Harvest crews pick fruit and empty their buckets into the bins placed throughout Doe Ridge Vineyard in the Yamhill-Carlton AVA. ##Photo by Hilary Berg
Totes of ripe Pinot Noir clusters await shipment from Doe Ridge. ##Photo by Hilary Berg

Nothing to Wine About

Harvest 2014 early, plentiful with top quality fruit

By Karl Klooster

Oregon winemakers around the state can scarcely contain their excitement about the potential of the 2014 harvest. Conditions appear to be so superb that every positive indicator is operating on overdrive.

Ken Wright has been immersed in the Yamhill Valley wine world since 1986, when he founded Panther Creek Cellars. He sources fruit from the Yamhill-Carlton, Dundee Hills, Eola Hills and McMinnville AVAs. With such a broad perspective, Wright commented, “This looks to be an unusually healthy year. Despite the heat, there are no issues.

“We have good crop levels, slow and steady plant development; that points to well-balanced wines with refined flavors. Not only that, this may be our largest production year ever.”

Some growers began harvesting younger vines earlier, particularly at lower elevations during the week of Sept. 8. Wright brought in his first grapes Sept.15 and expects to finish harvest by mid-October.

If his prediction holds true, the current Oregon production record of 50,176 tons set in 2012, would be topped, and with yields approaching three tons per acre for Pinot Noir and higher for several other popular varietals, by 10 to 15 percent or more. Translating this tonnage to cases destined for the marketplace, 2012 will ultimately result in a total of approximately 3.2 million cases from the vintage. Given a 15 percent increase, 2014 could total 3.9 million cases.

Laurent Montalieu’s NW Wine Company owns or manages vineyards in every one of the six Yamhill Valley AVAs. Like Wright, he particularly noted consistency of the vintage as well as the fact that it is one of the earliest ever to mature.

“The earliest year I can recall was 1992,” he said. “And, I’d have to check, but I think this year’s harvest began even earlier in a lot of places. What’s really amazing is how quickly cumulative heat units rose.”

Montalieu is referring to air temperature during the growing season as an important factor in grapevine development. Based on years of study, full maturity of various varieties can, in significant part, be determined by the number of daily GDD (Growing Degree Day) units.

Using a system developed at the University of California at Davis, April 1 to Oct. 31 is used as the grapevine growing period from bloom to maturity. Calculating the daily totals above 50 degrees Fahrenheit during that time arrives at a summation or cumulative heat unit total.

For example, the system ranks McMinnville AVA as a Region One, meaning it is well suited to Pinot, Chardonnay and Riesling because the area’s annual growing season average falls in the 2,000- to 2,500-unit range. If full ripeness, or sugar content coupled with flavor maturity, occurs in advance of the expected time owing to more rapid heat accumulation, then picking can begin earlier than usual.

Equally exciting, the vines appear capable of carrying a higher crop load, which slows down maturity somewhat while allowing more grapes to achieve full physiological ripeness before the threat of fall weather. Therefore, if the weather continues to hold up as anticipated, predicted production increases appear to have a high probability. As for early harvesting, some Yamhill Valley growers finished before the end of September.

However, Moe Momtazi, owner of Maysara Vineyards in the McMinnville AVA, views the opportunity from another perspective.

“This year things look the best ever,” Momtazi said. “No disease issues whatsoever. But we are purposely dropping fruit to stay within the 2 to 2.5 ton per acre average. I want the finest quality we can get for our clients and us.”

Several of the area’s best winemakers buy fruit from the 260-acre Maysara Vineyard. As much of the vineyard is at higher elevations, growers agree it should yield the most refined and complex wines in a year like this.

“We have contracts with Soter, St. Innocent, Joe Dobbes, Brick House, Kelley Fox and several others, including the new Chapter 24,” Momtazi noted. “About 45 percent of our estate grapes go into Maysara wines.”

In the Rogue Valley, where heat unit totals are commonly higher than in the Willamette Valley, this year is also ahead of the norm.

Kent Barthman, winemaker at RoxyAnn Vineyards in Medford, said their first Pinot Noir came in on Sept. 5, which equaled the earliest ever, and he anticipates that completion of harvest will set new records both for earliest and largest.

“Tonnage per acre is coming in higher than our original estimates,” Barthman said. “We are averaging more than four tons of clean, problem-free fruit.”

The Illinois Valley is Oregon’s southernmost growing area and, though not an AVA in its own right, the area is closer to the Coast, therefore cooler than its Rogue Valley neighbors.

Rene Eichmann of Bridgeview Vineyards in Cave Junction said they began picking on Sept. 18, and he expects all the fruit from the 300 acres to be in within a month, about two weeks earlier than normal.

“It’s a very healthy crop averaging 23 to 24 brix and somewhat low acidity, which will require adjustment,” Eichmann said. “There is a little dehydration, but we have better programs than ever to deal with warm and dry conditions. I look for flavor profiles to be consistent, and the crop load to be high.”

Some 130 miles north in Elkton, Southern Oregon’s coolest and most northerly AVA, winery owner Terry Brandborg said harvest began two weeks earlier than normal and beat the previous record by 10 days.

“Things are looking really good,” he exuded. “It will be a somewhat compressed harvest with Riesling ripening last, as usual, but ready at least two weeks early.”

Brandborg added that he gets some fruit from Melrose Vineyard, a warmer site farther inland near Roseburg. They began picking more than a week early as well.

In the Columbia Gorge, Lonnie Wright of The Pines 1852 in The Dalles said he brought in Chardonnay on Sept. 10 and projects it will take no more than six weeks, or late October, to bring in everything from the 200 acres he owns or manages.

“We’ve been consistently in the 80s with cool nights,” Wright said. Conditions are ideal and tonnage should be up, averaging about 2.5 this year.”

The Walla Walla Valley, Oregon’s most easterly and warmest AVA, is shared with Washington. Doug Nierman, winemaker at Zerba Cellars in Milton-Freewater, said their first fruit came in on Sept. 13, two weeks early.

“The heat is causing a compressed harvest,” Nierman said. “We grow late-ripening reds here such as Cabernet, Syrah and Malbec, which are hitting 25 to 26 brix. It’s a good, clean harvest with low disease pressure. I expect record yields.”

An early report from the Oregon Wine Board projects a record year and includes glowing quotes from several growers and winery owners:

“We have finished bringing in Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from the estate vineyards, with yields 25 percent higher than expected,” said Michael Donovan, managing director of Irvine Family Vineyards in the Rogue Valley.

Rajat Parr, co-owner of Evening Land Vineyard in the central Willamette Valley, noted, “This is my first harvest in Oregon, but the quality of fruit was tremendous and has great concentration.”

“The fruit is coming in heavy and fully ripe with beautiful flavors and balance,” commented Ruth Garvin of Cliff Creek Cellars in the Columbia Gorge.

“With the 30-day forecast showing slightly warmer and drier conditions than normal, 2014 has the promise of a phenomenal vintage and possibly a record harvest,” said Bill Sweat of Winderlea Vineyard & Winery in the Dundee Hills.

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