Red grape harvest slowly begins
Blog: Winemaker's Journal
October 14, 2011
Washington's red wine grape harvest is finally getting underway, but it's still slow going with rain and cool temperatures testing the patience of even the most steely of winemakers.
"It's been a drag," said Victor Palencia, head winemaker for Jones of Washington and J & S Crushing in Mattawa. "I've been wondering if we were going to have to start pruning before we start picking."
Jokes aside, the grapes are finally starting to come in in quantity. Palencia said Saturday will be one of the winery's biggest days as syrah grapes come in from Wahluke Slope vineyards. He expects to crush between 300 and 400 tons of grapes Saturday to be fermented into bulk wine bound for other large wineries that contract with the company.
Ryan Flanagan, fieldman for Milbrandt Vineyards in the Quincy area, also said grapes for red wine varieties has been slow to start.
I called Flanagan earlier this week hoping I could get some merlot and cabernet sauvignon grapes for my own small winemaking ventures. Two weeks ago, following a delightful run of days with highs in the 80s, he thought the grapes would be ready by this weekend. But heavy rain last weekend followed by a week of highs in the low 60s has pushed things back another week, he said.
Winemakers, me included, usually like to let grapes hang on the vine as long as possible to get those intense flavors and high sugars. Sugar levels can actually come in too high some years in the Columbia Basin's hot, dry climate. That hasn't been the case this year, nor last year. Both were marked by cooler and wetter than normal springs followed by cooler than average summers. Fall rains, like the half inch that doused the central state last weekend can actually reduce fruit sugars, which then have to build back up given warmer, drier weather.
The problem with letting grapes hang too long this late in the year is that the winemaking season is compressed. Unlike big operations like J & S Crushing and Wahluke Wine Co., which handles grapes from Milbrandt Vineyards, small wineries have limited capacity in their fermentation tanks. A 10-day fermentation of one early ripening grape variety like syrah, is usually followed by another later ripening grape, like cabernet sauvignon.
Sudden cold weather could rush harvest of several varieties at once and make it difficult to ferment all the grapes at optimum conditions. Pray for more warm weather.