Longest Hanging Fruit

By Karl Klooster

As you read this, the 2011 Oregon wine harvest is over. The second week of November saw the last few grapes from the latest ripening varieties and the highest elevation vineyards in wine regions around the state.

By all accounts, the outcome has turned out much better than anticipated just a month or so prior. With one of the latest starts to a growing season on record, the odds for mature grapes on a widespread basis seemed iffy at best.

At least one premature prediction of gloom and doom elicited cries of foul from an outraged industry. The displeasure proved more than justified by early reports of beautifully balanced fruit and, unlike last year, a minimum of bad birds.

Young and low-elevation vines begin to produce ripe fruit first, of course. As early as mid-October some prime sites in the Willamette Valley were yielding Pinot Noir grapes with all the credentials a cool-climate winemaker could want.

As wineries began processing, they were excited over exceptionally large, even clusters with no signs of botrytis mold. Brix readings, which measure sugar content, averaged in the lower range of full ripening, but displayed well-developed flavor profiles with balanced acidity and pH. This adds up to a nearly ideal scenario for winemakers focusing on the finicky Burgundian grape.

Michael Stevenson of Panther Creek Cellars summed it up by saying, “In a very warm year, Pinot Noir gets overripe, and the alcohols turn out high, which can mask the complex, delicate flavors. A year like this gives us everything we want to make classic Pinots. I love it.”

Stevenson’s sentiments were echoed throughout the Oregon industry, which seeks to differentiate its Pinots from highly extracted “fruit bombs” produced in warmer climates, bearing little resemblance to the French Burgundies they are supposedly striving to emulate.

Not that Pinot Noir is the only thing out there. Pinot Gris, Chardonnay and Riesling are definitely players. But, since Pinot represents a large percentage of Oregon’s vineyard acreage, the noble red winegrape is of an extraordinary interest to Oregon wine appreciators.

Given the very late start, vineyard managers were understandably uncertain about Mother Nature’s temperament at the end of the season. So they dropped a significant amount of fruit early.

This precautionary measure is frequently employed, at least to some extent, in order to ensure ripe fruit from what remains on the vine. Paradoxically, it proved to be a good idea this year but for an unanticipated reason.

In many instances, cluster weight is almost double the norm.

“You can cut back to one cluster per shoot,’ noted Rob Stuart of R. Stuart & Co., who contracts with several different growers from his McMinnville facility. “But that’s it, unless you want the shoot to produce nothing.”

As a result, even in the most modest cases, tonnage per acre is averaging on the high side. It all depends on how much fruit a particular grower decided to drop.

Preliminary estimates indicate that total tonnage from the 2011 vintage in Oregon may not match 2009’s record 40,200 tons, but it will certainly come close. That number will have to await final tabulation.

On Nov. 4, Stevenson said he received Pinot Noir from Freedom Hill Vineyard in the coastal foothills near Dallas, at almost four tons per acre. “We had to remove some botrytis from clusters on the sorting line, but the overall quality is excellent.”

Martha Karson of Vista Hills Vineyard said their 42 acres in the Dundee Hills were averaging about 2.5 tons each, despite relatively high elevation. The highest block at Vista Hills, which features 35.5 acres planted to Pinot Noir, is at 813 feet. White Rose is the only higher Dundee Hills Vineyard, topping out at 838 feet.

Higher elevation vineyards present the greatest ripening concern every year. In a season like this one, these sites are particularly problematical. A few more days, a few warmer days, a few drier days can make all the difference.

Stuart contracts fruit from Menefee, a newer vineyard in the foothills northwest of Yamhill.  By the first week of November, he knew no more ripening would occur, as the vines had shut down. But the fruit will continue to mature a bit even when it is receiving no additional nutrients, so he decided to let these grapes remain on the vine the longest of any he buys, waiting until Nov. 9 to pick.

In other parts of the state, growers kept their fingers crossed as they allowed late-ripening varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Gewürztraminer to hang longer.

In some places, Pinot Noir needed to remain on the vine as well because of late blossoming. At Iris Vineyards at the southern end of the Willamette Valley near Lorane, owner Mike Lambert brought in the last of his fruit, 20 tons of Pinot, on Nov. 11.

“We have very clean fruit with well developed flavors,” he said. Our brix levels are on the low side and acids are on the high side, both of which are desirable for Pinot Noir.”

The distance of 25 miles between Lorane and Oakland, Ore., makes a considerable difference in climate. At the northern end of the Umpqua Valley, MarshAnne Landing’s owner Greg Cramer said all his estate vines were picked in five days.

“After the late October freeze, the leaves died, and that was it,” Cramer explained. “We had as much ripening as we were going to get, so we brought everything in between Saturday, Oct. 29 and Wednesday, Nov. 2.”

MarshAnne focuses on Rhone and Bordeaux varieties, later ripeners that worried Cramer going into the late summer and early fall; then temperatures rose, warming up the grapes for most of September into early October.

“Greg Jones (of Southern Oregon University) reported that it was the warmest September on record here,” Cramer said. “That totally changed things. Everything except our small planting of Mourvèdre ripened well.”

A bit farther south, at Delfino Vineyard south of Roseburg, owner Terry Delfino said they also began picking right after the freeze and continued straight through from Oct. 27 to Nov. 2. In addition to their own production, they sell fruit to Lange Estate in the Dundee Hills.

 “We have seven varietals, all reds,” she said. “Our Tempranillo came in at 23.8 brix. That is excellent given the late season. Our biggest problem was Syrah, which was at 19.8 before we picked, but then it rose to 21 afterward. 

“Despite the lower-than-average sugars, the flavor profiles are terrific,” she said. “We’re pretty excited about this year.”

Another 50 miles south, in the Rogue Valley, Del Rio Vineyards has 205 acres of vineyards planted to 15 varietals. Owner Rob Wallace, who sells fruit to more than 20 other wineries, said this should be an above-average tonnage year for them.

“Three and a half weeks of sunshine from late September through mid-October made all the difference for us,” he said. “We began with Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris on Oct. 7 and didn’t stop picking, as other varieties ripened, until Nov. 7.”

“Since we knew harvest would be late, we nurtured a big canopy,” Wallace continued. “We had our concerns, but that paid off in good maturity and fantastic flavor development. I’m way happy.”

And so it went around the state, where, once again, seasoned and savvy growers kept their cool, made adjustments to minimize late season climatic vagaries and have come away with what appears on balance to be an excellent, if not a record, 2011 vintage.

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