Growing season update

It’s been a week already, but here’s the “latest” from our main site in 2010 and beyond, the Armstrong vineyard on Lewis Rogers Lane in the Ribbon Ridge AVA of the northern Willamette Valley.

The family and I ventured out for an evening barbeque in the vineyard with growers Doug and Michele Ackerman, their kids and a few other doctor/work friends of Doug and vineyard neighbors. Traffic was awful from Portland, but the evening was exquisite as you can see. Here’s my son Martin looking inquisitive in the vines.

Aside from socializing, my interest was assessing the progress of our growing season. Pinot noir likes cool weather, but this summer has been downright cold. A warm winter meant an early budbreak in late March and early April. Then historically cool and wet conditions through June slowed the growing season by several weeks. Luckily, this is the first fruit coming off the three-year old Armstrong vineyard. Young vines ripen early, which isn’t always a good thing. In a cool year they’ll certainly get ripe and maybe even provide more complex wine than you might expect given the longer growing season. Usually with vigorous young vines, farmers work hard to slow them down. In a cool year, that’s not such an issue.

In California vineyards are already seeing veraison, or color change in the unripe berries. Here in Oregon that’s always a ways off, more so this year. I think we’re about a week “behind” normal, meaning veraison that’s usually in mid-August will likely be pushed back a week or so. We’ll see. Berry size, one indication of the progress of the growing season, looks good here compared to other sites I visit. We’re close to “lag phase” where the berries take about a week’s break growing in size and the vines instead work on hardening seeds inside each grape. Lag phase is the time where grape clusters weigh about half what they will end up weighing at harvest, so growers take measurements then to predict with pretty good accuracy how much crop they can expect come harvest. If there’s too much, they’ll do what we often hear about — “green harvest” — or cutting off the least mature clusters. That’s done at veraison, so that you simply cut off all the clusters that aren’t changing color with everything else. Not only do you lighten the crop load, you help make sure everything that remains will be ripening at the same time.

In the end, things look great at Armstrong. Instead of a late September pick date, I’m guessing we’ll bring fruit in at the end of the first week of October. A lot still has to happen, though hot weather will likely not move that date up as much as cold weather here on out could push that date back. Let’s remember that in 2008, another cool year, harvest didn’t begin in earnest until mid-October. Of course, that was in part because the cool year continued to be cool, and the weather at the end allowed you to push out pick dates for maximum ripeness. We can’t expect good October weather each year. I do, however, feel like our best summer weather is still ahead of us. August is typically one of our hotter months, and even September can produce serious heat. What’s nice about late season heat is that overnight lows tend to be lower then in June and July heat waves. That means we benefit from summer warmth, but cooler nights mean less loss of acidity in the grapes. That’s the secret of great seasons here in the northern Willamette Valley. Mild temps that scare us is early and mid-summer, then lovely weather and cool nights all the way to harvest that make for excellent grapes and wine. Here’s hoping we’re on track for yet another magical year like 2008, 2002 and 1999. By the looks of this evening at Armstrong, I’m hopeful.