2019 wine grape harvest ends in dramatic fashion

Superior hillside sites shine in years like this.

The finale of the 2019 wine grape harvest resulted in last-minute changes sending winemakers and grape growers scurrying to get ahead of the unseasonal weather.

Although some acreage remains unharvested due to the October 10, 11, freeze, many Yakima Valley vineyards fared well with the late season cold snap.

The 2019 vintage started out with a mild December and January that abruptly changed in early February when snow began to fall. Throughout the month of February and into early March, it snowed twice a week, accumulating two feet of snow with many places much deeper due to drifting.

Despite staying cold enough to retain snow, there were no record low temperatures and vines over-wintered in good shape.

March saw gradual warming, allowing snow to melt slowly and penetrate into the ground without runoff or flooding. April was frost free with moderate daytime temperatures, vines budded out a week late. May was unusually warm. By the end of the month vines were in bloom about 10 days ahead of normal. During that time, it was looking like another 2015 vintage, the warmest on record.

Just when it looked like an early harvest, July and August saw more moderate temperatures pushing veraison, the start of ripening, back to a near normal time of mid-August. By mid-August growers were experiencing slightly warmer than average temperatures anticipating harvest to begin in full swing the second week of September.

“We got a later start this year because while July and August were close to average temperatures, September was below average, which slowed ripening, and delayed picking,” according to Wade Wolfe, winemaker and co-owner of Thurston Wolfe Winery. The Yakima Valley experienced an unseasonably wet September spurring patches of rot outbreaks in some of the more susceptible varieties.

“This was definitely the year that knowing your vineyard was important,” says Kerry Shiels of DuBrul Vineyard.  “Flavors, color and acids in the grapes were good due to the cooler moderated summer.” Heat tends to reduce color intensity in the grapes.  “What we weren’t seeing was the development of sugars. The flavors were there, the brix were not. This made it more important to know the vineyards and fruit and to have the confidence to pick early,” added Shiels.

The combination of an experienced grower who knows his vineyard and a knowledgeable winemaker who knows the outcome he is looking for in the wine are an important combination, particularly in years like this. According to Shiels, “walking the rows frequently proved vital as the grapes matured.”

A mild frost on Oct. 2, made for uneasy growers but most vineyards were unaffected. On Oct. 10, and 11, a freeze with temperatures in the low 20’s was severe enough to halt harvest for the season in many vineyards.  A hard frost kills the canopy/foliage shutting down photosynthesis which stops ripening. If the fruit was ripe at the time of the freeze you could pick it, if it wasn’t, you can’t.

An additional challenge for those who machine harvest was the need to reduce the amount of dead leaves and stems mixed into the grapes. Too much debris can produce unwanted flavors in the wine.

Superior hillside sites shine in years like this. Vineyards planted at higher elevations are less prone to frost damage, a scenario that played a major role in the 2019 harvest.  Higher elevations protect the vines from winter because cold air is heavy and settles on lower areas.

Wines from these sites are showing lovely aromatics, great color, good structure and lower alcohol.  A demanding vintage indeed but be on the lookout for some beautiful wines to come.


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