Vintage of a Lifetime they say (I say!)

Mar 19, 2015

Now that spring appears to be roaring in like a lion, I can’t help but reflect on the great year 2014 was for the Willamette Valley. Our wine club members constantly asked me how the year was going last year starting in late spring - maybe it’s some internal primitive connection we still have, a vestige of our agrarian roots, surviving in spite of the complexity of our modern, technology-filled busy lives.

Anyway, I’m pretty sure I called it the “Vintage of the Century” long before Memorial Day - I really knew it in my soul, I just knew it was going to be a really good year. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that I was in a really good mood. Vacations can do that to you, you know what I mean?

Chillin in Chile and Argentina

Wifey and I love to travel. Typically, we take a small, close group of like-minded individuals on a wine and food tour, usually in early June after school lets out. I don’t know the wisdom of the school out thing as most of us have kids that have long since left the nest. We’ve done Northern Italy and Southern France, Spain and Portugal but in 2014 we decided to do Chile and Argentina -- leaving for South America in March.

I can’t begin to describe how brilliant that turned out to be (OK, if you insist, I’ll tell you about that in a later post).

Anyway, since we travelled to the Southern hemisphere, we left the rain, grey skies and the slightly depressing drudgery of a long and wet Pacific NW winter and popped right down into the sun and fun of the harvest season in South America -- brilliant I tell you, absolutely brilliant! And in Malbec country no less!

Our merry little band of wine and food lovers consumed 167 bottles of wine (all red!) in a brief 10 days, some serious lightweights among us. And the amount of meat we ate – whew baby, those were some fantastic feasts with 7 courses of meat and Malbec flowing like water. I cannot wait to go back, no lie!

Home to bud break, aha!

Anyway, I returned home from Argentina, relaxed, refreshed, well fed and well rested to much more hospitable weather conditions.

But the real AHA moment is that for once, instead of being in Europe, I was actually here at bud break! This began, for me, a much deeper connection to the vineyard and the rhythm of the season.  

Lessons from Cab Franc grafting

It turns out, the Cab Franc had much to teach me – first, a little background -- I grafted Cabernet Franc on top of Riesling in 2011, knowing (or maybe just sensing) that 2011 would be a wasted year in the vineyard, too cold, too late and too short for anything to really ripen the way I like.

So in the beginning of July 2011, we literally sawed off the top of the vines and grafted them over. Thinking back on that experience, it really is a rather brutal procedure (from a vine’s eye view) – then, after the grafts are made, we bleed the trunk below the graft every week or so for 4-6 weeks to reduce the pressure caused by the rising sap.

In our case, I had the root structure of a 10 year old vine feeding just 2 spindly little pencil size canes with 3 buds each - talk about repression!  I admit to an inconsiderate “they’re just dumb plants” type of callousness. After the grafting, the grapes were unpredictable and precocious like unruly and really unhappy teenagers in 2012 and again in 2013.

Back to May of 2014 -- I was here for their awakening. I observed and studied, learning much at every step of the way. Grape plants are living organisms I realized. It’s shocking to completely hack off their upper torso, and it’s unreasonable to expect them to recover quickly. With a little help from their friends, (that would be me), I believe they achieved a sort of normalcy in 2014. The fruit set was terrific, even after dropping a full one third of the crop, I still harvested a bumper crop.

Warmer with record-breaking hot days

 And what a year it was – we received 2,858 GDD (Growing Degree Days) average in the Willamette Valley, our vineyard was undoubtedly even warmer, which obliterated the previous record for heat accumulation set way back in 2006. And the type of heat we received was also highly unusual; we broke the record not for an outrageous number of hot days (although there were lots of them) but for the unusually warm nighttime temperatures – phenomena that graced the vines with a continuous ripening cycle up till harvest. 

This combination of warm days and warm nights produced an especially bountiful crop, deeply rich, ripe and intensely aromatic. The press now is calling 2014 the “Vintage of a Lifetime.” It’s still early of course, but 2015 is looking even better.

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