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Vintage 2003


Willakenzie vineyard, September 2003, stormy skies over ripe vineyard after hot hot August.
By Cole Danehower

2003 was one of Oregon’s most unusual and challenging vintages—but it may also turn out be one of the most highly acclaimed. Early samples of wines from some of Oregon’s leading producers show just how far Oregon’s winemaking skills have advanced: despite unusual conditions, the 2003 wines show surprising balance and power. Understanding the challenges of the vintage is important in order to truly appreciating the high level of quality Oregon’s winemakers are capable of producing for consumers.

Part 1- "What the Grapes Gave us"

It has become part of the Oregon wine canon that since 1998 we have had nothing but great vintages. Sure, each one has been different, and some have been a bit better than others, but it is pretty much an accepted fact that they’ve all been strong. So it was only natural that going into the 2003 vintage, consumer and trade expectations alike were high: would it measure up?

And then, as the year developed and Oregon’s grapes began their inevitable march to ripeness, unusual weather conditions gave cause for concern. Record heat, on numerous occasions exceeding 100° F, combined at first with excessive dryness and then with the ambiguous benefits of spots of rain to make the 2003 harvest one of the most challenging winemakers had ever seen.

The unprecedented summer heat dramatically accelerated the speed of grape ripening at a majority of Oregon vineyards, and tended to cause imbalanced ripening in many. In most locations sugar development significantly outpaced acid and phenolic growth, presenting winemakers with the dilemma of either picking early to prevent too-high sugars, or waiting in the hopes that rain would slow sugar growth and allow flavors and acids to catch up.

When rains did come, they were often relatively light and brief, followed by renewed heat. In many vineyards this resulted in significant mildew issues that had to be mitigated before harvest. A compounding problem was the unusual circumstance of nearly all grape varietals rushing to ripeness at once. For wineries used to spacing out the harvesting of their Pinot noir and Chardonnay, or their Merlot and Viognier, managing the picking of all their grapes all at once proved particularly irksome.

Winemakers Faced With Inherent Imbalances

As the 2003 harvest came in from the fields for processing, winemakers scrambled to determine just how to deal with “what the grapes gave us,” as one winemaker put it.

On the potentially negative side, unprecedented grape sugar levels posed a number of challenges. In Oregon’s cool climate regions, Pinot noir grapes might be ready to harvest in a so-called “normal” vintage anywhere between 22 and 24 degrees brix (brix is the measurement of sugar in the grapes). But in 2003 the unusually rapid ripening presented winemakers with grapes that ranged from 25 to as high as 28 degrees brix!

The higher the level of sugar in the grapes the higher the potential alcohol in the finished wine. This can be a problem in achieving complete fermentations because the yeasts may no be able to consumer all the sugar before the alcohol they produce kills them, resulting in the dreaded “stuck” fermentation—the inability to ferment a grape lot to dryness. As a result, winemakers had to carefully monitor the yeasts they used and the fermentation temperatures they reached in order to coax out every last bit of fermentation activity.

And even if the fermentations are completed successfully, the high alcohol wines that result can be out of balance. This was especially true in 2003 because in addition to high sugars, the grapes had unusually low acidity. The pH level in grapes are an indication of the amount of natural acidity they contain; the lower the number, the more acidity. Normal pH levels for Willamette Valley Pinot noir may range from 3.2 to 3.5, but in 2003 pH levels frequently ranged from 3.8 to as high as 4.5.

Wine fermenting, Ankeny Winery, October 2003

Low acidity and high alcohol make for unbalanced wines: hot and flabby . . . nothing that very many people would want to drink!

There were other variables for winemakers to consider as well. In 2003 the grape skins were generally thicker than normal, and grapes generally more pulpy. This meant winemakers had to carefully manage their macerations (soaking of the skins, seeds, and pulp) in order to control the degree of color, flavor, and tannin extraction. Some winemakers accustomed to cold-soaking their grapes for a number of days (letting them sit in their juice at low temperature to slowly extract compounds) had to cut the soak time short because of too much tannin development. Others, who habitually let the skins and seeds soak in the post-fermentation alcohol, found that their normal procedure gave them way more color and tannin then they wanted.

But not everything was a problem. On the positive side, winemakers were exceptionally pleased with the flavors and aromatics of the 2003 grapes. Repeatedly, vintners commented on how deep, rich, sweet, and complex the smells and tastes were. In addition, the fruit was generally clean and healthy, and the yields were ample.

There was, in short, exactly the right infrastructure for making excellent wines—If you could get by the issues of high alcohol, low acid, and high tannin must.

A Vintage That Forced the Winemaker’s Hand

2003 was a vintage that required the proactive making of the wine—a vintage where the winemaker’s hand was essential in achieving top-quality wine. All else being equal, most winemakers don’t like to add or subtract anything from the grapes—but in 2003 all else was decidedly not equal: the natural imbalances in the grapes required the winemaker to intercede.

Despite all the self-effacing talk winemakers like to engage in, the uncomfortable reality was that in this year if you “let the wine make itself” you’d get unbalanced, difficult-to-like (and by the way, difficult to sell) wine. As never before in recent years, 2003 demanded that the winemaker’s hand be active in the winemaking process to ensure the best possible wine.

Luckily, Oregon has matured impressively as a winegrowing region, and the collective skills developed in the last ten years seem to have come into good play in 2003.

Testing new 2003 wine in the lab at Beaux Freres, October 2003

Careful monitoring of weather and grape ripeness led winemakers to consider their picking decisions more carefully than normal—resulting in better timing. Often picking decisions were made on a block by block (and sometimes a row by row) basis rather than by an entire vineyard, so that the winemaker gained greater control on the quality and uniformity of each lot coming into the winery.

Once in the winery, and realizing the inherent imbalance in many of the grapes coming in, smart winemakers threw their normal routines out the window and dedicated themselves to monitoring each fermentation tank and each processing lot as an individual entity. Yeast decisions were modified, acidulation employed liberally, space heaters were brought in to warm the tanks, and macerations reduced or eliminated.

To counteract the potential imbalances of high alcohol wines, winemakers tended to either add water and/or add acid. Adding water would reduce the total alcohol, but potentially at the cost of diluting flavors and color. But since the grapes were so densely concentrated to begin with, judicious water additions might actually serve to balance out the flavor intensity and lighten the overall character of the wine. Where these decisions were made on a lot-by-lot basis, the results were probably better than by employing a blanket formula.

Adding acid (acidulation), on the other hand, was a nearly universal requirement in order to bring these naturally large-styled wines into some degree of balance. Many bags of tartaric acid were used throughout the state to supplement the natural acid deficiency, and balance out the wines for palatability, ageability, and quaffability.

But did all of these things work? Did all the intricate interplay of moment-by-moment winemaking decisions successfully turn the unevenly composed grapes of 2003 into a vintage of reliable and quality wines? At this stage in their development (the best wines are still a year away from bottling), the only way to assess the quality of the wines of 2003 is to taste them.

NEXT- Part Two - A Tale of Two Cellars: Creating Symmetry Out of Imbalance


Vintage 2003

Part 1-
"What the Grapes
Gave us"

Part 2 -
A Tale of two Cellars- 2003 Pinot noir Barrel Tasting Report
Patricia Green & Brick House 2003 Pinot noirs

Patricia Green
2003 Futures




Related articles:

Winter Weather Cycles and the Washington Wine Industry
by Andy Perdue,
Wine Press NW

Low Temperatures may Distress Crops
by Anna King,
Wine Press NW


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