This year's heat in Washington's Columbia Valley has grape growers scratching their heads and winemakers scrambling to get ready for what most certainly will be an early harvest.
Last week, Sagemoor Vineyards north of Pasco found veraison in Chardonnay and Syrah. Veraison is a French word for "change" that signals when grapes begin to soften and change color. To growers and winemakers, veraison begins the countdown to harvest.
In typical years, veraison often shows up the first week of August in the Columbia Valley. But this year, it's early -- just as everything else has been since bud break in early April.
"We hit bud break two weeks ahead, hit bloom two weeks ahead, and now veraison is two weeks ahead," said Kent Waliser, general manager for Sagemoor.
Winemakers are buzzing about veraison, noting harvest could start as early as Sept. 1.
Charlie Hoppes, owner/winemaker at Fidelitas Wines, said it is not unprecedented to harvest so early in Washington, though it hasn't happened in awhile.
"I can remember picking red grapes on Labor Day before," he said. "It makes it a little tougher because we'd like a bit more hang time, but sometimes it happens."
With his increased focus on Red Mountain -- traditionally Washington's warmest viticultural area -- Hoppes is beginning to gear up for harvest, which could start in about five weeks from now.
Waliser pointed out that this year's heat is on track to exceed 2003, which has been the benchmark for hot vintages.
This year, the three warmest areas of Washington wine country are, in order, the Wahluke Slope, Red Mountain and Maryhill, followed closely by Ancient Lakes, a traditionally cooler area, and the Horse Heaven Hills.
Paul Champoux, owner of Champoux Vineyards in the Horse Heaven Hills, said he has not noticed veraison in any of his early varieties yet -- with one exception.
He planted a half-acre of a red hybrid grape called Marquette on a whim. He said the grapes are fully purple and a sugar reading he took Monday indicated that they already are at 19.1 brix, not far from optimal ripeness of 24 to 25 brix.
Because the berries already are sweet, Champoux has had to take unusual precautions with his Marquette.
"It's the only thing ripe in the whole county, so I had to net it because the birds were eating it," he said with a chuckle.
One potential issue with an early harvest is grapes becoming "sugar ripe" before their flavors develop, something winemakers don't like because they hope to avoid too many green characteristics.
Waliser, whose vineyard is in one of the warmest areas of the Columbia Valley, said this could well be a year in which cooler regions such as the Yakima and Walla Walla valleys shine because they won't struggle to ripen their grapes.
"Every variety in every area will be different (than prior vintages)," he said. "Whether that will be good or bad remains to be seen."
w Andy Perdue is editor and publisher of Great Northwest Wine; www.greatnorthwestwine.com.