Washington grape production down in 2020, quality up

Washington’s harvest was down 11% in 2020, with a total of 178,500 tons produced. Cabernet Sauvignon was the state’s most produced grape variety at 52,000 tons, or 29% of total production. This was followed by Chardonnay (28,100), Riesling (24,680), Merlot (22,775), and Syrah (18,230), which together combined to make up more than 80% of grapes harvested.

While production was down, growers and winemakers report the quality of the fruit was high, with smaller clusters, darker colors, and concentrated flavors.

“Overall, the vintage is spectacular,” Chris Figgins, president of Figgins Family Wines Estates, said following harvest. “Some of the darkest wines of my career.”

2020 was Washington’s lowest harvest total since 2012, when 188,000 tons were produced. The state’s production numbers had been steadily increasing to a high of 270,000 tons in 2016. However, recent years have shown more fluctuation due to both growing season and market factors. All published varieties showed decreases in 2020 from the previous year, with the exception of Riesling which had a modest increase.

There are a number of reasons for the decreased tonnage. The first is a series of freeze events that occurred in October 2019. Weather was unsettled during bloom, which led to a poor set. Both factors reduced cluster sizes and weights, with many reporting the crop 25% lighter than expected.

“It was definitely one of the lighter crops I've seen,” said Marty Clubb, co-owner and managing winemaker at L’Ecole No. 41 in Lowden.

Some producers also decided to bring in less fruit in 2020 due to market uncertainties related to COVID-19. Finally, wildfire smoke during harvest also impacted picking decisions, though most are cautiously optimistic that it did not have a widespread impact on wine quality.

Merlot saw the largest decrease from the prior year, dropping 25%. Though it is a bit player in the state with only 330 tons produced, Semillon decreased by 24%. This contributed to the price per ton of Semillon increasing 16%. Pinot Noir, also a minor player in the state, saw the largest increase in cost per ton, up 50% from 2019.

Of note, three varieties broke the $2,000 per ton mark, the first time this has occurred for any variety in Washington. They were Cabernet Sauvignon ($2,090 up from $1,702), Cabernet Franc ($2,167 up from $1,857), and the catchall “Other Red Varieties” ($2,032 up from $1,682). Cabernet Franc was the most expensive variety per ton.

The decreased tonnage led to some producers scrambling to get additional fruit.

“The spot market was active and healthy for the first time in years,” noted Lacey Lybeck, vineyard manager at Sagemoor Vineyards.

The first wines from the Washington’s 2020 vintage began to be released last month.

Image by Richard Duval. 

Sean P. Sullivan

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