It’s getting warmer. The Washington wine industry has a plan to do something about that, including planting different varieties of grapes, and more of them, in new locations.
WHEN ROB GRIFFIN started his career as a Washington winemaker 40 years ago, it was cooler in the Columbia Valley. In fact, he recalls that the 1977 harvest began the second week of October. In 2014, Washington’s wine grape harvest began Aug. 7. Last fall, Griffin brought in his first few tons of grapes on Aug. 18.
Pacific NW Magazine: Outdoor Living 2017 editionPick up a hard copy on Sunday, Feb. 19 for a Great Plant Picks poster on the inside cover.
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- How climate change is affecting Washington winemaking
The already-arid wine country has gotten warmer, a fact noticed by all who work in the industry. Many are working to mitigate that, with ideas such as:
• More grapes: One of the biggest concerns about warmer vintages is that the grapes ripen before the flavors develop. Higher sugar ripeness means higher alcohol levels without any flavor complexity. There’s also the issue of losing all-important acidity before harvest. One way to stave off early ripening is to leave more clusters on each vine. If a cabernet sauvignon vineyard carries 5 tons per acre of fruit instead of 3 tons, you can significantly slow the ripening. Finding the right balance is tricky, but this has the added bonus of increased production and more money going into farmers’ pockets.
• Location: A few years ago, a climate scientist came to Washington wine country and told industry members their best solution was to plant more vines farther north. While it is easier to move Boeing headquarters to Chicago than Red Mountain’s famous vineyards to Omak, grape growers pointed out that if you need a vineyard that is a few degrees cooler, locations such as Prosser in the Yakima Valley might be the answer. Vineyardists have long favored south-facing slopes to take advantage of afternoon heat. Planting on north-facing slopes can lower the temperatures naturally.
• Grape selection: Grapes ripen at different paces. Merlot ripens in early September, while cabernet sauvignon can hang until Halloween. Matching site with variety is important, but winemakers also are exploring varieties that ripen later.
For example, Chris Figgins of Leonetti in Walla Walla is now growing aglianico, a heritage Italian variety that takes longer to ripen.
“I think it’s only prudent,” he says. “What if it is too warm to grow merlot here one day?”
While we grow more than 100 varieties of wine grapes in the Pacific Northwest, we’ve only scratched the surface on available varieties. Italy alone is home to more than 1,000 grape varieties.
• Viticultural practices: One of the largest concerns in agriculture is availability of water. Without the Yakima River, we wouldn’t have any of the 100 or so crops being grown in the Yakima Valley. Fortunately, wine grapes don’t need a lot of water to grow, and the use of drip irrigation allows farmers to add water quite literally a spoonful at a time — exactly when the vines need them.
And while La Niña has been generous to our mountains and aquifers this year, we won’t always be able to count on her. The Washington wine industry is working on a plan.