While tasting through our 2016 Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays with a well renowned wine critic and writer recently, he took a minute to admit his astonishment about Oregon wine vintages. “There is no other region in the world that can claim five truly high-quality vintages in a row!”
He was talking about the run of amazing quality winemaking years we have enjoyed here in the Willamette Valley, beginning in 2014 and, assuming that 2018 would turn out just as brilliantly. He was probably a little presumptive in calling 2018 an amazing vintage as it was only August and we were still a month away from harvesting a single grape. But you know something… he was right.
2014, 2015, 2016, 2017 and now 2018 can be considered perhaps one of the longest and most enjoyable stretches of fair weather vintages we have seen in Oregon and perhaps any region has seen worldwide for cool climate Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. These years were blessed with sunshine when we needed it, rain showers when we needed them, nighttime diurnal swings of temperature to retain acidity and perfect harvesting windows allowing winemakers any choice of style to pursue. That is a rarity.
I understand that, in the marketing of fine wine, it is always about the next big thing, the next great vintage, the most amazing wines are on the horizon… put some sizzle on that steak! And that gets really tiresome to me as I am sure it is to you. But I cannot help remark how special 2014-2017 were as vintages and now how very special 2018 will be. It is a fantastic time to be alive and a winemaker in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. With the international spotlight on our more than 50 years of effort and being acknowledged as the leading region for Pinot Noir in the new world, how enjoyable is it to have such a string of high quality winemaking years? Cue the knocking on wood.
It used to be that Oregon would have only one great vintage and maybe two or three really good vintages in a decade. Now this cool climate is seeing great opportunities on a regular basis with more sunshine and warmth and earlier pick dates. Better farming, lower yields and advanced winemaking techniques? Maybe. Climate change? You bet. The statistics and the records show that Oregon’s vintages are getting warmer and drier. Our annual degree days have risen alarmingly since the 1960’s. This past string of amazing winemaking years were actually warm enough to change the Willamette Valley from a UC Davis Cool Climate zone 1 to a zone 2. That is alarming.
Yes, we are making better wines and our pale northern skins are now soaking up more sunshine and Vitamin D than ever before but we are also seeing water shortages, wells running dry, established trees dying, new vine diseases, legions of voles girdling our precious vines in desperate search of water for survival, and enormous widespread forest fires that fill our valleys with suffocating and harmful smoke for weeks on end. It is a conundrum indeed.
The 2018 harvest is now “in the barn” so to speak. The grapes have been harvested and the wines are fermenting in tanks and in barrels and it smells gorgeous and of great potential. Thirst quenching rains have come and gone and blue skies with cool temperatures reign again. The landscape has burst into bright reds, oranges and yellows reminiscent of flames sweeping the hillsides and valley floors reminding us of the hot dry treacherous summer smoke. But now the air is clear and the visibility is unlimited. We can see the first snows on top of our volcanic Cascade peaks to the East. The nights are cold and crisp and the fields are empty except for the last of the corn and apples and the bright orange pumpkins. The wasps that filled the air thirsting for the sweet juice of our Pinot Noir grapes are long gone, replaced now with the pesky drunken fruit fly who lazily circles about our wineries like the ripe fruit baskets in your kitchens. It is a time to reflect and to rest and enjoy the weeks and weeks of hard work that have passed.
What made 2018 a great harvest? What makes every successful cool climate vintage a success: weather, time, opportunity, low disease pressure and not being put between a rock and a hard place.
We started off the year later than the record-breaking early harvests of 2014 and 2015 with a bloom in the middle of April that looked to be more traditional. For the first time in a few years we were looking at a more “normal” Oregon harvest in late September or early October. The sky faucet was turned off in early May and for more than 100 days we did not have any measurable rain making for one of the driest summers on record.
At lag phase, which is the halfway point between flowering and harvest, where the vine slows down its rapid vegetative growth phase and begins to harden its seeds and lignify its green shoots and send sugars back down into the earth for the winter thus ripening the berries, we were looking at a very healthy crop. Mother nature once again gave us a bumper crop. Natural yields were 5-6 tons per acre! Now, many of you know that bumper crops are a blessing in most agricultural scenarios, but we do not farm apples or potatoes or wheat. We farm wine. We farm high quality fine wines which need to come from small concentrated crops of grapes. So, in bumper crop years, we need to spend a lot of time and money going out into the fields and cutting excessive crop off of the vines early so the vine can concentrate its efforts on a smaller yield of grapes. This operation must be calculated and careful as we want a healthy crop but we don’t want to be greedy leaving too much fruit on the vine that may not ripen fully and we do not want to create economic hardship by leaving absurdly low yields that might ripen too quickly and out of balance with the wines we are in search of.
So, based on the summer we were experiencing, the long term weather forecasts, the health of the vines and our gut feelings, our target yields this year were targeted for 2.4 tons per acre in the Pinot Noir and 2.8 tons per acre in the Chardonnays. We ended up harvesting slightly less than this due to dehydration but our estimates were close to perfect.
The summer got hotter and drier and there was no rain on the horizon. The late September harvest period was rapidly looking more and more like an early September harvest period. And before you knew it, Chardonnay flavors and juice chemistries were almost perfect in the first week of September; another vintage that would catch us by surprise!
We started the harvest on September 7th with Syrah from Les Collines Vineyard in Walla Walla for our gargantua wine and oddly enough we finished the vintage with Syrah from the Symbion Vineyard in the Willamette Valley on the 16th of October. Both picks had similar chemistries and flavor profiles, to highlight that the West Coast harvest does not all happen at the same time.
We began the Bergström Wines harvest with Chardonnay on the 8thof September at the Le Pre du Col Vineyard on the Ribbon Ridge AVA. We continued with that varietal daily for about 19 days until it was completed with Temperance Hill Chardonnay high up in the Eola Amity Hills on the 27th of September. It looks to be stunning year for Chardonnay as fruit from the Bergström Vineyard, Silice, Gregory Ranch and Winery Block was impeccable in look, health, taste and chemistry. Native yeast fermentations were prompt and efficient finishing in less than 20 days and the wines are now all currently going through their secondary malolactic fermentations in the cellar as the ambient temperature has not dipped below 50 degrees Fahrenheit. No new oak was used this vintage and I am very excited about the results.
Pinot Noir began on the 8th Of September as well with Silice in the Chehalem Mountains AVA and finished on the 3rdof October with Temperance Hill Pinot Noir per usual. The Pinot Noir from this vintage remind me of 2005 Red Burgundies. They are dark, freshly fruited and floral, so incredibly vibrant and energetic and youthfully tannic but delicious. This could be a monumental vintage for Oregon Pinot Noir in my mind and I will keep you posted throughout the year on their movement and potential.
The pace was steady and perfect with weather conducive to small daily picks versus a frantic rush to harvest before rains or in a sweltering heat wave. Day by day we picked a block here and a block there. And that is how harvest played out. We had a daily opportunity to pick each and every block at the perfect moment to capture the best flavors and physiological ripeness as it occurred. And when you are picking, harvesting and barrel ageing more than 100 different lots of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, this is very important.
But it wasn’t all bells and whistles in 2018. There were some critical factors for quality. One factor will be when a winery decided to harvest. Early picks were good with natural acidity and sugar levels that promised 12-12.8% natural alcohol levels. Because of the hot dry year, natural acidities were lower than usual and chemistries were very strange. pH’s were very low but potassium levels were very high. Yeast unassimilable nitrogen levels were very low due to the lack of water available to the vine and malic acid levels were low (predicting a short and not very impactful malolactic fermentation regarding acid change) but tartaric levels were high. One had to be very careful with these picking decisions.
With the early harvest rain showers, the dust was knocked off the fruit so to speak and the vines were refreshed. We saw yeast unassimilable Nitrogen levels actually move up and potassiums drop. Brix levels did not change much but acids did begin to fall.
As the harvest progressed and we waited through the week to 10 days of rainy, cloudy weather we were tempted to pick more because of the threat of disease spreading in the clusters. This did not happen however and if one was patient there was sunny and cooler weather on the other side. The “Indian Summer” that winemakers pray for did arrive and fruit was intact and this looked very good for longer hang-time. However, we were beginning to see rapid dehydration of fruit and tonnage per acre was decreasing because of the time on the vine and East winds and dry soil conditions.
By the time we were completely finished with harvest, around the week of October 23rd, we had seen almost 3 different harvests within one harvest. Many of our friends began picking when we were finishing up and were reporting very different conditions than we had seen, with high sugar levels and low yields due to dehydration.
And that is why harvest is so much fun. You can follow the style of the wines by the choice of the pick date across the valley. I know that we are very confident with our decisions this year and thrilled with the quality of the resulting wines. I will say that our original yield estimates of 2.4 tons to the acre for Pinot Noir and 2.8 tons to the acre for Chardonnay ended up averaging much lower than that in the later picks. Gregory Ranch and the Redman Vineyard for example ended up around 1.6 tons to the acre, but the quality is amazing.
A new source of fruit for us this year was the Hopewell Vineyard in the Eola Amity Hills AVA. My very good friend Mimi Casteel is one of Oregon’s most gifted, intelligent and thoughtful vine whisperers I have ever met. Her family began Bethel Heights Vineyard in the 1970’s. and she has a magnificent vineyard and farm property that she tends to with heart and intention and sometimes tears in her eyes. Organic farming methods would be an understatement here. Mimi has been thoughtfully fighting for local Oak savannahs, pioneering cover crop diversity to build new soil annually, is a staunch believer in no-till farming, manure teas and insectaries. She is a sworn enemy of herbicides, a researcher, a philosopher and much more. She is a magnificent example of Oregon’s newest generation of wine farmers and is leading in a very strong direction. And when someone like that is pointing the way, I jump in line to be a part of the march. How thrilling it will be. The new wines coming out of our fermenters from her vineyard just last week were so fulfilling to taste on so many levels and I cannot wait to share them with you.
Another critical factor in what makes a great harvest is the team you are working with. We had a great team dynamic this year. We had 7 interns from around the world this year: Andrew, Chris, Sarah, Luke, Antoine, Martin and Andrew were amazing in their work ethic and their dedication to our production goals and methodology. I have oftentimes talked here in this venue about the joys of meeting and greeting interns, getting to know them, watching them thrive, break-down, cry, get back up and work even harder and finish a vintage to then go out into the world and be something very special with 6 hard weeks of Bergström Wines harvest set forever in their memory. This year was no exception. These young men and women worked hard and diligently and helped Travis, Jess, Sarah, Nick and I bring our year of efforts to real fruition and I believe that the 2018 wines are very special and full of potential. I am excited to see what these young men and women do within the wine world or beyond because they are all very good people and full of potential themselves.
And last but definitely not least, yet another reason that the 2018 vintage will forever be special for me and my family is because in the middle of harvest, after almost 5 months of negotiations, legal work, environmental surveys, banking matters and more, we closed on the purchase and acquisition of the Redman Vineyard and Winery on the Ribbon Ridge!
Cathy Redman and her Husband Bill purchased this 30-acre jewel of a property in 2005 with aspirations of making world class wines. Bill unfortunately was diagnosed with terminal cancer and passed away only a few years afterwards and Cathy has been tirelessly taking care of this amazing piece of land on Oregon’s most prized AVA’s for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay ever since. She approached my family in the early summer looking to be able to sell her vineyard because in her words: “Cathy approved the sale to the Bergström family because she values their attention to detail, respect for the land, the purity of their wines and their business sense and history in Oregon.” I could not be more excited about the bright future taking care of this piece of land and bringing you great wines from it. With this acquisition, Bergström Wines now works with nearly 40 acres of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from the Ribbon Ridge AVA. We were able to make a small amount of wine from the property itself this harvest and will look to re-name the vineyard, take over its transition into Biodynamic farming this winter, and look forward to a full property harvest in 2019.
With that, I want to say thank you again for your support. Our wine club members allow us to do the impossible each and every year and we think of you on a daily basis as we work with our vineyards and make new wines. We love what we do and we love sharing it with you.
Happy harvest and happy beginning of the holiday season. It is a time to celebrate.