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Monday, August 10, 2015

Taking the Heat: A Look at Oregon's Hot 2015 (So Far)

It's hot man, hot. And even our cool climate Pinot producing region, the Willamette Valley is experiencing a record heat year. While you often hear about how difficult and challenging cooler vintages like 11 or 07 are, a hot, dry vintage like this year can be equally vexing. With very little rain and record temperatures how is Oregon faring? I've asked a few folks to give us a sense of how they're taking all this heat in stride.

In Southern Oregon, where things are normally warmer than they are in the Willamette, heat has been an issue even for varietals that do well in wamer climes. Herb Quady of Quady North is trying to keep his cool, and making adjustments in the vineyards in an effort to make the best wine this vintage will let him.

"One thing, is that we are actively trying to delay maturity, in the hope that temperatures will eventually fall in September, resulting in a more normal ripening curve.  To do this, I've delayed fruit dropping until post veraison.  We'll also be keeping irrigation up during veraison, (at least early)." Herb has some advantages going for him in the way his vineyard was originally laid out. "My home vineyard has an open "V" type system that helps provide some partial shading, so I've felt okay with pulling leaves on the east side.  However, in some tighter vineyards, we have reduced leaf pulling to prevent sun burn. The open V-type system has been really nice this year.  In cooler years, we have had to really aggressively hedge, leaf, and open up the centers, but this year I'm really appreciating the part shading."

Herb expects everything to come early this year, but overall he feels very prepared. The cooler weather this week has been a welcome relief as well.

fruit set in the Elton Vineyard Photo: Christine Collier
Up in the Willamette the folks at Willamette Valley Vineyards are feeling the heat across the board and what that means, is being proactive in the vineyards. Christine Collier the Winery Director at Willamette Valley Vineyards says that decisions they're making now will hopefully put them in a good position for the current hot weather or whatever Mother Nature might throw at them later.

"We experienced near perfect fruit set that is naturally very high yielding. This presents an opportunity and challenge. The sun potentially allows us to ripen more crop, however, we want to assure we are not over-stressing our vines since most of our estate vineyards do not have irrigation. we have spent days in the vineyard assessing each block for canopy vigour, water stress, cluster size, etc. We have made very aggressive decisions to crop down to 2.5-3 tons per acre in our best blocks of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay to ensure concentration. This also ensures that the vine does not stall out late in the season due to stress. This will make our harvest dates early and hopefully escape any El Nino pressure of early fall rains that could create disease pressure."

The first week of August was brutal in particular. "Most growers are also experiencing sunburning from last Friday and Saturday when temperatures got above 100 degrees. Rumor has it some sites had 50% loss. We experienced up to 15% sunburning in our estate vineyards and are removing all this damage during crop thinning. In general, at our Elton Vineyard we consciously left more leaves for dappled sunlight, which provided more protection. "
crop thinning at Elton Vineyard Photo: Christine Collier
While we always hear about how stressed vines make for complex and wonderful wines, there is a such thing as too much stress as Christine explained. "Stressed Vine Syndrome creates a tequila-like smell and taste in both red and white wines. It has been most pronounced in Oregon vintages like 1992, 1999, 2012 and 2014. These were all very hot and dry years. It seems to be an Oregon-specific issue, since it isn't a major problem talked about in California (possibly due to irrigation). There isn't a known cause in red wines, but in whites it is suspected to be from an amino acid imbalance."

John Grochau at Grochau Cellars is seeing similar things and while he's never one to jump to conclusions, he knows that what he's doing now has impacts this vintage and beyond. "We are setting up to have the earliest harvest ever… But that can still change. Even though we have had another warm dry year, the plants are still healthy, the exception being the younger vines which are starting to show stress a bit."

"We had a heavy crop load that we are having to cut back pretty far to insure that we don’t stress the plants too much.  Normally in a warm year we will look to carry a slightly heavier crop load to lengthen the ripening a bit.  But with two warm dry years in a row, we are having to keep our crop levels tight so that we don’t stress the plants.  If we stress them too much you can get this stressed agave like character in the wine, you can also set yourself up for problems in the 2016 growing season.

So we hope for some rain and no more heat spikes, or at the very least, the cool weather we have been enjoying this week."

At Stoller Family Estate, vineyard manager Rob Schultz is worried less about young vines, and more about just keeping up as well as getting the work done that's needed in what can be tough conditions on vineyard workers as well.

"We’re holding up well in the heat, but it can be a challenge, both to the vines and ourselves.

For the vines at Stoller, we’re pretty deep-rooted, and without irrigating, our older vines weathered the heat this summer well.  Too well in some cases, as the heat propelled to vines to grow more rapidly than I’d ever seen, so the big challenge of the season became one of keeping up with the pace set by the vines. 

That extreme heat that can come in the late afternoon can cause fruit that’s been recently exposed to the sunlight to burn up or shrivel away.  The key to avoiding that is to expose the fruit as early in the season as possible.  That way, our thin-skinned grapes will have built up something like a “suntan” and won’t burn up later.  We were able to do that this year, and didn’t have any issues even when the heat rose to 107. 

For those of us who work in the vineyard, there aren’t any secret tricks; you do what any farmer does and get to work before the sun rises.  On those hottest of days, those early morning hours are pretty pleasant, and they’re always the most productive of the day."

Sunday, August 02, 2015

Knudsen Vineyards: Knowing Your Roots

When listing off the names of the Willamette Valley's wine pioneers one of the names that many consumers don't necessarily recognize is the name Cal Knudsen.

Cal, along with Dick Erath went on to found the Knudsen-Erath wine label, but that particular partnership stopped producing wines in 1987. Erath, a name we all know, took the winery and Knudsen took the vineyards. After parting ways amicably, Cal Knudsen went on to become a founding partner of the Argyle Winery operation when the company was started in 1987, and his Knudsen Vineyards became the source for nearly all of Argyle's wines, from their Pinot Noirs to their sparkling program.

Cal Knudsen though was one of those most important pioneers whether your average Northwest wine fan knows it or not. Cal was a Weyehauser executive who took seriously the "go big or go home" adage when he bought into vineyard land in the Willamette back in 1971, only a few years behind David Lett. He bought in at around 200 acres (it's closer to 230 these days) and planted in large plots of 20 to 30 acres, in 1975 the Knudsen vineyard was the largest in the state at 60 planted acres at the time. Today it's grown to 130 planted acres of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier, all of which had become an important part of Argyle's sparkling program.

Cal Knudsen (courtesy Knudsen Vineyards)
Cal passed away in 2009 at the age of 85. He was a very accomplished man, both within the wine industry as well as beyond. He came from very humble means and left his mark on both his family and the growing Oregon wine industry. Cal's children have decided to revive the Knudsen name as a wine label with a Pinot Noir and Chardonnay bottling that is just recently hitting the market.

The wines are being made by Nate Klosterman who took the reigns at Argyle after Rollin Soles departed. The folks at Argyle, including the vineyard management team, are well versed in what the Knudsen vineyards are capable of as they've been working with them for years. For Cal's children, though this is more than just a vanity project and so they're working with Nate and other's at Argyle, tasting the wines and ultimately playing a role in the final wines that go into the bottles that bear their name.

I was fortunate enough to taste through the wines with Colin Knudsen and Page Knudsen Cowles. They have a sense of the importance that their father has played in the growth of Pinot Noir in the Willamette Valley and the treasure that they have inherited in their father's legacy and the vineyard that their father planted. They've decided to build on their father's legacy and sort of revive their involvement as a family (there are four siblings total) in what their father created. While they live all over the country, the travel to Dundee a few times a year to taste through the wines, and  make decisions about what to do about the aging blocks of the vineyard.

The wines are outstanding, and they're certainly priced at a premium level, but the production is tiny and so they don't stick around for long. The inaugural release, the 2012 Pinot Noir is already gone, almost exclusively snatched up by list members. The first release was done on the strength of a gathering of friends, those friends snatched up every last bottle of the Pinot before it reached beyond the friends and family list.

2013 Knudsen Vineyards Chardonnay $45
This is a beautiful wine and demonstrates that by transitioning a winemaker, Klosterman who's familiar with the site and it's fruit there are zero growing pains from this new label. The Chardonnay would certainly stake its claim among those in the top tier of the Willamette Valley. Aromas of nutmeg, baking spice and poached pear hint at the time in new French oak (35%). It's rounded but the oak is very well integrated with a palate of honey, lemon creme and almond. The acid accents what is a very pretty wine, with weight and lift. (Only 100 cases were produced.)

2013 Knudsen Vineyards Pinot Noir $55 (Not yet released)
Classically Oregon, the acids are great, light to medium bodied, and loaded with those fresh bramble-berry aromas we all love and a dash of wet stone. The Pinot is a blend of a few different blocks, block 3, 6 and 8. The first two are 777 clones and block 8 is Pommard. The north facing block 6 imparts a lot of dark notes to the wine's aromas and palate. There is great minerality, it's a mix of 15-8 year old vines, the acid and finish with lots of fresh wintergreen, lasts what feels like a lifetime.

1985 Knudsen Erath Oregon Pinot Noir, Yamhill County
A thirty year old wine shows, for any fool who is still skeptical that this place is world class. This is a holy shit wine as far as I'm concerned. Aromas of peat moss, mushrooms and earth. Dollops of black fruit and acid that just goes on and on and on. For the record the wine is unbelievably pretty. The wine was liquefied brick in color and while the aromatics were completely muted upon opening it was a remarkable wine that even continued to develop as opposed to deteriorate over the course of a meal.

1983 Knudsen Erath Oregon Pinot Noir, Yamhill County
Some how even more aromatically lively than the 85. What I've learned over my somewhat limited experiences with older wines are that it's not always prudent to expect much in terms of aromatics but the 83 opens up with loads of red fruit aromas. It's insane how alive is wine still is while the palate doesn't pop as much  as the wine two years its junior, it's still showing lively red fruit, and berries for days, or in this case 32 years.

The Knudsen's have history on their side, and the prudence of their father's vision is apparent in these older wines. The site is just right ;and right there in the Dundee Hills. The wines make a case for this new venture of the next generation of Knudsen. Far from a fool's errand these two wines make a compelling case for what they hope to accomplish and the staying power of both the Willamette Valley and the vineyards Cal Knudsen laid down.