Oregon Vintage Beats the Heat

Growers and winemakers are ecstatic with the fruit coming in from Oregon's vineyards.
© Abacela Winery | Growers and winemakers are ecstatic with the fruit coming in from Oregon's vineyards.
Despite an intense heatwave, the region's winemakers are excited about the 2021 vintage.
By W. Blake Gray | Posted Thursday, 23-Sep-2021

If you care about Oregon wine, you probably looked at the 117-degree temperature that Salem reached on June 28 and thought, oh no, not again.

Oregon's shocking heatwave this summer came after the most troubled vintage in the state's recent history in 2020, when wildfires and smoke led to a crop that was 29 percent smaller overall, and also fraught with concerns about quality.

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Fortunately, it turns out that Oregon's record-setting heat this year came at the perfect time: after flowering, but before veraison, when the nascent grapes were still small hard green berries and the vines were best equipped to handle it.

Subsequently, the mercury settled down and rain stayed away until a few inches fell last weekend. That sound you're hearing is the sighs of relief from Oregon vintners.

"I think everybody's extremely happy with the year," said wine climatologist Greg Jones, who is now CEO of his family's Abacela winery. "You can tag on four of five asterisks because it's so much different from last year. Everybody's just ecstatic. So little impact from the things that happened this year."

Jones, who has long prepared regular weather and drought reports for the wine industry, said the ongoing drought did cut the yields for wineries that didn't have access to water.

"For the Rogue Valley's irrigation district, they got about one-quarter of the water they expected," Jones told Wine-Searcher. "They didn't have enough water to fluff up the berries. The berries are very small. Even if you have irrigation water, in a season like this the water is just used to get the vines through the season."

Of course, "very small berries" are not a bad thing for the most lucrative of fruits, as they can lead to more concentrated wines. Drought years are often (not always) years of lower yields and higher quality.

Jackson Family Wines owns several high-end Pinot Noir-focused wineries in Oregon: Gran Moraine, Penner-Ash, WillaKenzie and Zena Crown. Eugenia Keegan, JFW's vice president of Oregon winery operations, told Wine-Searcher she's delighted with the quality she is seeing so far.

"Anything is perfect after last year," Keegan said. "But it's really lovely fruit. Volume is down a little bit. We really didn't get much rain between May 1 and the day before yesterday, except for the first 10 days of June, and that was exactly as we were flowering in the Willamette Valley. We're maybe 20 percent down across the board. But the quality is just wonderful."

Keegan said that despite the June heatwave, "we did not have a warm summer. We did have a heat dome. Those couple of days were ridiculous. But we did not have an overall hot summer. We have never experienced anything like that, and neither have our grapevines. Grapevines are great at adapting to wherever we live. But any time you do something that's way out of line with the norm, there's going to be a response. That time of year, the berries were still little hard, green nuggets. In terms of dehydration or sunburn or the things that happen with heat, we didn't see that."

Keegan said you can see the impact of the June heatwave on trees. (I've never heard anything like this before so now I'm going to be looking at trees the next time I'm in wine country.)

"If you look at the trees, you'll see a really weird thing I've never seen before," she said. "The ends of evergreen trees that have branches that are brighter than others because they have liquid in them, those burned. Those boiled off and burned. You see a very bizarre pattern of damage to the trees. The grapevines don't seem to have been affected that way. They were totally green. I don't think of that weather as having affected that fruit as we picked it. The question is, did it affect the chemistry. That we'll find out later."

The most important news is that unlike last year, Oregon has not been troubled at all by smoke. Currently a distillery in California is selling a vodka made from smoke-tainted Napa Valley grapes from the 2020 harvest. Fortunately this year's grapes won't have to be vodka.

"We don't really have much of a toolkit when it comes to smoke-impacted grapes," Keegan said. "There are a lot of things you can do to make a drinkable bottle of wine out of it, but those are not going to make $75 to $100 bottles of wine."

Dyson DeMara, proprietor of HillCrest Vineyard in Umpqua Valley, said this vintage is the driest in his winery's history, but his vines don't show it.

"All the vineyards I farm are hillside and dry farmed and many of us are surprised at how healthy the canopy conditions are," DeMara told Wine-Searcher. "At this point we are just beginning to see the basal leaves yellow out and the color of the foliage is still a dark green and very active. If I had to use one word for the vintage it would be 'classic'. In the fermenters I have filled so far I am getting the brightest fruit aromatics I can remember of any vintage and I associate that with the low pHs I am seeing."

Sam Tannahill, founder of A to Z Wineworks, buys fruit from throughout the state. He said his harvest is about 40 percent finished and he's happy with fruit from every region that he's seen.

"No disease, high sugars, balanced acids and great flavors," Tannahill told Wine-Searcher. "This will certainly rank as one of our top five vintages. We have already had a few Pinot Noir tanks go dry and the wine from them is particularly strong. The wines are darkly colored, concentrated, fresh and complex. Although they are in the middle of their fermentations, the whites that we have picked so far are looking  outstanding as well. We’re especially grateful for the quality of this vintage after last year. Certainly a great vintage in the making and I don’t say that lightly."

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