Oregon,” he said. “We doubled our yields from last year and finished picking on Oct. 12. Brix averaged 22.5 to 24 with a broad spectrum of excellent flavor profiles.”

Average temperatures moderate as you go west of Medford into the Applegate and Illinios valleys. Bridgeview Vineyards in Cave Junction owns and manages vineyards in both areas.

General Manager/Winemaker René Eichmann couldn’t be happier with this year’s harvest, despite concern late in the growing season when a heat spell set in, shutting down the vines for a couple of weeks.

“Then everything was ready at almost the same time, and we were thankful for our mechanical harvester,” he said. “We put it to use, day and night, for 16 hours at a time—pretty much every day for two weeks straight.”

Heavier crop loads are the norm here with three tons per acre for Pinot Noir, but Eichmann said they had a near perfect harvest in terms of ripeness, balanced acidity and  pH. Their last picking was Merlot and Cabernet in the Applegate Valley on Oct.17.

Columbia Gorge and Eastern Oregon

Lonnie Wright of The Pines 1852 in The Dalles tends 170 acres of vineyards from Hood River to The Dalles, including some of Oregon’s oldest vines. The majority is for other wineries, with about 20 percent going into his own label.

He said picking started a bit late this year, Sept. 20, with early- to mid-season varieties benefiting from perfect conditions for ripening in September.

“The Gorge makes our nights cooler than in eastern Washington,” he said. “That gives us slower, more complex flavor maturation.”

Wright noted that an early frost killed the first buds so tonnage this year turned out on the low to average side. Conversely, the recent hard frost farther east didn’t bother them because lower elevations in the Gorge are planted to early ripening varieties that have already been harvested.

“We picked for 18 straight days after the 20th,” he said. Our old-vine Zin came in on Oct. 10. The only thing left is a little bit of Zinfandel, Cabernet and Grenache. We should be totally done by October 28.

“I feel this is going to be a great vintage. I’m really excited about it. Sugars came on early. Total acidity took awhile to develop but now we have excellent balance.”

The southern end of the Walla Walla Valley, which stretches over the state boundary into Oregon, is the state’s easternmost winegrowing region and home to Zerba Cellars of Milton-Freewater.

Varieties such as Merlot, Syrah, Sangiovese, Dolcetto, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot are the winery’s forte. They’re also testing how Grenache and Mourvedre, popular varieties from southeastern France, will fare there.

Cecil Zerba said they picked the last of their grapes Oct. 19 to avoid damage from the severe frosts that hit the Valley that week.

“The fruit was still fine, but it had to be brought in,” he said. “We could have used a little more hang time to build flavors, but you work with what you’ve got.”

Fortunately, this was the tail end of the harvest, which saw the winery taken in a total of 200 tons, 60 for clients and 140 for its own label.

“We’ve purposely kept our yields low to improve quality,” Zerba said. “One cluster per shoot yielded just under two tons per acre. We got good quality and balance. Brix averaged 24.” 

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