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Wine Scene: Bud break means the vineyards are waking from their winter nap

bud break

Bud break in the Yakima Valley.

YAKIMA, Wash. -- There is no mistaking it; bud break is that glorious moment in the vineyard when the vines wake up from winter dormancy.

As the days get longer and warmer, the vines begin to show vitality. Bud break is the second step in preparing the vines for harvest. (Pruning is the first.) Once the weather begins to warm up, hormones begin to activate in the roots, telling the vine to begin its fruit-bearing process.

Bud break is when leaves and shoots begin to elongate out of the buds, which have been tightly packed and protected all winter. These small, fuzzy leaves contain all the components of the upcoming growing season, from the shoots and canopies to the clusters and grapes.

The sequence and timing of bud break depends on the temperature patterns of the spring, but it usually starts in mid-April. It lasts a couple of weeks, from the first signs of green in the chardonnay vines to the last cabernet sauvignon buds breaking.

“Seeing the vines come to life is an exciting time in the vineyard,” says Kerry Shiels, co-owner of DuBrul Vineyard in Sunnyside. “It is the herald of spring and the world waking up from winter.”

It is also a crucial period. The young tissues are sensitive and susceptible to frost damage during cold nights.

“This is one of the reasons that vineyards in the Yakima Valley are planted on higher elevations,” Shiels says. “Cold air is heavy and flows off the hillside down to the valley floor. The elevation of DuBrul Vineyard is the most important protection against frost.”

Although neither is used at DuBrul, other methods of frost protection include fans to keep the air from settling and overhead sprinkling of water. As the water freezes, the temperature of the buds will stay at 32 degrees, protecting the new growth from the subfreezing temperatures that are especially harmful.

Growers hope for warm spring days rather than hot or cold ones.

“We like to see moderate growth in the spring,” says Shiels. “The goal is to balance growth with stress. We want leafy canopies that are big enough to ripen the crop, but small and open enough for optimal light and air penetration.”

The quality of the grape is already being honed. The first vines to experience bud break at DuBrul Vineyard are usually the chardonnay vines, and what a statement they make. DuBrul Vineyard ranks as one of the most prominent vineyards in Washington. The combination of great winemaking talent along with a great vineyard site produces exceptional chardonnay.

Both of these DuBrul Vineyard chardonnays are bottles you will want in your cellar:

2015 Côte Bonneville Chardonnay: This wine is touted as one of Washington’s top chardonnays each year. Its tropical and citrus fruits, bright acidity and creamy texture combine to create a beautiful, age-worthy wine. $50.

2017 Owen Roe Chardonnay: This is a clean, crisp, well-rounded chardonnay with great balance. There are only a few cases of the 2017 vintage available. $28, tasting room only.

“Once we see bud break, we can expect the 2019 vintage to be just five months away,” says Shiels.

In a few short weeks, the vines in the Yakima Valley will have begun their march to harvest.

• Barbara Glover is executive director of Wine Yakima Valley, an industry group representing member wineries.

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