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The Importance of Light

You’ve probably heard the often repeated observation that Washington lies at the same latitude as the French wine-growing regions of Bordeaux and Burgundy. Which is true. Other than latitude and the presence of grapes and good wine, however, the similarities dwindle. In fact, it could be argued that Washington is a better place than these regions for growing grapes.

Sara Spayd, WSU researcher

“Right offhand, I don’t know of any other region that is like Eastern Washington,” says Sara Spayd, an extension food scientist who works in wine at WSU’s Irrigated Agriculture Research Center in Prosser.

“We have a day length similar to northern Europe. We also have the diurnal fluctuations of any continental high desert, warm days, cool nights. They do have that in Eastern California in the valley, but they don’t get as hot for as long.”

An abundance of sunlight. An arid climate, which deters much of the disease that plagues other winegrowing areas. “We have some problem with botrytis,” says Spayd, “but we can generally control it with canopy management.”

The most significant difference?

“I think it’s the light,” says Spayd.

It is this light that has guided Spayd’s recent research. She is deep into a paper reporting on her results. As we talk, her computer remains tuned to one of the many accompanying graphs.

For a perspective, she has hung a quote from Benjamin Franklin on her wall: Wine is constant proof that God loves us and likes to see us happy.

One aspect of Spayd’s work concerns the relationship between light and heat and the effect on grape color. “The grape,” she says, “is basically a little black hole, sucking up all the light.” Temperatures in the grape can reach up to 40 degrees C, and fruit in the sun can be 10 to 12 degrees C warmer than fruit in the shade.

In their attempt to squeeze every last iota of character and flavor from their fruit, wine grape growers cling to these research results. “We see some growers going to extremes,” she says. For maximum sunlight, they might strip all the leaves off the west side of the row. “We’re trying to discourage extreme manipulation of the west side of the canopy, or the south side, where they get full sun exposure.

“East-side clusters would probably have the best fruit composition in terms of balance, acid , sugar, color…,” says Spayd, leading us off into further esoterica of wine complexity. Some estimate that wine contains over 10,000 components that affect its flavor.

Spayd’s most recent research dealt only with pigments, which affect not just color, but keeping ability. “Flavor volatiles are a whole other area,” she says. The boiling points of some of these volatiles, which make up the grape’s flavor, are much lower than 40 degrees C (104 F), which means that the heat can affect flavor in ways we can only imagine.

When dealing with wine, the aesthetic and scientific are sometimes difficult to keep separate. Spayd talks about the difference in the light after the first of September. “It just looks different,” she says. She paints a vivid impressionist landscape. Shimmering sunny days, maybe up into the 80s. Cool, hard nights, dipping into the 30s. Most of the acid metabolism in grapes takes place at night. Cool temperatures inhibit that metabolism, which is why Washington wines have a better acid balance than California wines.

Gordon Brothers- Estate Grown

Jeff Gordon (WSU ’71 Ag Econ) and Vicki Gordon both smile when I say I think their Chardonnay tastes more like a French Chardonnay than a California. European wine grapes, I learn, are typically high acid, low sugar, whereas California grapes are typically low acid, high sugar. Because of its terroir, Eastern Washington wine grapes are high acid, high sugar.

“The Europeans do malolactic because they have to,” says Jeff. “In California, they do it because they do it in Europe.” Malolactic, or ML in the lingo, is a second fermentation that converts the sharper malic acid of wine to a softer lactic acid. Used judiciously, ML eases excessive sharpness in a wine, but retains a good balance of acid, without which the wine simply goes soft, with no edge.

I suspect Gordon’s sentiment has been traded often around Washington winemaker circles. It does clearly describe the difference I’d tasted. Like many other Washington Chardonnays, the Gordon Brothers Chardonnay is leaner, with higher acid, not all malolactic mellow.

We’re drinking coffee in the Gordons’ kitchen, which opens onto a spacious living room, which in turn opens out across the breaks of the Snake River, just above Ice Harbor Dam. It’s a dramatic view back through eons of time, the river cutting through layers of loess and basalt. Terroir again. Encircling the house on the other three sides are 95 acres of grapes, along with 50 acres of organically grown cherries and apples.

Rain is falling across the vineyard, the same rain that will clear the air above Small’s vineyard, a welcome rarity here in June. The rain is also responsible for another rarity: the presence of Jeff Gordon indoors on a June day. Like Small, he appears incapable of sitting still.

The Gordons are something of a Washington rarity in yet another sense, as their wine is exclusively estate grown. They sell 60 percent of their grapes to other wineries. But the rest goes into the 10,000 cases of wine they currently produce annually. Instead of selecting for desired qualities from various regional vineyards and blending, all of the grapes that go into their wine come from the vineyard here above the Snake.

This aligns their wines more closely with European estate grown wines in terms of terroir. Whereas a blended wine will include the traits of different vineyards, estate grown wine will, some argue, achieve a personality unique to a specific place.

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