Weather and the Willamette Valley in 2022
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On the heels of 2020 smoke issues and 2021 record heat last June, 2022 is already shaping up to be a challenging year for Willamette Valley vineyards with its current atmospheric river conditions bringing above average rainfall this spring. But the main concerns so far in 2022 are the effects of the April freeze.
Snow in April??
In April Portland and Willamette Valley received unprecedented snow in over 2 days and experienced several nights below freezing. The vines were just starting to wake up from their winter dormancy and bud break was beginning. Below freezing temperatures at this time can kill or seriously impact primary, secondary and possibly tertiary buds. What does this mean? Well, once a primary bud dies, the secondary bud kicks in. This is good news if the secondary bud survives but the grape yield decreases by as much as half. If the secondary bud dies, the tertiary bud wakes up and the yield further decreases. However the tertiary bud is responsible for next year’s growth, so growth this year will decrease yield next year.
Growing grapes for wine is not for the faint of heart. The crop, like all agricultural products, is dependent on mother nature for proper water, sun, soil and wine grapes need temperature swings (called diurnals) to achieve a maximum quality. The farmer (or vigneron for wine grapes) has a huge impact on issues such as soil health, pest control, weed control, planting, pruning and harvesting decisions but still much of the end product is out of their control.
Fires in 2020: Recap
In 2020, wildfires in areas surrounding the Willamette Valley drifted through the Valley, devastating pockets of vineyards, creating minor impact on others and no impact on the lucky ones. Each winemaker made their own decisions as to how to treat the grapes they received . The reactions ranged from sending grapes to the compost pile, pressing some grapes and filtering for smoke particles, to saving the juice to distill, or making wine and monitoring the flavor over time for smoke impact. For some wineries, the vintage was a total loss, for others no impact at all, and many with limited impact. Durant made white Pinot Noir in 2020 and it has been so well received they may make it again. Mo Ayoub went to great lengths to filter his 2020 Pinot Noir and released a much smaller quantity. Gabrielle Keeler was forced to pull her 2020 Pet Nat recently due to latent smoke taint not evident at bottling. (For the full story, check out our blog post on the subject!)
Freeze in 2022
Fast forward to 2022, some vignerons have already ordered new vines to replace the young vines killed in the freeze. Andrew Beckham lost a section of his new vines planted in the fall of 2021. Many vineyards suspect a 50-80% reduction in yield for 2022 due to primary and/or secondary bud loss. According to Oregon Wine Press1, Chardonnay vines will be the most impacted, followed by Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris. Quality won’t be affected, luckily, but quantity will.
On recent visits to the Willamette Valley, the vines look healthy with plenty of leaf growth and, to the novice, completely normal. The key to quantifying the freeze impact, however, is the flowering buds, which become the grape berries and their health and quantity per cluster. It is too early in the growing season to know how this will compare to past years and to calculate the tonnage of ripe grapes to be harvested this fall. At the very least, the volume of wine produced from these affected vines will be reduced, leading to fewer bottles available for sale and lower profits for the wineries, as well as possibly higher prices to the consumer.
Rain Issues in 2022?
On the heels of the April freeze, we have been experiencing extended rain this spring. Rainy days have outweighed sunny days manyfold (the highest rainfall levels year to date since the 1940’s), affecting all crops in the northwest corner of Oregon. It’s too soon to tell if the rain will affect the vines as it’s early in the growing season. Stay tuned for updates as the season progresses. In any case, above average rainfall could stave off fire risks, which is definitely a good thing. I, for one, am rooting for sunny days ahead (but not too many)! Because it has led to record lows as well as highs, many believe “global warming” is a misnomer. The better description is climate change, resulting in weather extremes of all kinds from floods to fires to droughts to freezes to extreme heat, all which wreak havoc on the farming communities around the world including our corner of heaven in Oregon.
Mother nature is unpredictable and climate change is real. Fires have become ubiquitous across the western US affecting agriculture in general and grapes in particular as well as homeowners, tourists and business owners. Temperatures have been climbing and extreme weather events are more commonplace. The good news? The Willamette Valley is becoming more hospitable to warmer weather grapes. I predict we will be seeing a greater variety of grapes able to be grown in this historically cool, wet weather climate. The wine enthusiast will be able to taste and buy many more wines coming out of the Willamette Valley, so stick around and watch how the region transforms
** And remember: Suggest a Willamette Valley winemaker or winery you want to learn more about and if I choose them for a future blog post I will credit you $20 on a wine tour!**