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."


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