Like many growers and winemakers across the West, Rogue Valley producers are grappling with a much hotter and drier growing season than in years past. The good news? There’s a great chance the 2021 wines will be exceptional.
‘It Could Be an Awesome, Awesome Year’
A hot, dry year is tough on the hardworking people who tend the vines, but it can actually make for some terrific wines. Less water means smaller berries and reduced yield, which translates to riper, more flavorful grapes. “Some degree of water stress is desirable so that sugar becomes sufficiently concentrated in the berries,” says Nichole Schulte, winemaker and partner at Barrel 42 Custom Winecraft and Quady North. The sugar level, or measure of ripeness of the grape juice, is very important for achieving optimal balance in the winemaking process.
“It could be an awesome, awesome year. We’re just not going to have as much of that awesome wine,” says Rob Folin, winemaker at Belle Fiore in Ashland. More concentrated berries means lower yields, so there may be less of the 2021 vintage wines available for sale.
Still, winemakers won’t know exactly what kind of vintage to expect until autumn. “The fall weather is what really makes a harvest,” Folin says. Warm, dry weather during September and October’s harvest is the key, because it means the grapes can hang on the vine and develop full ripeness.
“Hang time is really, really helpful for concentrations of flavors and depth of the wine,” says Ross Allen, co-owner and vineyard manager at 2Hawk Vineyard & Winery in Medford. “The more time that fruit can stay on the vine and truly mature and balance, that’s going to speak to a really spectacular vintage.”
In the meantime, growers are already thinking about the future. Schulte says forward-looking winegrowers are already planting new drought-resistant varieties and rootstocks for the years to come. It’s a very Rogue Valley way of approaching the problem. Dozens of different grape varieties are already grown in [the Rogue Valley] AVA, all with different ripening schedules and climate preferences. With even more diversity, there’s a better chance that some [grape] variety is bound to love whatever Mother Nature dishes out in any given year.
Winemakers Tackle the Challenges
Water has always been precious in the West, but the 2021 drought is bringing extra challenges for farmers in much of Oregon.
While established grape vines aren’t particularly water-intensive crops, growers are still getting serious about making sure their vineyards don’t go dry. Allen says they’re using a high-tech system that measures soil tension to determine exactly how much moisture a vine needs. “It gives us the ability to really micromanage our water use,” he says.
“We’ve been doing this now for 32 years in this area, and I have never seen a vintage where irrigation was such an issue,” says Eric Weisinger, general manager and winemaker at Weisinger Family Winery in Ashland. It’s also been a very hot summer, with record-setting heat waves. “It’s going to be challenging,” Weisinger says.
Newer vines less than five years old will need supplemental irrigation. When irrigation pipes run dry, winegrowers often resort to trucking in water or storing water on-site in tanks to keep new plantings alive. Farmers can also remove shoots, leaves and grape clusters later in the season so plants have less vegetative tissue to keep hydrated.
Still, don’t expect to see crispy vineyards or brown foliage. “Vineyards use very little water in general, so even in late July and August, the vines will still be green. Any cover crop will be brown, but it typically is anyway,” says Folin.
– Margarett Waterbury