While this year has been coined a "miracle harvest," the 2011 growing season is one that the Pacific Northwest wine industry won't want to relive.
And yet, most winemakers already are raving about the wines they will bottle.
They readily credit not only the preparations made all summer long in the vineyards, but also Mother Nature. She came through down the stretch and provided near-perfect growing conditions, allowing for a remarkable come-from-behind victory, particularly in Oregon's Willamette Valley.
"We had some late streaks of weather that were absolutely beautiful, and that fantastic stretch is what carried us," said Ken Wright, one of Oregon's most acclaimed Pinot Noir producers.
Bob Bertheau, head winemaker for Chateau Ste. Michelle, brought in grapes between Sept. 19 and Nov. 9.
"If we'd gotten a freeze like we did in 2009, that would have been a whole different story," he said.
Tonnage was off for the second straight year for much of the Northwest. In Washington, early season projections for crop levels being down 20 percent across the state held true.
In some respects, the 2010 vintage provided some guidelines for the 2011 season, especially in the Walla Walla Valley where autumn freeze events affected the subsequent vintage.
For example, production in Walla Walla Valley dipped about 30 percent in 2010 because vines didn't get a chance to harden off before a mid-October Arctic blast in 2009.
On Nov. 23, 2010, another hard freeze resulted in widespread winter damage. In fact, some sites in the Horse Heaven Hills -- particularly portions of famed Champoux Vineyards -- were forced to take chainsaws to their vineyards.
Woodward Canyon Winery, among the Pacific Northwest's most active and informative with its Twitter feed, announced Sept. 15 that its harvest began with Sauvignon Blanc. That was a day earlier than 2010 but three weeks later than in 2009.
At Reininger Winery in Walla Walla, the red grape harvest began Oct. 3 with Merlot from Bacchus Vineyard near Pasco, Wash.
"This is actually going back to the way it used to be," said Chuck Reininger. "I used to help out at Waterbrook for about 10 years before I started, and a lot of times, harvest didn't start until the third week in September. It's been about a decade since we've seen that. There are a lot of new wineries that haven't experienced this phenomenon, but my advice to them is to get used to it. We're going back to the old weather trends."
For the second straight vintage, winemakers were marveling over Merlot and the lower alcohol.
"This reminds me of why we like Merlot in Washington so much," said Rob Griffin, owner/winemaker of Barnard Griffin in Richland. "The wines will be more European in style. They have crisper, leaner, more food-friendly balance that, frankly, I prefer."
Bertheau, the Ste. Michelle winemaker, said, "This year, it was about as good as we could have hoped for in Washington. It didn't rain much the last three weeks. Overall, Mother Nature was extremely kind to us."
Indeed, there was no "game over" freeze event as there was in 2009, which began the current stretch of three problematic vintages in Washington.
"On Oct. 14-15, in 2009, we were done with harvest," Reininger remembered. "This year, on Oct. 13, we're kind of just getting going."
While 2011 will create some unusual issues in the winery for many, the ingredients are there for some remarkably long-lived wines.
"There will be more fun with Syrah, but it will be a little more refined," Reininger said. "Syrah in the last decade has had a tendency to be more in your face. Bigger. Jammier. And it's nice to let the Chardonnay hang a little more because of the lower sugars, which will mean lower alcohols. But it's been really scary with all the rain. This is Mother Nature, and this is where the real winemaking decisions come into play."
Rick Small, Woodward Canyon's founding winemaker, has a well-deserved reputation for creating some of the Northwest's most age-worthy wines. This year, he crushed his first red grapes on Oct. 14 with Syrah from Champoux Vineyard. He wrapped up Nov. 5 with Cabernet Sauvignon from Les Collines Vineyard in the Walla Walla Valley.
"This vintage reminds me most of 1984 followed then by 1991 and 1993," Small noted. "The wines are sure to be different, but they will be good from good producers. I believe I told someone else that the wines will be more like the wines we used to make 25 years ago; like Left Bank Bordeaux possibly."
At Ken Wright Cellars in Carlton, there seems to be genuine excitement about his latest crop of Pinot Noir.
"I'm actually really surprised at the depth of color, and the profile is red to blue fruit, rather than black fruit," Wright said. "These are very pretty -- more soprano than basso this year -- but they will be gorgeous, clean wines."
Sam Tannahill, founder of A to Z Wineworks and chairman of the Oregon Wine Board, called it "a miracle harvest."
"Two weeks ago, we were literally in the bottom of the ninth inning, two runs behind with two out," he said in mid-October.
Season-long preparations by vineyard managers allowed the grapes, particularly the fickle Pinot Noir from cooler sites with volcanic soils, to take full advantage of the ideal conditions.
"It was a matter of being patient and letting the fruit hang, but the fruit had to be absolutely flawless to not let it be affected by rot," Wright said. "The birds were not as much of a problem this year as last, and the foliage looked better than last year. The vines were better and stronger than last. In the end, it was a great year for us."
In terms of tonnage, "We were about where we expected to be, where we average about 21/4 tons per acre overall," Wright said. "The natural crop level was huge, looking at 6-7 tons an acre, so thinning was more of a requirement because it was cooler, and everybody got that. Nobody pushed Mother Nature or they would have been foolish beyond belief."
Wright likened this vintage of Pinot Noir to that of 1991, which also was late and cool.
"When we've gone back and tasted through the 1990s, ask any winemaker who was in the valley -- those 1991 wines surprised everyone and surpassed the '94s, '98s, even the '92s," Wright said. "They really became complex within a couple of years."
Consecutive nights of near or below-freezing temperatures on Oct. 25-27 affected several regions in the Northwest, including Southern Oregon.
"Three straight days of frost. Not good," reported Roseburg winemaker Pat Spangler. "Anything low or even remotely sensitive is likely done for the year. Everything is being picked now, no matter how ripe it was."
The Indian summer conditions and the canopy management allowed many, but not all, to avoid botrytis cinerea, a fungus that can gather on wine grapes.
And the squadrons of hungry migratory birds were not nearly as problematic in 2011 as the previous year, when overall tonnage was off 22 percent.
As was the case in Washington, Sauvignon Blanc became the first variety taken in the Okanagan Valley, and Le Vieux Pin in Oliver began Sept. 14 and wrapped up Nov. 7.
At Pentage Wines near Penticton, harvest began Oct. 3 -- which was six days earlier than in 2010 -- and concluded Nov. 14.
Five days later, wineries were out harvesting for ice wine. It was the second-earliest harvest of grapes for ice wine, behind only the Nov. 5, 2003, collecting.
There are 875 tons of grapes left out for ice wine harvest, the largest in B.C. history. And Summerhill Pyramid Organic Winery was the first to be certified by government officials, harvesting from 9:30 p.m. Nov. 19 until 12:30 a.m. Nov. 20. That's when temperatures reached minus 9 Celsius (16 degrees Fahrenheit).
Tonnage was up over 2010, and winemakers noted that Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Pinot Noir look improved over the 2010 vintage.
According to a summer report by Lynn and John Bremmer of Mount Kobau Wine Services in Oliver, there are 210 licensed wineries in the province pursuing grapes from a total of 9,866 acres planted. The Bremmers also noted there are 864 vineyards in B.C., and 24 growers have plans to create new wineries in the next few years.
Winemakers and grape growers in the Gem State probably had the easiest time of any in the Pacific Northwest, primarily because what they learned in 2010 helped them in 2011.
For example, the bud break in late April put the vines several weeks behind, so vineyard managers made adjustments that resulted in 10-15 percent smaller crop than 2010.
Idaho also largely escaped the winter damage that devastated some portions of Eastern Washington and powdery mildew didn't pose much of a problem.
The Halloween frost did abbreviate harvest for most of the 43 wineries and the state's 1,600 acres of vines.
This story was originally published December 15, 2011 11:43 AM.