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Idaho Grape Harvest Nears Conclusion

Winemakers anticipate high quality despite cold spring and September rains

by Peter Mitham
Crews harvest wine grapes at Bitner Vineyards in Caldwell, Idaho.
Caldwell, Idaho—While vintners from the Willamette to the Okanagan valleys are forecasting a stellar vintage, growers in Idaho are looking back on a challenging season as harvest winds down. Conditions in Idaho mirrored those across the Northwest, but many locals considered them highly unusual for the region, throwing expectations into disarray.

“It’s been a different year, definitely. Everything started out really late, and then a lot of the fruit we harvested came off a couple of weeks early,” said Patrick Williamson, manager at Williamson Orchards and Vineyards in Caldwell, Idaho, which typically produces 1,200 cases per year.

Returning to Idaho after six years away, during which time he saw grape harvests in Washington state and California, Williamson took the weather in stride as he reacclimatized to the state’s weather.

But not everyone saw the variations as normal. “The rest of my family would say otherwise,” he told Wines & Vines. “The freak monsoonal rain in September, and just how cold it was this past winter, the frost-freeze event we had around bud break, and then the hot summer.”

September’s rains caused much of the family’s Riesling crop to split, limiting the possibilities for a late-harvest wine. The grapes were instead harvested first, in mid-September, whereas normally the family’s Riesling grapes are harvested this week.

But this week, harvesters are focusing on late-maturing reds such as Sangiovese and Mourvedre, which needed the hang time to come into balance after a long, hot summer.

That being said, harvest could have a sweet conclusion: Williamson expects to pick some of the remaining Riesling for ice wine—weather permitting—during the next couple of weeks. “We’re hoping. It may take longer,” he said.

The outcome is better than many were expecting at bud break, just six months ago. Speaking with Wines & Vines at the time, fellow Caldwell grapegrower Ron Bitner of Bitner Vineyards said that a new planting near his property stood to lose 30% to 40% of its new vines (see “Idaho Wine Grapes get Early Start.”) While older vines seemed to emerge large and unscathed from a month of sub-zero temperatures this past January, a blast of cold air at bud break in late April delayed an accurate read on the damage.

“We had a hard time trying to determine if the vines had gotten enough damage that they had to be cut back and started all over again, just due to delayed bud break,” Williamson said.

Bitner said temperatures at his property in Caldwell never fell below 26º F, explaining that good air drainage on Idaho’s sloping vineyard sites helped cool air pool at elevations below where most of the state’s vineyards lie.

“As long as our vineyards are on the hillsides, it’s got to get down to 22º, 23º F to really cause serious bud damage,” Bitner said at the time.

The results of this year’s harvest bear that out. Williamson said fruit quality seems to be solid. Conditions were right for the control of fungal diseases (the rains in September notwithstanding). And while the Idaho Wine Commission reports that yields stand to be lighter, the flavors should be more concentrated in the fruit, giving winemakers good raw materials for the vintage.

“I have no doubt that this year’s wine will taste great and be some of the best wine Idaho has seen to date,” said Leslie Preston, proprietor and winemaker at Coiled Wines in Garden City, Idaho, in a summary of the harvest the state’s wine commission issued this week.

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