Washington’s 2011 Wine Grape Harvest Challenging…to Say the Least

Last year at this time, I referred to the 2010 Washington wine grape harvest as “one of the wildest, wackiest, and yet most promising years in the state’s history.”

Believe it or not, in terms of both craziness and quality, the 2011 harvest may have even topped that.

The story behind 2011 actually starts in November of 2010, when an early frost in some vineyards damaged the buds that were to be 2011’s harvest. Then Eastern Washington experienced another cool, wet spring that resulted in an incredibly late bud break and an equally belated harvest – 3 to 4 weeks later than normal in some areas.

Despite the bizarre weather, the consensus among winemakers seems to be optimistic about this strange yet potentially wonderful vintage. Here’s what a few are saying:

John Morgan of Lost River Winery observes that, “2011 marked the coolest and latest harvest on record in Washington…it definitely was a wild ride. This is absolutely a stellar vintage for Syrah, Malbec and all of the whites we brought in. For the rest, time will tell.”

nullForgeron Cellars’ Marie-Eve Gilla (pictured at left) says to expect some very euro-centric wines. “White wines will likely be especially lush…with the gentle temperatures allowing for the nuanced flavors to come through.”

Jean-Francois Pellet of Pepper Bridge Winery notes, “Summer really didn’t start until around the Fourth of July…which is unheard of (in Eastern Washington). Nonetheless, after this late start, the grapes ripened steadily and evenly. It appears Mother Nature was reminding us that we are in the agriculture business, not the manufacturing business.”

The overall forecast for 2011 wines: Lower yields, great acidity, likely lower alcohol levels, and subtle fruit flavors with more emphasis on varietal-specific characteristics such as pepper, smoke, herbs and spices.

If all this sounds as if Washington wines are transforming into something more closely resembling their European/Old World-style counterparts, you’d be correct. That means we can expect less fruit and alcohol bombs and more food-friendly wines from Washington wineries on the horizon…a good thing by many wine enthusiast’s standards.

Of course, we won’t know the final verdict until these wines are released, beginning this spring for the whites and in 2012 and 2013 for many of the reds. But one thing is certain, the 2011 vintage, with all its challenges, will certainly test the skills of the state’s winemakers. The pretenders will be separated from the contenders as Washington wines make their way to consumers, who ultimately have the final word.

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