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Wine & Fire in Willamette Valley

a train traveling down train tracks near a forest

Climate change comes in many guises: floods, drought, monsoons, polar vortexes, atmospheric rivers, wildfires. Temperatures soar or drop way above their “normal” or average ranges since records have been kept over the last 100-200 years. Prior to modern record keeping scientists relied on archeological, or literary evidence to give us clues as to how long winters lasted during the Middle Ages or how often a forest burned.

I won’t debate climate change here, but what we do know is that the fires of 2020 in Oregon (and every year since 2016 in CA) were very damaging to the wine industry. I hope we can agree that wildfires in the Pacific Northwest have increased and are expected to continue to be an issue for the foreseeable future. From vineyards and wineries burning to the ground to smoke taint ruining grapes on the vine, wildfires are an all around menace to those of us who make a living in the wine industry.

So what is a vintner to do if smoke or fire affects their crops? There are many options I have learned with surprise and fascination! Necessity is the mother of invention (though I would add disaster as well). Here is what I have learned from several wineries who faced this challenge in 2020:

Durant Vineyards: We tasted there a couple of weeks ago and enjoyed their Dundee Hills White Pinot Noir 2020! Wait, you say, isn’t this just another way of saying Pinot Blanc or Rosé of Pinot Noir? Yes and No. The Pinot grape comes in 3 versions (more when you add in the clones): Noir, Blanc and Gris. They make distinctly different wines: 

  • Noir is the one we all know and love. It is a medium to full-bodied red wine in the style of Burgundy, the leading grape of the Willamette Valley. 
  • Blanc is a true white wine akin to Sauvignon Blanc or Chardonnay. It is white/green on the vine grape which makes a white wine. 
  • Gris (gray in French aka Pinot Grigio in Italian) is a pale grayish/pink grape which makes a lightly colored pinkish wine closer in flavor to a white wine than a true rosé (which comes from red grapes). 

Back to White Pinot Noir: this pale yellow wine looks like a true white wine, but tastes much more full bodied like a Pinot Noir though it has no red/rose color. How and why? Durant’s 2020 crop was affected by smoke, which absorbs into the skin but not the juice. Rather than dump or sell their smoky grapes, they crushed and spent almost no time on the skins, extracting the flavorful Pinot Noir juice (all grape juice is white/yellow), but leaving behind the color and the smoke taint from the skins! 

Voila! a wine devoid of smoke but much more flavorful than your average white wine. Bravo Durant for making lemonade out of lemons!

Domaine Serene: We tasted here last week and questioned Alex about their 2020 vintage. He explained that after they crushed their 2020 grapes, the smoke taint was noticeable. So, instead of tossing or selling the crop they have applied for a distillers license! Distilling separates ethanol alcohol from water via boiling and collecting the ethanol that evaporates first. Most of the flavor compounds (including the smoky flavor) stays with the water, leaving a non-smoke tainted alcohol product which can be further flavored (think oak barrel whisky or fruit flavored vodka) and sold as a spirit instead of as a wine.


Furioso Vineyards made a different choice with 2020 grapes affected by smoke: filtering out particulate matter via reverse osmosis and aroma components via carbon filtration. I tasted 2 of their 2020 Pinot Noirs this week: Pietro and L’Altra and enjoyed both! My favorite was the Pietro (named after a favorite uncle), which we tasted alongside a delicious Wooden Heart Foods kale and bacon pizza (their foodtruck and portable pizza oven is parked at Furioso every day 11-4!). The crispy bacon and melted cheese enhanced the rich Pinot Noir flavor and aroma. Taste for yourself and see if you can detect any remnants from the 2020 fires.

The proceeds of L’Altra 2020 Pinot Noir sales will be donated to the UN crisis relief fund for Ukraine


Le Cadeau Vineyard created a unique Vin Rosé by crushing and co-fermenting their 2020 Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in a 50:50 blend. They minimized the time on skins to eliminate any smoky notes and ended up with a more full bodied wine than you would expect from a 100% Pinot Noir Rosé owing to added flavor from the Chardonnay. The result is delicious hybrid wine perfect for spring and summer when we crave chilled and fresh options after the heavy reds we prefer during the cold winter months.


The Takeaway

Winemakers have many arrows in their quiver when they are handed grapes from the vineyard. When dealing with unforeseen natural disasters that affect crops, I am sure some grapes cannot be saved and are diluted and sold at a loss, or simply used as compost or to amend the soil for next season. But I have seen so many interesting wines coming out of 2020 Willamette Valley Wineries, don’t count them all out for that vintage. Come and taste for yourself! Most wineries taste from multiple years so you can decide if Willamette Valley 2020 is for you or not. But buyer beware if you can’t taste before buying, as sometimes (or often) the less than perfect Oregon wines are shipped out of state far from the local critics to warn you of possible faults. Another reason to add an Oregon stop to your next vacation plans! In the long run grapes will always grow somewhere in the world, though we will be seeing a change in grape types and shift in latitudes amenable to wine grape farming, the end result will be diversity and more interesting wines to try.

Cheers and hope to see you soon on a Triangle Wine Country Tour!


Next time: Learn more about how skins affect flavor and wine color. 

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