Category Archives: grapes

2016 gets off to a warm start, but a cool finish?

Here we are on May 22nd, 2016 and it’s a typical cool, rainy day we get in May here in the Puget Sound AVA, but if you dialed the clock back a few weeks you would’ve thought it was July!

May2016GDD

Above is the Growing Degree chart for a nearby WSU weather station. Click on it to expand it but from the thumbnail you can see from January to around mid May 2015 had more degree days than any of the previous years this station had recorded. For those that forgot, 2015 was full of sunny, warm days starting in January and continuing most of the summer. We had some rain right at the end of harvest that made us lose some grapes but for the most part it was a hot and dry summer.

2016, on the other hand, started out quite normally with rain and cool weather. The heat didn’t kick on until March and it seemed like summer came very early. In the chart above you can see where 2016 crosses 2015 in late April and seems to just take off and it shows in the vineyard right now. Growth is weeks ahead of what I consider normal, flowering is just right around the corner and many vines hitting the top wire already. But the seemingly endless heat came to an end a few days ago and we’ve had a lot of rain and clouds which is actually pretty normal this time of years.

I am always trying to see into the future when it comes to the vineyard and so are climate scientist. They are saying that El Nino is wrapping up and we are headed into an La Nina year, which is cooler and wetter for us here in the PNW. I have seen it rain from the middle of August all winter long and a complete loss of crop or sometimes it just gets really cool, but stays dry. That happened back in 2001 and we actually harvested on November 2nd that year.

Looking at the Climate Prediction Center website, it appears they think we will get back into some hotter and drier weather this summer and for my grapes I sure hope so.

2016Prediction

Above is the June-July-August outlook which shows hotter and drier weather.

I have struggled to keep up with the heat this year. The grass and super early budbreak has put me off kilter trying to stay on top of it. The dry weather has also allowed me to work in the evenings when I haven’t normally been able to do that. But I think I have caught up. Keep checking in to follow along and see what’s happening!

Sparkling wine from the Puget Sound AVA

The future of the Puget Sound AVA is Sparkling wine?
The future of the Puget Sound AVA is Sparkling wine?

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.

Auxerrois in the Puget Sound AVA

AuxerroisPaul Gregutt wrote an article a while back about the grape Auxerrois. He did a good job explaining where the grape comes from and what it characteristics are about but I wanted to add some more background around this grape and why I think it might be a good bet to grow this in the Puget Sound AVA.

Auxerrois (pronounced ohk-sair-wah) probably originated in Burgundy near the town of Auxerre in the Chablis district of Burgundy. It is widely grown in the Alsace and Luxembourg with small plantings in the Loire Valley, Switzerland and Germany. It is prized by the ability to ripen with naturally low acid content which is very helpful in far northern climates. For a grape that is is under cultivation in the order of thousands of hectares, there is surprisingly little information on it.

Originally it was thought that Auxerrois was descended from Chardonnay because of it’s similarity in the vineyard and flavor. In Jancis Robinson’s Guide to Wine Grapes (1996 Oxford University Press) she says that “Galet, the French ampelographic authority, refutes 19th century suggestions that the variety has some connection with either Chardonnay, Sylvaner or Melon…” Unfortunately, Galet was wrong.  It was found that it has the same two parents as Chardonnay (Pinot Noir and Gouais blanc) as found by genetic testing by some researchers at UC Davis back in 1999. They also found that Auxerrois has several well known siblings. Some of those include, Chardonnay, Gamay Noir (Beaujolais), Melon (Muscadet) and Aligote. In the Alsace, the grape name Pinot Blanc is interchangeable with Auxerrois. If you’ve had a wine labeled Pinot Blanc from the Alsace, it is mostly likely 100% Auxerrois. Probably because Pinot Noir and Pinot Blanc are genetically identical which would mean that Pinot Blanc could be one of the parents of Auxerrois.

I’ve had it in my experimental row for about 9  years now and it has ripened every year. Auxerrois appears to be less vigorous than Chardonnay, has smaller clusters. Ripens earlier with less acid, but not necessarily more sugar, which could be a condition of the climate. I once had an Auxerrois from Oregon (mentioned in the above article) that was over 14% alcohol, so I know it will go higher in a warmer climate.

The things that really impress me about the grape here in the Puget Sound region, is the ability to drop acid, reach full maturity (brown seeds, brown stems), compact size, naturally low crops and great flavors. The other interesting thing about this grape is that it is the sibling of Chardonnay. So, it has many of the same characteristics of Chardonnay, but ripens a little earlier with less acid. The flavors are not considered as fine as a really good Chardonnay, but are really close and can make an excellent wine on it’s own. If you want a French Burgundy styled white grape here in the Puget Sound, this just might be the grape to plant. I plan on expanding my plantings enough so that I might be able to make a single varietal bottling. Most likely, it will be blended with the Chardonnay to give a little lift. I really like the way it grows in the vineyard. Chardonnay is a very vigorous vine and needs way more space that I gave it, even on rootstock. I have own rooted Auxerrois and it’s a nice compact vine. Last year (2013) it gave me a really nice crop when the Chardonnay just didn’t make it.

Currently there are not any commercial sized plantings of Auxerrois in the Puget Sound, just a couple of experiments here and there. The largest plantings in the USA are in Oregon and Michigan. There are some descriptions stating it can have a cabbage like flavor, but I’ve never experienced that in any of the wines I’ve tasted.