Between cool weather, battering wind and crews spaced 6 feet apart, the Yakima Valley’s wine grape growing season is off to an unconventional start.
The hope of every grower each year is that spring delivers moderately warm days, no rain and little wind. This year, Mother Nature granted two of those wishes — little rain and no major heat spikes — but she has not been generous about the lack of wind.
“We’ve seen some heavy wind this year,” says Jonathan Sauer of Red Willow Vineyard. “We lost some shoots from the wind, but the number of berries looks to be high.”
The beginning of the 2020 growing season gave way to a moderate winter that moved into warmer temperatures before cooling off for the majority of spring.
“We will see warmer temperatures this week, but as of now we seem to be right on target,” says Sauer. “The world is going crazy, but the vines are trucking along like normal.”
That said, grape growers, like all farmers, know there is no such thing as an “average” growing season. And rest assured, there is nothing average about this year. Recognizing that this is the year of the unexpected, Kerry Shiels of DuBrul Vineyard in Sunnyside says that even though heat units in the vineyard are cooler than average, grape development looks to be on track.
“The merlot started development a little later than expected but is coming along fine,” says Shiels. “The cabernet, however, is loving this vintage.”
Most vineyards in the Valley are just finishing the flowering phase, otherwise known as bloom. The vines have tiny, green versions of grape clusters. When the time is right, the caps pop off to reveal small flower clusters. As the flowers open, pollen is released into the air and settles on the grapes. Once pollinated, each flower transitions to a small, hard green berry the size of a pea. Each pea eventually ripens into the grapes we know and love. The set looks good this year, according to Sauer.
Fruit set is an extremely important stage for wine production, as it determines the potential crop yield. This is the time when growers can begin to sense harvest potential by walking rows and counting how many berries are on each cluster. Yields are estimated later in the season by considering how many berries are on each cluster and vine and how big they are.
Once the fruit sets, it goes through rapid cell development, expanding in size quickly. Before the end of July, red wine grapes will begin to change color, the next step in the life cycle of the grapevine called veraison.
Generally speaking, harvest begins 100 days after flowering, depending on variety and vineyard site. Currently, the Yakima Valley is just a few days behind last year’s bloom, putting harvest at or around Sept. 13.
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Seeing the next vintage at this stage of development means the weather is warming and it is time to start looking for light, crisp wines to stock up on. These two Yakima Valley wines are priced under $25 and are ready for summer enjoyment.
• Kana Winery 2018 Katie Mae Riesling, $16: Aromas of honeysuckle, peach and pear. Flavors are echoed on the palate with a hint of pineapple and a touch of orange zest. Great acid levels balance the sweetness. Perfect for the patio or your favorite spicy fare.
• Terra Blanca 2019 Signature Series Albariño, $25: This wine offers inviting aromatics of pear, apple and lime skins with a lovely mix of citrus, white peach and green apple flavors. Bright and fresh with great minerality.
• Barbara Glover is executive director of Wine Yakima Valley, an industry group representing member wineries.