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Report details 2016 grape harvest conditions; local region lauded by esteemed magazine

There may be a new normal for Oregon’s grape growing season: for the third year in a row, everything began earlier than normal and was warmer throughout.

That’s according to the Oregon Wine Board’s 2016 harvest report, which was released last week. The report breaks down the 2016 vintage conditions by region, but Steve Bickford of Mount Hood Winery in the Columbia Gorge may have summed up the statewide trend best.

“Our bud break was about a week earlier than what we call normal,” he said in the report, “but who knows what normal is these days.”GARY ALLEN - It's getting increasingly difficult to determine what ‘normal' is for Oregon's grape growing season, according to the latest harvest report released this month.

The report indicates this was one of Oregon’s earliest starts on record for the growing season. Once underway, the warm spring turned into a moderate summer providing relative temperature consistency compared to the past two years. There weren’t the “heat spikes” that popped up during the previous summers, and that resulted in smaller berries that contained “a higher concentration of flavors,” according to the report.

Warmer temperatures in August led to an earlier harvest, with many wineries picking by the beginning of September.

One of them was Trisaetum Winery on Ribbon Ridge, which finished its harvest by the end of the month. Winemaker James Frey detailed the local conditions in the report, describing the warm and dry season that brought ripe grape clusters with “well-developed flavors.”

As wine grapes ripen the sugar levels rise and acidity drops, but this year Frey noted that process took longer than expected. The higher acidity left the wines “with expressive flavors and great energy,” with “aromas of fresh fruits and alluring floral notes, but with more minerality than I typically find at this point,” Frey wrote.

Besides the different flavors brought on by a warm growing season, higher temperatures also lessen the threat of birds feeding on the crop. Sure enough, this harvest showed “practically immaculate fruit with few signs of disease, pest or bird effects,” the report indicates.

“It’s early, but it’s not hard to like what 2016 gave us,” Frey said.

Winning big

The harvest isn’t the only bit of good news for Willamette Valley wines: last week Wine Enthusiast Magazine declared the Willamette Valley the 2016 wine region of the year.

The local terrain was nominated alongside other acclaimed wine regions including Champagne, France; Crete, Greece; Sonoma County, Calif.; and Provence, France.

Explaining its choice, the magazine ran through the history of Oregon wine country, from its humble beginnings in the 1960s with the early wine pioneers, up through its current state 50 years later, when giants like California’s Jackson Family Wines have taken note in a big way.

“Outside investment has accelerated, propelled by the recognition that Willamette Valley pinot noir can challenge Burgundy in its ability to capture the nuance and power of the grape,” wrote the editors of the magazine. “Climate change, affordable land, an appealing lifestyle and increasing demand have come together to create … great opportunities.”

The Oregon Wine Board praised the award as a “direct reflection” of the hard work of the valley’s grape growers and winemakers. Many are “small- to mid-sized family farms, more than half of which produce fewer than 5,000 cases of wine per year,” board chairman David Beck said in a statement.

The Willamette Valley Wineries Associated described the validation provided by the award.

“Our region is now the epicenter of Oregon’s $3.35 billion dollar per year wine industry with more than 500 wineries,” association executive director Sue Horstmann said.

The award will be presented in January.

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