TURNER, Ore. — The heatwave that recently hit the Pacific Northwest subjected the region’s vineyards to record-breaking temperatures nine months after the fields that produce world-class wine were blanketed by.
But when temperatures began climbing to 120 degrees Fahrenheit (49 Celsius) in late June, the grapes in Oregon and Washington state were still young, as small as BB’s, many stillby leaf canopies that had not been trimmed back yet.
The good news for grape growers, wineries, and wine lovers is that the historic heatwave came during a narrow window when the fruit suffered minor damage. Earlier or later in the growing season, it could have been disastrous.
The bad news is thatare apt to become more frequent because of climate change. A less intense heatwave again hit parts of the U.S. West just about a week after extreme temperatures gripped the and British Columbia on June 25 and lingered for several days, causing what could be hundreds of heat-related deaths.
This cool, rainy part of the country typically experiences plenty of sunny summer days. However, winemakers are worried about what’s still aheadtied to climate change: Extremely high temperatures could hit yet again, and wildfires are expected to be ferocious.
That includes Christine Clair, winery director of Willamette Valley Vineyards in the city of Turner, just outside Oregon’s capital. She watched rare winds last September smother the Willamette Valley, famed for its delicate pinot noir, in smoke from nearby flames.
“was our first experience in the Willamette Valley with wildfires and smoke impact from them. Though it was considered a once-in-a-100-year east wind event, we believe we are at risk annually now,” Clair said.
In, wineries worldwide began hedging their bets against global warming and its fallout by moving to cooler zones, planting varieties that do better in heat and drought, and shading their grapes with more leaf canopy.
Similarly, wineries plan to protect their crops from more blistering sunshine in the wake of the Northwest heatwave.
At Dusted Valley Vintners in Walla Walla, Washington, co-owner Chad Johnson said that less of the leaf canopy will be trimmed to keep the grapes shaded and prevent sunburn.
Johnson said that workers restricted to morningwould also leave more grapes on the vine, so the fruit ripens slower.
He has never seen conditions soin the summer like those during the heatwave. The thermometer climbed above 100 F (38 C) for several days in the eastern Washington town near the Oregon border.
“It is unusual and unprecedented in my careerhere,” Johnson said.
June 29 was the hottesthistory, reaching 116 F (47 C) and breaking the previous record by two degrees. , Johnson noted, has become a significant concern for him and other wine producers worldwide.
“If it’s not thisfrost they’re having over Europe this year, it’s wildfires in the West, with the drought. It’s always something,” Johnson said. “And it’s getting just more severe every year.”
The industry, meanwhile, has been totaling the damage fromwildfires that covered California, Oregon, and Washington state in thick smoke.
So many California growers worried about unpleasant “smoke taint” in thethat they tried to get the fruit tested to see if the crops were worth harvesting.
The fewwere so overwhelmed they couldn’t meet demand. Some wineries opted not to risk turning some of their grapes into sour wine, hurting their brand, and stopped accepting untested grapes from growers.
“Without question, the financial toll on California winegrape growers has proven to be unprecedented,” John Aguirre, president of the California Association of Winegrape Growers, said in an email.
Industry estimates show California growers had losses of $601 million from wine grapes that went unharvested, Aguirre said.
“The risk of wildfires appears to be greater today than in the past, and that is very troubling for many growers,” Aguirre said, noting that they must contend with heat, drought, frost, excessive rain, pests, and disease.
Wineries can do little to prevent wildfires outside their property, but they can minimize damage if they become inundated with smoke. For example, they may turn some grapes with heavier smoke exposure into rosé instead of red wine. That limits contact with the grape’s skin during wine production and can lower the concentration of smoke aroma compounds.
A report on California’s harvest by the San Francisco-based Wine Institute said that many winemakers are excited about the 2020 vintage despite the challenges.
Corey Beck, CEO and head of winemaking at Francis Ford Coppola Winery in Sonoma County, California, said he is optimistic about small-batch fermentation trials.
“It was like, ‘Oh my god, these wines are terrific,'” Beck told the Wine Institute.
Willamette Valley Vineyards also fermented small grapes to gaugethe resulting wine. It’s Whole Cluster Pinot Noir 2020 vintage received good ratings from Wine Enthusiast magazine.
But winemaking has become so complex and competitive that whenJohnson for advice about getting into the industry, he tries to dissuade them.
“The first thing I do is tell them that’s probably not a good idea,” he said. “It’s hard, and it’s getting harder and harder.” Follow Selsky on Twitter at https://twitter.com/andrewselsky.