Washington growers and winemakers consistently use one word when describing the weather during 2018’s harvest: perfect.
“It was the best weather I’ve ever seen,” said Dick Boushey, who manages vineyards in Yakima Valley and Red Mountain. “We probably harvested some of the best fruit I’ve ever picked.”
“It was one of the best harvest seasons that we’ve seen in a long, long time,” said Mike Sauer at Red Willow Vineyard in Yakima Valley. “Nearly nine weeks of perfect, perfect ripening weather.”
The growing season started out with a cooler than average April, delaying bud break slightly. Immediately thereafter, temperatures warmed way up.
“We had one of the coldest Aprils but then one of the warmest Mays on record,” said Bob Berthau, head winemaker at Chateau Ste Michelle, which sources fruit from throughout the Columbia Valley. “Temperatures went from almost two weeks behind to even or maybe even a tiny bit ahead going into June.”
Bloom began across the Columbia Valley in late May to early June, slightly ahead of historical averages. Conditions at bloom were ideal.
“We had the most amazing weather during bloom, which set a lot of fruit,” said Boushey.
“It was a really fast and even bloom across all varieties,” said Sauer. “I don’t know if I’ve ever seen as consistently even a bloom like that.”
This, along with cooler June weather, contributed to above average berry and cluster sizes in some varieties and locations.
“Cluster counts were about the same, but berry size and berries per cluster were a little bit bigger,” said Kendall Mix at Milbrandt Vineyards on the Wahluke Slope. “Particularly for Merlot, berry size was noticeably bigger.” Mix noted irrigation practices also played a role in this.
The larger crop led to extensive thinning in some locations. “In our high tier blocks, we had to do two and three thinning passes to get things down to where we needed them to be,” Mix said. “After the first thinning pass, we went out and did cluster counts and cluster weights, and the numbers didn’t even reflect that anything had been thinned.”
“We did more thinning this year than we have in a long time,” Berthau said.
While larger berry sizes can sometimes cause concern, Sauer didn’t expect it to affect quality.
“I think, for your specialty players that got their crops down, it’s going to be a non-factor,” he said. “For people who like five or six-ton (per acre) crops, they got it. They might have gotten even more.”
July and August temperatures were warm, with occasional heat spikes. As in recent years, there was smoke in the air at times from distant wildfires, particularly in August.
“It was this high haze,” said Boushey. “I don’t think there was any impact at all from what I was seeing. It was much less of an issue than it was last year.”
Harvest for sparkling wine grapes began on August 17th, with growers starting to bring in grapes for still white wines on the 28th. “We actually brought some fruit in the last week of August,” said Mix, reflecting on the warmth of the growing season. “That hasn’t happened very often in my career.”
By early September, 2018 had all the makings of another hot year in Washington. However, September temperatures cooled considerably, and the Columbia Valley saw ideal conditions throughout the rest of harvest.
“It was the best September that I’ve ever seen in terms of growing grapes,” said Hillary Sjolund at Wine Boss in Richland, which receives most of its fruit from Red Mountain. “Every single day was perfect grape growing weather.”
“I remember years ago saying that the magic of Washington is September and October,” said Sauer. “We absolutely had that this year.”
Below average days in September were followed by quite cool nights and large diurnal swings.
“That’s ideal. Absolutely ideal,” said Jason Gorski at Woodinville’s DeLille Cellars, which sources much of its fruit from Yakima Valley and its sub-appellations along with fruit from Sagemoor Vineyards in the Columbia Valley. “You couldn’t write it out on paper better.”
The cooler temperatures allowed for extended hang time in later ripening varieties for those who sought it. Sunny days continued sugar development while cooler nights preserved acids, an unusual mix.
“When you looked at the amount of sugar accumulation and then looked at acidity, you didn’t see that really high pH that came with those higher sugar numbers,” said Sjolund.
“We were higher on sugar and higher on acid,” agreed Marty Clubb of L’Ecole No. 41, which sources fruit from Walla Walla Valley and other areas of the Columbia Valley.
Some in warmer regions finished harvest in September, while most continued into October and even into November at some sites. Unlike 2016 which saw more rainfall than the norm during harvest, particularly in October, the 2018 growing season and harvest was remarkably dry, even by eastern Washington standards.
“It was a dry, dry year,” said Boushey. “We had a little bit of rain in October, but I don’t think we had any measurable rain for about a month and a half or more.” This led to very low disease and pest pressure, a welcome change from the previous two vintages.
By October 31st, Growing Degree Days (GDDs), a measure of heat accumulation, were above average as noted in the graph at left from Washington State University.
Below is also a look at GDDs across the growing season at Red Willow Vineyard compared to other recent vintages. Of note is 2018’s very warm start through May 30th (ahead of even the hot 2016 and 2015 starts), continued heat accumulation through August 15th (ahead of all years listed except 2015), but then final numbers more aligned with most recent vintages, except the cool 2010 and 2011 and hot 2015.
In the end, growers and winemakers were excited with the results of the growing season. “I’m really happy with quality,” said Gorski. “Obvious consumer appeal from day one. Color is just insane.”
“Big color, big flavors,” said Boushey. “The tannins are there, but if you waited, they are not harsh. We have a lot of fruit, but there’s good structure. I think it’s going to be a heck of a vintage.”
Many noted in particular the strength of Rhône varieties. “I’m calling it the year of the Rhônes right now,” said Berthau. “The Syrahs are beautiful. I’ve never seen Mourvèdre as sweet and supple as they were this year.”
Cabernet Sauvignon, an increasingly important variety for the state, also excelled. “The Cabernets are rock solid,” Berthau said. “Deeper color and more extraction than the last couple years as they did get a bit more hang time.”
Overall, most expect 2018 to be a strong year. “I think it looks like another great vintage for Washington State,” said Sauer. “There’s a lot of positive things: the higher acid levels, the consistency and uniformity of the bloom, the harvest weather. Then there are some (potential) negatives, slightly higher sugar, slightly larger crop size. That’s yet to be seen.”
The first 2018 wines will be released next spring.
NB: For those wanting a sneak peak at the vintage now, check out the College Cellars 2018 Muscat, traditionally the first wine bottled and released from the vintage.
All pictures by Richard Duval.