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Northwest Wine Harvest Begins

Horse Heaven Hills vineyard brings in unusual varieties; hail storm hits British Columbia

by Peter Mitham
british columbia hail
Sperling Vineyards in British Columbia's Okanagan Valley was hit by a hail storm last week.
Alderdale, Wash.—Northwest growers have started to pick grapes, beginning with a most unlikely variety—Marquette.

Harvesters entered the vineyard of veteran grower Paul Champoux near Alderdale on Aug. 19, pulling off a half-acre of grapes that checked in at nearly 30º Brix.

“That’s unprecedented here in Washington—surprised everybody, actually,” Champoux told Wines & Vines this week. “One of the signatures of Marquette is high acidity, so that’s why the Brix got so high: because we were waiting for the acidity to reduce.”

The grapes eventually registered 0.9 grams of acid, while Brix were kicked up by especially warm weather: The Horse Heaven Hills has seen an accumulation of 2,289 growing degree days this year, slightly above the long-term average for the period.

Marquette, a red hybrid variety developed at the University of Minnesota and released in 2006, is—in the words of the university—“a cousin of Frontenac and grandson of Pinot Noir.” Wines made from the variety reflect its tendency toward high sugar levels and above-average acidity with “attractive ruby color, pronounced tannins and desirable notes of cherry, berry, black pepper and spice on both nose and palate.”

Sentimental reasons
Champoux, who attended Marquette High School in Yakima, Wash., was keen to try out the same-name variety in his vineyard in the Horse Heaven Hills AVA. What style of wine will serve the variety best in Washington state this year is another question.

Champoux is sending the variety to Charlie Hoppes at Benton City, Wash-based Fidelitas Wines, where Hoppes and his assistant Hilary Sjolund will make the final call. The intention is to make a commercial wine, however, Champoux said he’ll be interested to see whether a rosé or a fuller bodied red is the chosen style.

“All the experience of growing it is back in the Midwest, so how the Washington weather deals with it—it’s probably going to be a different tasting wine,” Champoux said.

Meanwhile, in British Columbia
Sperling Vineyards on the east side of Kelowna in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley began harvesting an acre of Perle of Csaba grapes for its Speritz wine Aug. 21, two days after Champoux called in his Marquette.

Speritz is an aromatic, low-alcohol (approximately 8%) wine with a spritzy spirit to it; Rickard Branby, vineyard manager at Sperling, said the variety was sweet enough at 14.5º Brix this week to come in for crush.

The grape is usually harvested in the third week of August, so the date wasn’t unusual. (In 2012 he harvested at the beginning of September, the latest ever for the variety at that site.)

Hail storm
The rest of the crop “looks good so far,” Branby said, but he noted that there was significant damage to Sperling’s 45 acres of vines from a hail storm that barrelled through the area last week. The storm pummelled more than 300 acres of local vineyards with pellets as large as golf balls. The vineyard canopy bore the brunt of the damage, with many leaves knocked off.

“It was quite significant; I have a hard time saying exactly how much damage there was,” Branby said. “We had some losses, we’ll just see how much we’re going to get. … We might not get exactly what we want but we’re going to take as much as we can.”

Harvest of those grapes—a selection of 10 varieties including Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Marechal Foch, and Pinot Noir—won’t begin for at least another three weeks.

Making a schedule
Growers in Washington state won’t be waiting that long.

“The Sauvignon Blanc is going to be the first part of next week, for sure,” Champoux said of his own vineyard, while his Syrah is sitting at 22º Brix and could come in shortly after Labor Day.

“We’ve probably got more heat units in July and August than July or August of any years,” he said. We’re “a week, 10 days ahead of normal—if there is such a thing as normal.”

With good weather at bloom and fruit set, and weather warm enough to rival 2003, many are expecting this year’s grape crop to exceed those of previous years. Given that last year saw 188,000 tons harvested, winemakers should have their hands—and their tanks—full.

What’s happening in Oregon?
Oregon viticulturists have yet to begin harvest, but exchanges with growers indicate the grapes will be ready within days.

The harvest will likely begin with more traditional varieties than Marquette or Perle of Csaba, however.

Pinot Noir in the Rogue Valley of southern Oregon is ready to come in, and growers in the Willamette Valley are watching their fruit, too.

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