Analysis

The 2005 Harvest Report - California, Washington and Oregon

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Just-drinks.com's harvest report series continues with a look at the principal growing regions in the US. Anne Brockhoff reports on a record crop of high quality in California, while Ben Cooper reviews the 2005 vintage in the north-west states of Washington and Oregon.

California

California has posted one of its biggest and best grape harvests in recent years after a long growing season and a hectic crush. Nick Frey, executive director of the Sonoma County Grape Growers Association, likened 2005 to 1997, a large crop of excellent quality.

The season began with ample winter rainfall, followed by a temperate summer and an autumn free of late heat spikes or early rains. As a result, production is expected to rise by 12% in 2005 to 3.15m tons, the California Agricultural Statistics Service said. That would make it California's second-biggest harvest ever, following 3.32m tons in 2000. Final figures will be released in February.

The longer season also meant grapes matured more slowly and developed more flavour to balance accumulated sugar, winemakers said. "I continue to be impressed by the concentration, colour and quality of these 2005 wines," said Daniel Baron, winemaker for Silver Oak Cellars in Oakville. "I believe we are experiencing one of California's greatest vintages."

Douglas Fletcher, who as director of winemaking for the Terlato Wine Group oversees production at the Chimney Rock, Rutherford Hill, Alderbrook, Terlato and Sanford wineries, anticipates improved quality at all price points. "We'll make better wine, and there will also be a lot of really good wine on the bulk market," Fletcher said.

Harvest began several weeks late in most regions, and then went fast enough to strain many wineries' tank capacity. Kendall-Jackson's crushing facilities in Napa, Sonoma, Monterey and Santa Barbara counties operated at full capacity 24-hours a day during the harvest peak, and it reopened a Lake County facility to help handle the increased tonnage. Many wineries limited growers to contracted grapes only; there was little market for excess fruit, Frey said.

However, one big harvest is unlikely to have a long-term impact on the market. Production may decline next season, partly because planting of new vineyards has slowed. At the same time, thirst for American wines continues to grow.
 
US wine consumption reached a historic high of 668m gallons in 2004, and California wine shipments to all markets in the year to August 2005 were up by 3.6%, according to California's Wine Institute. "While 2006 may be difficult for growers, continued US market growth and export opportunities and the fact that we have very few non-bearing acres coming into production all bodes well for 2007, 2008 and 2009," Frey said.

Washington

Washington State also looks to have enjoyed a record harvest of high quality. The Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers (WAWGG) said the 2005 harvest "boasts not only record-breaking numbers, but bold flavours" and was "one of the most outstanding crushes in the industry's history".

WAWGG estimates a total crush of 116,760 tons exceeding the industry's previous record harvest of 115,000 tons in 2002. The quality and size of the harvest stemmed from the perfect combination of warm summer months, cool autumn temperatures and a mild winter. The moderate winter temperatures and prolonged summer allowed grapes extra time to develop robust Washington wine characteristics, WAWGG said.

"While it's still too early to tell, 2005 could very well be the vintage of the decade for Washington," said Jeff Gordon, chairman of the Washington Wine Commission and owner of Gordon Brothers Family Vineyards in Pasco. "Mother Nature was definitely on our side this year, delivering one of the warmest summers we've had in recent years, cool and constant fall weather and a frost-free harvest. This allowed the fruit to hang on the vine longer and enhance flavour development."

The state's 50/50 red to white ratio has been maintained in 2005, with the Cabernets, Merlots and Syrahs looking particularly promising with great colour, balance and ripe flavours.

"The crop has been beautiful this year," said Vicky Scharlau, executive director of the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers. "Many vines are coming out of adolescence, bringing a maturity to the vintage not seen in recent years."

The key red varietals in Washington are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and Cabernet Franc, while the major white wine varieties include Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris and Viognier. Washington is the second largest wine region in the US in terms of production after California, with more than 30,000 acres under vine, 360 wineries and total retail sales last year of US$685m.

Oregon

This year's wine harvest in Oregon occurred later than expected but the cooler temperatures, say winemakers, will lead to lower alcohol levels, structured acidity and ideal flavour development.

Despite a wet spring and autumn rains for most of the state, Oregon's wine harvest looks promising, the Oregon Wine Center reports, with increased crop levels and ripeness that indicate favourable flavour structure and higher acidity than in past years.

Although the autumn rain did present challenges, those who waited out the rains and picked during the dry windows were rewarded with optimal fruit ripeness and flavour profiles. With sugar levels down and higher natural acidity than in past years, this year's vintage will showcase classic Oregon viticulture and winemaking, Oregon winemakers have suggested.

"This will be one very delicious, balanced and nuanced vintage," said Scott Shull, winemaker and general manager of Raptor Ridge Winery in Scholls.

Throughout Southern Oregon, yields ranged from 20% below forecast to 10% above forecast. But overall, yields are thought to be slightly up on 2004.

An increased yield is good news for Oregon's wine industry, which reports increasing demand for Pinot Noir among other varieties. Many producers believe that lower alcohol levels, coupled with increased tonnage, could lead to an ideal Oregon vintage. "This could end up being a magical harvest," said Jim Bernau, owner of Willamette Valley Vineyards in Salem.


Sectors: Wine

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