Harvest Report

Roger Downey

With Seattle basking much of the summer in sunshine, it was easy to forget that endless clear skies aren't unalloyed blessings to grape growers. Grapes need sun and lots of it to mature, but heat's another thing. In Eastern Washington, midday temperatures can soar into triple digits day after day. It if goes above 105 degrees, the vines may pucker shut their leaf pores to reduce water loss, thereby closing down metabolism entirely. Prolonged high temperatures near ripening time can cause the grapes' acid content to plummet, making it tough for vintners to produce anything but short-lived, flabby-tasting wines. Though the 2003 harvest has been early and hasty, so far indications are that the year will add another notch to the string of remarkable vintages the state has experienced recently. Bob Betz, proprietor of Betz Family Winery and one of state's most respected wine technicians, is excited by the fruit he's been processing: "We've got excellent ripeness from a sugar standpoint and from a flavor standpointanother outstanding year for red grapes across the board. My sense talking to other winemakers is that the grapes are perhaps slightly low in acid, and production seems a little lighta combination of imperfect fruit set in the spring and smaller berry size and thicker skins due to the heat, which lowers the percentage of juice. Of course, you can't speculate too far at this early stage, but I've been surprised how well the fruit has matured, with enough acid to ensure stability and tremendous color, sweet spicy fruit, and rich mouthfeel even at this stage." But red grapes are flavor-enriched by tannins from fermentation on the skins, while white grapes depend entirely on their natural acidity for structure and balance. How did the hot summer affect them? Kay Simon, Chinook's winemaker, says "there's a reason why we make wine from grapes from the Yakima Valley [where both days and nights are cooler than at, say, Red Mountain or the Wahluke Slope]. And because we don't grow all our own grapes, we can seek out grapes that meet our standards. And despite the heat, we actually have one lot of semillon still out. Of course, I don't see any reason to put any of our whites through malolactic fermentation this year [to soften too-assertive acidity in the grapes], but to be frank, I don't think the heat impacted things the way I expected. This year is shaping up to be like '94, which was a wonderful vintage." Mike Januik, who crafts the wines for his own and for the Novelty Hill label, agrees. "I'm not one to declare a great vintage before I've gotten six months into it, but this is my 20th vintage in Washington, and I expect it to be among the top three or four." GET THIS And get it fast if you're going to get it at all. Betz Family Winery produced less than 300 cases of its two superb 2001 essays in Washington syrah. La Côte Rousse is hot-country syrah, almost black in color, with black candies and fruits vying for your palate's attention. La Serenne is cool-country wine, smoky and gamey and agreeably rough on the tongue. Both wines are $38; both are available at only a few lucky wineshops, while they last. Do not delay. rdowney@seattleweekly.com

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