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Oregon rises to 2011 challenge

Oregon’s winemakers look set to unveil an uneven but potentially impressive 2011 vintage, with producers offering mixed opinions of what has been widely dubbed the “miracle harvest”.

Harry Peterson-Nedry, owner of Chehalem, summed up the conflicting opinions within the industry, remarking: “When I compare notes with other winemakers, I say it could have been one of the best two or three vintages we’ve seen and the others say ‘Really?!’”

In quantitative terms, 2011 was a record harvest, with the US Department of Agriculture setting the official figure at 41,500 tons of grapes, a big increase on 2010 and a modest increase on the warm 2009 vintage, Oregon’s previous volume record-holder.

However Peterson-Nedry pointed to the qualitative challenges posed by an uneven growing season. “It was the coolest vintage going into the last two months of ripening that we’d seen,” he recalled. “Then mid-August to mid-October were the two warmest we’d seen in the last 15 years. It made all the difference in the world.”

With rain threatening in early autumn, many winemakers lost their nerve and picked early. Those who held out benefited from the return of warmer, dry conditions in the second half of October, with many winemakers reporting harvests that stretched well into November.

Eric Hamacher, founder of cooperative facility the Carlton Winemakers Studio, where he also makes his own label, Hamacher Wines, confirmed that a number of producers hedged their bets in order to ensure they didn’t lose their entire crop.

“Some picked half their vineyard three weeks earlier,” he noted. What’s more, Hamacher added that early comparisons from the same vineyards show “the sugars are similar but the later picked grapes are much, much better.”

From those who managed to benefit from the Indian summer, Peterson-Nedry predicted “rich, round, lovely wines with finesse and with it great structure and low to moderate alcohols.”

A similarly positive outlook came from David Adelsheim, co-owner of Adelsheim Vineyards, who remarked: “2011 is going to be very interesting; we’re rather taken with it. It’s not 2010 at all and not remotely 2009, but it’s quite fun to have a vintage like 2011.

In particular, Adelsheim pointed to the useful lessons provided by such a challenging vintage for a region whose wine industry only really began to get off the ground in the 1970s.

“It gives you so much information about what you might or might not do in other vintages,” he explained. “The winemaking crew is very excited – they’ve been putting together blends and found more upper tier wine than they’d expected.”

As for the outlook for the 2012 vintage, winemakers are confident of a return to more stable conditions, with the dry, warm weather of the last month expected to continue into September as a result of the influence from El Niño further south in the Pacific region.

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