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Sun reigns

Repeating the obvious, it’s been a long and sunny summer. Warm and comfortable. Not too hot, not too humid. If it stayed like this, backyard pools would become the rule.

Grapes love sunshine, too. During the growing season, the fruit of the vine needs consistent warmth and light to achieve its full potential.

But only up to a point.

On the face of it, lots of sun should be a godsend, a gift of nature. After all, warm weather  ripens grapes and ripe grapes make for good wine, right?

Yes, but perhaps not as much as one might think.

Long periods without any rain can lead to drought conditions. Plants can become stressed due to lack of water.
Individual grapes — vineyardists call them berries — shrivel up. Leaves yellow and die.

Fortunately, Oregon viticulturists carry many remedies in their tool kits to mitigate, even counteract these problems.

nd they are learning new ones as well as improving old ones every year.

As a result, the positive aspects of the 2012 harvest can be maximized and the potential negatives minimized, if not eliminated altogether. How well that works depends upon decisions made by each grower.

Call it a case-by-case basis. As much of many actions will be the same or similar, what, when, how and why can make a great deal of the difference.

Similarities and differences in regard to individual situations, as well as opinions about possible outcomes, vary depending on who you talk with.

The common thread is that everyone around the state is getting fully ripe grapes. That doesn’t mean they are always attaining complex flavor profiles, though, particularly in pinot noir.

Kevin Chambers, founder of Results Partners, one of Oregon’s most prominent vineyard management companies, looked at the 2012 vintage in northwestern Oregon from more than one angle.

“I just heard this season is officially the driest on record,” he said. “We’re seeing some dehydration, which will mean more concentration. On the other hand, higher brix may require some balancing.

“We could end up with a lot of high-alcohol fruit bombs similar to California pinots. I’d rather see Oregon producing complex, food-friendly styles following the classic Burgundian model.”

He pondered the fact that in years when Oregon pinot noir has had to struggle at the end of the growing season, it has produced the best wines.

A veteran of two-dozen Oregon harvests, Allen Holstein of Argyle Vineyards deals with some harvesting logistics faced by no other vineyard manager in the state.

Far and away the largest producer of sparkling wine, Argyle requires a large quantity of grapes that are slightly under-ripe. And it’s up to Holstein to decide when to pick them.

“We started a week ago Saturday,” he said. “That would be Sept. 22. I’m pretty sure we’re the earliest of anybody in the valley, probably in Northwestern Oregon.

He said it was only a week after the much warmer Southern Oregon vineyards began harvesting their youngest and earliest-ripening vines.

“We always say something is more or less or earlier or later than average,” he noted. “But the fact is, average seldom actually occurs. It’s just a statistic.”

He continued, “This year, it looks like we are going to get a cluster weight of around 90 grams, which is about average. It can range from as little as 40 to as much as 140 grams per cluster.

“And that’s a good thing, because it means both good yield and full ripening of the berries, which are a bit smaller than usual, so they’ll be more concentrated and have fewer seeds.”

He estimated he would be finished picking by mid-October.

“Day lengths are shortening,” he said. “Day and night temperatures are dropping. Even if there is no severe weather, the lack of sun and the cooling send their signals to the plant to start to shut down. The forecast continues to be dry, so our picking decisions this year are going to involve a review of the vineyard’s past history as well as going out and sampling day by day.”

At Bethel Heights Vineyard in the Eola Hills, co-founder and manager Ted Casteel noted Tuesday, “We’re doing our first picking as we speak.” The grapes were from three-year-old vines.

He said they planned to continue picking on a selected, block-by-block basis. He predicted the harvest would take about 10 days.

“We’re sampling every day,” he said. “I don’t see much dehydration, none in our older vines. Of course, we have quite a lot over 30 years, so they are really deep rooted.

“It was a pretty uneven year for set, with the wet spring, so berries are small. But we’re getting good ripeness. I’m looking for lushness of fruit and a high skins-to-tissue ratio.”

He said, “That means big, fleshy pinots, not at all like 2010 or 2011. We kept almost all of the original crop so our yields will be good.”

In the Dundee Hills, Don Lange of Lange Estate Vineyards said the long, dry summer had little effect on his older vines. He noted plants were generally healthy throughout the valley.

“The water year has turned out above average,” he said. “The water table isn’t depleted. It wasn’t that hot this summer. So we’re not seeing significant stress.”

Most of his estate vineyards are at 700 feet and higher, so Lange hasn’t started harvest yet.

“The vines aren’t shutting down,” he said. “Things are still chugging along.

“The way it’s shaping up, this good weather will hold out for a while. We’re checking our vineyard blocks, and we’re going to start methodically picking within the next few days.”

It’s apparent the Langes, father Don and son Jesse, know what they’re doing. Those prime, older vines form the foundation for a portfolio that has just seen their operation earn Winery of the Year honors from Wine & Spirits Magazine.

It’s also apparent that they are joined by fellow vintners in the Yamhill Valley, whose shared expertise is making this a world-renowned place for pinot noir, no matter what nature sends their way.

Sun reigns

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