POLK COUNTY — Following two hot growing seasons, local winemakers are seeing more of what made Oregon pinot noirs famous coming out for the vineyards.
While the beginning of harvest this year is even earlier than last year — by a full two weeks in some places — a milder mid-summer has produced hints that has been missing from the last two vintages.
“It’s been great, ideal actually,” said Ken Cook, the winemaker and vineyard manager at Cherry Hill Winery in Rickreall.
The hot spring made for an early bud break, which explains the early harvest, but Cook said the wines will have characteristics of cooler years with longer growing seasons.
“This year will have more complexity and more interesting flavors,” he said.
He said the 2014 and 2015 vintages were pleasing, but atypical for Oregon wines.
“They are bigger, bolder and rich with higher alcohol content,” he said of the previous two vintages. “They are nice wines by any measure.”
But in Cook’s opinion, and that of other local winemakers he’s talked to, those vintages have too much in common with those produced in the state to our south.
Elliott Johns, winemaker and field manager at Emerson Vineyards in Monmouth, said he hopes for a strong contrast this year, too.
“Their (California) seasons are so abbreviated that they don’t get the complex flavors out of their pinot noir,” Johns said. “A long season generally leads to more complex, more elegant pinot noir.”
He’s been watching the flavors build and tracking weather reports to find the best time to take the grapes off the vine. A rain storm forecast for this weekend and next week may force him to start harvest Wednesday (today).
“They are very close,” Johns said Sunday of the wine flavors. “I did a sample a few days ago. It tasted really nice and I was waiting another couple of days to look at the forecast. I’m happy if I have to pick on Wednesday, but I wouldn’t mind a little more hang time to get our traditional Oregon flavors.”
Cook took an opposite approach, choosing to harvest early to avoid the fruit being overripe like it was the last two years. He said those two hot seasons had winemakers and vineyard managers talking about techniques that they could use during hot years to maintain pinot traits that set Oregon apart from other winemaking regions.
Early harvest and late irrigation — on those vineyards that are irrigated — are two options being looked at, he said. Later irrigation slows the ripening process, which allows flavors to develop. The hope is creating wines with lower alcohol content and subtle taste.
Cook expects that harvest will continue at Cherry Hill for another two to three weeks.
Monday, the winery crew spent the day monitoring the fermentation of fruit harvested on Sept. 19, the vineyard’s earliest start to date.
“We will be pressing and barreling the first pinot in the next couple of days,” Cook said. “That’s pretty exciting.”
Johns is hoping to avoid the on and off rain cycles that can happen in October. The vineyard had a good start last weekend, thanks to volunteers.
Emerson hosted a “harvest party” of sorts on Sunday, inviting wine club members to help pick its block of Marechal Foch grapes.
The variety is a French-American hybrid that is less susceptible to disease and funguses that can plague European strains. Johns said the block is nearly hands-off for him.
“All I do is prune them in the winter and pick them in the fall,” he said.
Picking them is the tricky part, though.
The variety produces small grapes and clusters, making them undesirable for professional pickers as they are paid by weight.
Johns usually imports students from Oregon State University to pick the grapes, but that option was off the table this year. He tried harvesting the block on his own — hauling in 600 pounds per day and not making much of a dent.
He sent an email to the winery’s wine club members asking for assistance and a crowd of about 20 people showed up ready to pick. The block was finished in about three hours and the volunteer pickers were treated to lunch — and wine, of course.
Amanda Kelly, the owner and operator of wine tour business Oregon Posh, was among those lending a hand Sunday. It was her first hands-on experience with harvest.
“The Oregon wine community is really family oriented,” she said. “I drive the tours, but I also help out the wineries when I have the day off,” she said.
As for the rest of the vineyard, Johns will keep an eye on the rain forecast, but something else will take precedence.
“I can’t pick until the flavors are right,” Johns said. “That’s the main thing.”