I have been growing grapes in one form or another since 1998 in the Puget Sound AVA. We’ve had plenty of cold years and some warm. We’ve had years start out cold and end up warm and the opposite. We live in a fickle environment, which makes our wines so special! This year might (or might not, mother nature is hard to predict) be the earliest we have ever seen the buds emerge from the vines this year. We are two to three weeks earlier than what we see in a normal year.
What does that mean for our vineyard? Not sure yet, but having early bud break can have it’s advantages in a cool climate such as our. I think it’s a win-win for us here in the heat challenged Puget Sound region. If it’s hot all spring and summer long it won’t make too much of a difference for since we are are already coming from a very cool climate and we might have an earlier than normal harvest. IMHO, there isn’t a way that I see us getting so hot that it ruins our crop. We aren’t there yet, maybe in 100 years we will be growing Syrah, but not now. But making a nice full bodied Pinot Noir is not a bad thing for us here in the Puget Sound AVA
If El Nino turns on us in the middle of the summer, believe me I’ve seen it. We are still ahead of the game. Budbreak is still giving us a 2-3 week headstart this year so if we get a couple of crummy weeks of weather at the end of the growing year we have that “reserve” of heat to pull from. I think it’s all good for us!
The only downside is that things are so early that I was caught flat footed with my pruning this year. We’ve never had bud break in late March and I usually have another couple of weeks to prune and take care of winter maintenance, but not this year! But it should all work out in the end and I am looking forward to an excellent crop of Pinot Noir this year!
What do you do when nature gives you lemons? You make sparkling wine of course! Let me explain when I say lemons. I really mean under ripe grapes… I could’ve said sour grapes, and many times the grape we grow in the Puget Sound AVA could be considered “sour” by the cognoscenti that think they know what Washington wine should taste like. One thing that WA state does not have a lot of (or they do depending on how you look at it) is sparkling wine makers. (Actually, they have a couple of really big producers, especially Domaine Michelle which makes about 1 million cases of sparkling wine). I think it’s time we had more and western Washington is ideally suited to the production of sparkling wine.
But, one thing that they don’t have going for them is the climate that very much similar to the Champagne region of France. While we are not as warm as Burgundy, we are probably a lot warmer than Champagne here in the Puget Sound AVA. In fact, if you go back in history, they grew Pinot Noir in Champagne for over 1000 years and made a light, pinkish sort of still wine. But they were always envious of their southern neighbors in Burgundy where they could make sturdier wines with more color and alcohol. It wasn’t until about 200 years ago they learned to harness the wine refermenting in the bottle and voila! a new type of wine was born!
What the Puget Sound has going for it in making sparkling wines is the naturally low sugar levels and higher acid levels that make Champagnes so special. We have access and can grow the three main grapes of Champagne and that is Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay. In fact, at my vineyard, I grow all three but the Meunier is only an experiment with a few vines. I do have 500 Chardonnay vines and about 1500 Pinot Noir vines. I have made a still Pinot Noir almost every year since I planted them 10 years ago. On the other hand, I have only made 4 out of 10 years for still Chardonnay due to lack of heat and under ripe grapes. Chardonnay needs a little more heat than Pinot Noir in our climate for a still wine.
There are several obstacles for selling sparkling Puget Sound wines and namely it is the competition and lack of equipment and know how. The competition is mainly big domestic producers that make ungodly amounts of decent sparkling wine at a price point that simply doesn’t make sense for a small producer. I think the Domaine Ste. Michelle run of the mill sparkling wine runs about $12 a bottle and it’s a decent wine! Same with the big California producers. But I do think people will seek a unique product and will pay extra for hand made sparkling wine.
The other issue that I have been running into is the lack of the proper equipment to process the wine. Most importantly is the equipment to put the cork in the bottles and real sparkling wine bottles that can handle Champagne levels of pressure. The corks are a real issue. You need a special corker than can insert a very wide cork and also give you that nice mushroom look to it. Sparkling wine producers in Australia have thrown tradition to the wind and make expensive sparkling wine with a dressed up beer cap, which is an option too.
I have made sparkling wine on several occasions and I just opened a 12 year old bottle of sparkling Muller-Thurgau that was just crazy good. I know a couple of other Puget Sound AVA wineries have dabbled in it but nobody has embraced it wholeheartedly and I think that’s a shame but I understand after experimenting with the process a couple of times, it’s really, really hard to get right.