Grape harvest underway in Columbia Basin

KENNEWICK — After three years of lighter crops, this year’s wine grapes at Klipsun Vineyards are delivering substantial clusters with spectacular flavor, said co-owner Patricia Gelles.

Across the Columbia Basin, wine grape harvest is in full swing.

Some vineyards are running about 10 days to two weeks early, while others, like Gelles, say their post-Labor Day harvest started mostly on time.

Already, Gelles said she’s getting rave reviews from winemakers on the white varieties she’s delivered from Red Mountain.

The overall volume of grapes looks good, she said, although this fall’s higher temperatures mean the crop is a little lighter. The grapes do not grow as much when it’s hot.

This year’s crop has the potential to break the 2012 record of about 188,000 tons of wine grapes, officials said. The total size of the crop won’t be known until later this year.

Kevin Corliss, Ste. Michelle Wine Estates’ vice president of vineyards, said he expects more grapes overall, thanks to newer vines reaching maturity.

Ste. Michelle Wine Estates produces about 65 percent of the wine made in Washington.

Most of the expansion has been in red varieties such as Cabernet, Merlot and Syrah, but Corliss said Riesling vineyards planted three to five years ago appear to be reaching their full crop level.

It’s been a record warm year, starting with the bloom beginning two weeks early, Corliss said. The warmth all season has caused as lot of fruit to be ready to go all at the same time.

The heat also has meant the grape size is a little smaller than normal, but Mike Andrews, a grower in the Horse Heaven Hills, said that will mean more intense flavors because of a greater proportion of skin on the fruit.

Warm years tend have good vintages, since heat affects the grape flavors and how those flavors develop, said Corliss.

With a lot more growing degree days this year, everything has been moved along at a faster pace, agreed Roger Gamache, who partners with his brother, Bob, at Gamache Vineyards.

But the acids and sugars in the fruit have come into balance nicely, he said. They use about 9 percent of their grapes in their wines at Gamache Vintners.

And the amount of grapes being harvested is also good, Gamache said. “I like what I am seeing tonnage-wise.”

In early September, all the grape varieties appeared to be coming together with fairly similar sugars, said Andrews, co-owner of Coyote Canyon Vineyard with his son, Jeff. But now, it appears varieties such as Cabernet are ripening at a more regular pace.

While he’s already more than a week into his Syrah and Merlot grape harvest, Andrews doesn’t expect to start Cabernet until Oct. 1, just about the normal time.

“This year we have everything back to normal,” he said. “With the early spring it gave us an opportunity to get everything done in a timely fashion.”

It’s the first year some of their vines have been completely back from the November 2010 freeze, he said. That freeze affected 650 acres of his vineyard.

Andrews said it’s shaping up to be an “exceptional crop” this year.

Only 1 percent of the grapes grown by Coyote Canyon Vineyards are used by Coyote Canyon Winery, he said. Most are grown for Ste. Michelle Wine Estates.

“It’s great to be in mid-September and picking red grapes that already have great flavor,” said Corliss at Ste. Michelle Wine Estates.

Whether the fruit is picked by hand or machine is really a preference of the winemakers.

At Klipsun Vineyards, Gelles said all the grape clusters are hand harvested. That limits the amount that can be picked each day.

Andrews said some of the higher-end wines tend to include hand-picked grapes. A couple hundred of Coyote Canyon’s 1,135 acres will be picked by hand. The rest will be done by machine.

When a machine is used, the fruit gets crushed, which starts the fermentation process, he explained. That means those grapes need to be picked closer to the winery.

Milbrandt Vineyards is just starting with the hand-picking portion of its harvest, said Jason Schlagel, director of viticulture.

Most are picked using machines. Milbrandt Vineyards has about 900 acres near Mattawa and 1,200 acres in Quincy, and contracts with growers in the Prosser and Sunnyside areas.

Gelles said they still hope to avoid an early frost and any more heavy rains since many vineyards will continue harvesting until about Halloween.

“I’m excited to see how the wines turn out,” Schlagel said.

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