Early cold brings early wine harvest in Snake River Valley

Credit: Paul Boehlke/ KTVB

Early cold brings early wine harvest in Snake River Valley

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by Jamie Grey

Bio | Email | Follow: @KTVBJamieGrey

KTVB.COM

Posted on October 3, 2013 at 11:05 PM

Updated Friday, Oct 4 at 3:51 PM

BOISE -- The cool fall weather that came a bit early this year has some vineyards in the Snake River Valley Wine Region (American Viticultural Area) picking their grapes earlier than normal.

While the early harvest may seem troublesome, winemakers in the region say unusually long stretches of warm weather in summer 2013 mean the grapes are ripe in time for an early harvest.

Majority of Sawtooth Winery grapes already harvested

At Sawtooth Winery the 2013 wine making season is in full swing with merlot going in open top fermenters and some other red wine already two weeks off the vine, now going into wooden barrels for aging. Winemaker Bill Murray, who also makes wine in Eastern Washington, says around 70 percent of their grapes are harvested now.

"We started right after Labor Day, so it would have been about the second week in September, and that is quite a bit earlier than what has been in the past, and quite a bit earlier than what we perceive is being normal," Murray said.

Cold weather can stop the ripening process by taking out the leaves, which is the grape's way to take in the sun and ripen.  Generally, Murray says it would take a deeper frost to kill off fruit on the vine.

Unusual heat this summer helped set off unusual cool this fall

The good thing about this year, and what has made an early cool season easy to deal with, is lots of heat in mid-summer. Murray says the type of grapes grown in Southwest Idaho really like heat, so they got a good amount of ripening time.

"One of the highest recorded heat units we've had on record here in many, many years. So mother nature did what it was supposed to do. Unfortunately, when we've gotten into this period here in October, we've gotten a little bit of foul weather, but for the most part, we're pretty much through," Murray said. "Inside the cellar, some of the color and the richness and the tannin level is the best I've seen in four years here."

Murray says the idea is to ripen grapes until the desired level of sugar is built up in the grape. The sugar percentage is what determines alcohol content. He says they watch for the right sugar percentage, seed color and taste.

"We've got almost all of our wine in. A couple of varietals still left hanging on the vine. Those varietals are extremely tough varietals that can handle a little bit of cold weather, and we'll see what happens," Murray said.

Snake River Valley Wine Region has ideal weather conditions for vineyards

While temperatures are forecast to drop near freezing, Murray says the very specific area where the vineyards are in the Snake River Valley AVA typically stays a few degrees warmer than just a bit farther east, like in Boise.

"That's why the grapes are grown here. If we had to worry about frost in early fall, this would be a very difficult area to grow fine wine grapes," Murray said. "Going all the way into November. I remember 2009 and 2010; we were still having nice, okay ripening weather leading up into mid-November. In those years, California was shut down in end of October. So that's what's really unique."

Ste. Chapelle Winery also hauling in high volume of grapes now

Over at Ste. Chapelle Winery, which is owned by the same company, Precept Wine, the grapes were coming in fast too, with trucks of white wine grapes coming right off trucks and going right into the process of separating.

The grapes still left out on the vine are more resilient, such as cabernet. Murray says it's likely most, if not all, grapes will come in after a couple more days of good sunshine.

"I think that's going to help push us to the end, and we'll bring the rest of the fruit in next week, and we'll be okay," Murray said. "We're going to look back on the 2013 vintage as a great vintage."

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