“Well, it’s an interesting year…as usual,” said Joel Kiff of the rapidly approaching 2016 harvest. Joel manages his family vineyard, which produces the grapes for his JL Kiff vineyard brand.
“It’s been an erratic year,” added Ralph Stein of the 21-acre Yamhill Vineyard that he planted with his brother in 1983, long before there was even a designated Yamhill-Carlton AVA. His oldest vines have seen just about every weather combination that nature can summon.
“We’ve had heat waves like this before,” said Bill Wittenberg of Rainbow Ridge vineyard, hopefully, in regards to the three days of 100-plus degree temperatures that hit the Willamette Valley last week.
“Just plain weird,” writes Jay McDonald of EIEIO & Company, summing up a vintage that is racing towards harvest. With just a few weeks left in what is shaping up to be another early season, we caught up with several growers to get their first thoughts on the 2016 vintage before they went off-line in the annual rush of getting the fruit just right and then off the vines and into the fermenters.
A little context is in order. Before the last few years, Oregon harvests have traditionally been late-autumn affairs that typically start in mid-October and can stretch all the way into mid- to late-November. Industry players have always counted on long stretches of sunny September days and cool nights, and often needed that pattern to continue late into October, when growers and winemakers have to make tricky decisions about leaving fruit to hang while watching for the inevitable fall rains that can wash out a vintage.
But last year, the 2015 harvest was the earliest ever – even earlier than a record-setting 2014 vintage – thanks to high summer heat that ripened bumper crops of fruit early and left everyone scrambling to process extra juice that the vines put forth. Clusters were heavy and full, bird damage was scant, mold and rot were practically non-existent and sunburn damage was the only thing that sorters had to watch for.
This year, reports Ralph Stein, the season will be slightly later – although still very early for Oregon — and yields will be a little lighter, making them closer to historically normal levels. “We’re not seeing the plumping [of the fruit] that we saw last year,” he offered during a visit to his vineyard on a hot August morning. “There have been a lot of really rapid ramp ups and ramp downs this year. I think it slows the grapes down because they start and stop a lot.” His prediction is that the Pinot Blanc that he grows for sparkling wine will be ready to go right after Labor Day, with Chardonnay, Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir reaching full ripeness around September 20th – about six days behind last year on the heat unit charts that he keeps.
“What’s odd about this year,” added Joel Kiff, “is that veraison [the period in the growth cycle when grapes turn from green to their ripening color] is more spread out. One clone started getting purple early, in mid-July. They usually all turn on a tighter time range. It will be interesting to see if they all end up in the same place, or we might have to pick in separate blocs, which is unusual for us.
“I couldn’t be happier about the weather,” he continued. “We’ve had warm, sunny days and cool nights, but the grass between the rows is still green thanks to the rain we received in June. There is still dew on the grass on August mornings, which is pretty unusual.”
His prediction is lower yields of grapes that will make for exceptional wines thanks to smaller berries that increase skin-to-juice ratios and impart more flavors and qualities to the wine. And as Bill Wittenberg, whose 25 acres are planted almost entirely to pinot noir pointed out, there is no telling what September might bring. Fall rains before harvest last year changed the characteristics of the fruit just before it was pulled, he noted.
Jay McDonald summed up the season beautifully in a recent newsletter, writing that “So far, this 2016 vintage has got to be the weirdest weather ever in the North Willamette, while erratic might be a better word overall. It is more nonsensical than anything I have experienced. Dry winter, warm enough spring to be the earliest bud-break on record, then a wet late-spring. Followed by two days of 99 degrees in early June, breaking all records. Nice cooler overcast summer like the early 1990s in the North Willamette for a while anyway, and then about a week of unnaturally high humidity and now, this week, we will allegedly see temperatures over 100 degrees for three days straight!”
He added that his vineyards are naturally reaching a crop-tonnage level that will alleviate the need to drop fruit. And as an old veteran of Oregon’s roller-coaster wine industry, where each vintage brings its own unique challenges and opportunities for superior winemaking, he offered this final thought before September: “Enough of this, I am headed to Astoria for some Columbia River fishing to escape this oppressive heat.”
Sounds good to us, and stay tuned for how the 2016 vintage continues to unfold in our vineyards and wineries.