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Washington wine grapes are smaller but better, insider said

Washington State Wine Commission GL0513-WSWC-wa-grapes.jpg
A vineyard is situated on Lake Chelan in Washington.
Smaller berry size often makes for a better vintage, as was the case in 2020.

Bigger isn’t always better — especially in the case of last year's harvest in Washington State.

“Overall, a good year,” said Steve Warner, president of the Washington State Wine Commission, in announcing a tonnage of 178,500, an 11% decrease compared to 2019.

“But,” he adds, “across the state, farmers reported smaller berry size and extended hang time, traditionally a recipe for higher quality wine — and that’s proving to be the case.

“Last year was obviously a challenge,” he said of the double-digit decrease attributed to several factors. “We encountered some freeze events, then wind and rain about bloom time that contributed to some shatter. Then we encountered summertime heat spikes, especially right before harvest that lead to a feverish picking of early-ripening varieties … fortunately before another freeze that decidedly brought the growing season to a close.”

Nonetheless, he adds: “Those grapes are turning out to be a spectacular vintage, aromatic and dense, but with levity.”

Eager to leave last year behind, Washington growers are hoping Mother Nature visits somewhere else this year. “That’s always a concern in the springtime, especially before Mother’s Day.,” Warner said. “Our winter this year was mild and vineyards in Yakima are right on pace at the moment.

“While we’ve had back-to-back years as far as tonnage crushed, we’re predicting a 2021 harvest around 210,000 tons, about the same level as 2013, and representing an 18% increase from the most recent production,” he said. “Not necessarily setting any records, but bringing us back in alignment with historical averages.”

Early indications are that there will be increases in growth rates across the spectrum, “although Cabernet will continue to be king, our largest variety by almost double,” he said.

Cabernet leads varieties

Cabernet Sauvignon totaled out at 52,000 tons, close to 30% of the total harvest while Chardonnay was second at 28,100 tons. Cabs popularity reflected the highest dollar increase, pushing average per ton price to over $2,000 for the first time. Riesling, Merlot, and Syrah rounded out the top five. For four years running, red varieties accounted for nearly 60% of total production.

With bud break expected somewhere in the late weeks of April as is usual with historical average bloom to follow in mid-to-late May, a lot depends on the vagaries of nature. “Our state is so varied depending on regions, but if you look at last year as a comparison, we’re even a little bit ahead of past averages,” Warner said.

Growers are excited about this year’s prospects. “Part of the key is getting consumers back into tasting rooms,” Warner said. “Tourism is starting to pick up again, so the demand-side is there and growers need to see that the pent-up demand is real. Our weather is warming up, the suns out, and we’re hearing reports that tasting traffic is not only increasing, but approaching new record levels.

“With customers returning to tastings and restaurants, that bodes well for this year and the future.”

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