Harvest 2021 Report

As I wake at home in Portland on a cold, moody October morning and look at my reflection in the mirror, I notice that my red, sun-soaked harvest skin is fading back to Portlandian pale. The aching in my muscles, the result of walking 13+ miles a day in our estate vineyards sampling fruit, has calmed. The purple grape stains on my fingers and toes are now gone, and the sound of steady rain on the bright pink, orange, and yellow leaves solidifies a reality that I don’t yet want to accept: the amazingly brilliant 2021 harvest is finally over.

As I walk out the front door of my house and get into my car to go grocery shopping for a traditional Bergström family Sunday brunch, the maps application on my phone lights up notifying me that it is only 48 minutes to go “Home” and that traffic is light. I smile knowing that the winery is not where I live, but I can’t help feeling that home is where the heart is. I am reminiscing on the two beautiful fall months that Caroline and I spent living out in the vineyard house at the winery amongst our team and interns during this past 2021 vintage harvest. I loved waking before the dawn to walk the property in hopes of catching a glimpse of the local great horned owl perched on our yellow barn. I loved how the brisk cool morning temperatures would slowly warm as the sun rose through fiery pastel skies, waking up the honeybees, the birds, and the flowers. Opening the winery doors in the morning to smell the sweet, candy-like perfume of fermentation is something that can give you goosebumps. Every harvest includes an intoxicating medley of experiences, sights, and smells that I always welcome back with open arms.

2021 was a historically dry and hot year for our great state. I have never witnessed such persistent dryness for so many days in a row without measurable precipitation. We also saw two enormous heat events, the first being the “heat dome” which brought 115 degrees Fahrenheit for three scorching and brutal days. Our friends from Arizona or Texas might not balk at numbers like that, but for Oregonians, this was unprecedented and uncomfortable territory for our lush, green, and temperate state. The previous heat record of 106 degrees F was set way back in 2003.

But the vines, with their very deep root systems, were able to make it through the heat dome fairly unscathed. At that moment, since the grape berries were still small and green, and we were past bloom yet still far from veraison, we saw no sunburn. However, the second heat event that seized our state happened right in the middle of veraison, when the skins of the berries were thinner and more susceptible. The relentless 106-degree days scorched many berries on the Western side of the grape canopies. I estimate we lost 10-15% of our fruit during this event, and our perfect yield estimates got a little lower. This always makes me nervous when it happens so far from harvest, considering the many possible challenges to come.

The miracle of 2021, now widely being hailed by many friends and colleagues across the valley as potentially the vintage of their careers, is that the heat dissipated around the first of September, and cool nights returned to the valley. For an entire month, we experienced a classic Willamette Valley, cool-climate fall season. This allowed the grapes to ripen at a slow pace, keeping their natural acids high while maintaining perfectly balanced sugars. In short, this devilish beast of a hot year has yielded pretty wines of grace and silky supple textures with bright and freshly fruited, floral bouquets. I cannot wait to share them with the world once they have matured.

In 2021, we started our picking with Chardonnay and finished picking all our estate blocks of Chardonnay within 12 days. 2021 could be one of the greatest vintages for this varietal in recent memory. The wines are tensile and have that trademark saline minerality that we are looking for, but this year, they also have an amazing core of sweetness driven not by sugar, but by dry extract and physiological maturity. These wines will be stunning, and we as a team are enjoying tasting them from barrel every day as they evolve through their malolactic fermentations.

We also decided to include a couple of extra Pinot Noir blocks into our Rosé program this year, thus making slightly more wine than in past years. This is a bonus for all because I love our Rosé program, and 2021 as a vintage played right into our hands and our style. Our Rosé is an intentional pink wine of whole-cluster-pressed Pinot Noir from one of America’s foremost and most prestigious appellations for Pinot Noir: The Ribbon Ridge AVA. Both the Le Pré du Col and La Spirale vineyards are chosen for this wine. This year, we have three different selections of clonal blends and blocks that are all fermenting separately. They are bright, effusive, and electric with fantastic primary fruit and floral expressions. This will be a great year for Rosé.

Before malolactic fermentation is complete and a few months of aging, it is always too soon to call a Pinot Noir vintage, but the 2021 vintage for our estate reds is off-the-charts satisfying with pretty, playful, charming aromas of fruit, floral, and AVA-driven mineral characters, some wonderful savory whole cluster notes, and bright, succulent, juicy acids. These could be quite quaffable upon release and age very well.  Time and patience will tell.

First and foremost, harvest has always been a celebration. This intense and pure moment of life is our most crucial time to ensure that the grapes we have farmed all year long are picked by hand at the perfect time and allowed to ferment to perfection at their own pace. It is an intensive time of thoughtfulness, intentionality, and joy; a fleeting moment when we can commune as a team and unite around real and beautiful work. This full-circle moment is one that is engraved into our minds for the rest of our lives. When you pour intentionality and positivity into a vineyard all season long and then welcome its fruit into the winery for the symbiotic alchemy of transforming juice into wine and human into caretaker and keeper, then the result will always be satisfyingly worthwhile.

2021 was my 25th harvest as an Oregon winemaker. Every vintage, one of my greatest joys is to welcome our harvest interns in mid-August. They arrive total strangers with very different backgrounds and levels of experience, but they leave 8 weeks later as friends and colleagues with real relationships for life. Some become best friends, and all of them eventually return to the winery over time to visit and once again sit at the lunch table to reminisce about the year that they worked with us to craft the wines of that vintage. That is always a pleasure. Whenever I enter a new year of work or open a specific bottle of wine, the people that I have met over those 25 years, those interns and the team members from each and every vintage, are always present in my mind.

Harvest time is also a time to witness seasonal landscapes and lights as they begin to change. The harvesting of the vine’s fruit coincides with the senescence of the vines’ foliage and the waning of the sun’s strength in the Northern hemisphere. The earth begins to breathe in as we all head towards winter with a feeling of completion and a need for dormancy and renewal.  The end of the harvest is a bittersweet farewell but also the beginning of a new chapter. Our tables will now be set with seasonal mushrooms foraged from the coastal range and Dungeness crab pulled from the Pacific Ocean’s bays. The gardens’ sunflowers and berries are now gone but the squash and root vegetables are ready to be picked and the summer garlic and onions are deliciously sweet. The lady bees and their hives are less active than a month ago, but the honey is sweet and will remind us of those beautiful blossoms that filled the property every time we taste it.

It is now a time to slow down and to remember and to internalize. Each year as I think about the harvest and put pen to paper, I am thankful, and I immediately begin to look forward to the next one. It is like a letter written but never sent that releases the stress, the ghosts, and the emotions of a stressful but magnificent moment in time. In the end, that is what encapsulates what is inside of a bottle of Bergström Wines: 1,000 days of effort by so many beautiful hard-working human beings who, in concert with mother nature, farm, harvest, ferment, and cultivate something that captures all of these things we have seen and experienced so that when one of our bottles is opened, it is all released back into the atmosphere and to a new audience for appreciation and in that way it all lives on, time and time again and forever.

Thanks for reading,

Josh Bergström