Heat threatens Oregon Pinot Noir

As temperatures rise, the state may not be able to continue producing its signature style.

© Ledger David Caves
| Oregon made its reputation with Pinot Noir, but the future could be very different.

As temperatures rise and the draw intensifies, growers and industry experts in Oregon are wondering how the state’s branded grape will fare. With average temperatures rising over the past few decades, there are fears that this unashamedly Burgundian varietal may no longer achieve its usual elegant high notes.

The years from 2016 to 2018 were all warmer than the 1970 to 1999 average, according to a 2019 Oregon Climate Assessment Report. “Oregon’s annual average temperature has increased by about 2.2 F per century since 1895. If greenhouse gas emissions continue at current levels, temperature in Oregon is projected to rise an average of 5°F by the 2050s and 8.2°F by here the 2080s. [relative to the period 1971 to 2000]with the largest seasonal increases in the summer,” according to Erica Fleishman, director of the Corvallis-based Oregon Climate Change Research Institute.

She continues: “Summer temperatures are projected to rise about 6.3 F by the 2050s and 10.2 F by the 2080s. [relative to the period 1971 to 2000]. By the 2050s, the number of days per year with a heat index of 90F or higher is expected to increase by at least 15 days in the majority of Oregon counties.”

“Climate change is real! When I was a kid, when the industry started, harvesting started a few weeks after I returned to school in the fall… We now harvest in August in some years and rarely later than the mid-September!” shares Luiza Ponzi, director of winemaking and viticulture at Ponzi Vineyards in Sherwood.

Generally cooler conditions in the state’s best-known wine region, the Willamette Valley, hold promise for continued production of its classic style of pinot noir, but there are concerns. Climate change can be a double whammy, as the style of Oregon Pinot Noir has already been heavily influenced by the influx of Californian investment and has become more opulent and higher in alcohol in recent years.

A warmer climate all year round will likely have the same effect. “These changes create wines with higher sugars [alcohols], denser color, fewer shades and elegance. Style is changing and inevitably it will become more expensive to make wine due to higher risk [fires]more intensive viticultural practices, need for water,” Ponzi shares.

A perspective of the Willamette

The Pinot Noir grape is synonymous with the heartbeat of the Willamette. “Pinot Noir is the raison d’être of the Willamette Valley, the grape that has given both Willamette and Oregon distinction and success, and for most of its 55 years of existence, the ultimate challenge,” shares Harry Peterson-Nedry, the founder of Newberg-based Ribbon Ridge Winery.

It also continues to be the most planted grape variety in the state. “Pinot Noir keep on going for carry out as the most widely grown grape in Oregon, accounting for 59% of all planted acreage and 49% of wine grape production,” notes Jason Tosch, vice president of wine operations for the Dayton-based Stoller Wine Group.

The commitment – and financial success – of the grape prompted growers to seek “a range of sites for Pinot Noir that were inappropriate several decades ago, largely because of climate change, which has accompanied us throughout the history of the industry, but which only reached our consciousness and importance in the past two or three decades,” notes Peterson-Nedry.

He admits that climate change has changed the harvesting protocol over the years. “Before, run to get Grapes ripe and harvested before the winter rains began relentlessly, are now infrequent as bud break and flowering occur earlier in the year… as rainfall during the season looks increasingly California-like and drier.

Additionally, rising temperatures have spawned a discussion about removing the Willamette Valley from “region one,” cool-climate status in the University of Davis hierarchy, according to Peterson-Nedry. It is an area that includes the regions of Burgundy and Champagne.

Increased heat is not necessarily cause for alarm. “There is no doubt that the last 10, if not 20 years, have shown increasingly hotter and drier summers in the [Willamette] Valley. Farmers should consider their cultivation practice differently in warmer or drier vintages,” shares Bruno Corneaux, owner and winemaker of Domaine Divio in Newberg, originally from Burgundy. He adds: “The harvest is earlier each year because maturity is reached earlier. .”

The issue of irrigation

If regulations prohibit wineries from irrigating this summer — if it’s as hot and dry as last year, when temperatures in Portland typically cooled to 116 — Willamette wineries don’t have to s Worry, according to Corneaux, because most of the region’s vineyards are grown dry. .

Peterson-Nedry warns that “restrictions on drip irrigation would force further measures to fine-tune cover crops, deleafing, planting densities and valuing deeply rooted old vines. crop loads could be affected, requiring more precise attention to fertilization and amendments.”

However, on the positive side: “Even if the summer days become hotter and drier, the nights will continue to be cool, which matters in the development of the fine aromas of Pinot Noir”, concludes Corneaux.

A warmer future

Warmer temperatures could even benefit the entire state of Oregon. “While global warming is not good, some regions will benefit from change while others will not. Oregon may be a growing region that could benefit more from climate change than not,” notes Rob McMillan, vice -Executive Chairman of Napa. the Bank of Silicon Valley.

“There was a time when Oregon was considered by many to be a marginal growth region given the negative impacts of rain. You don’t hear that comment anymore.”

He goes on to note that “climate adaptation comes at a cost, but that doesn’t necessarily mean higher prices or lower overall quality. Particularly in Oregon, taking a narrow view of wine grapes alone, one can say that overall growing conditions have improved.” One such specific benefit, he notes, is lower rainfall in recent years during harvest.

Oregon grape growers are also noting a number of ways they can technically cope with the warmer seasons ahead. One is to “select a rootstock that is more drought resistant than the traditional rootstock we have been using so far, select Pinot clones that accumulate sugars more slowly or retain more acids, plant in altitude, plant facing east or even north on the slopes”, shares Corneaux.

According to Peterson-Nedry, winemakers can also strive for a consistent style, including focusing on acidic, low-extraction winemaking and new clones and rootstocks.

What the future holds

“Oregon, and specifically the Willamette Valley, has over 50 years of hyper-focus on pinot noir, so [we have] …implemented highly adaptive systems to help make, will ensure quality and our ability to rely on Pinot Noir. We now know the nuances, such as the wide ranges of clones and rootstocks and their strengths and weaknesses, so they can be re-evaluated for use in climate-responsive adaptations,” shares Peterson-Nedry.

If all else fails and the state needs to move away from its current focus on Pinot Noir, Nedry suggests grapes such as Gamay Noir, Syrah and Tempranillo, for red; and Chenin Blanc, Grüner Veltiner, Arneis and Albariño could also grow well in other parts of the state. They are already found in the south in the vineyards of many producers. Ponzi agrees on Gamay and adds Sauvignon Blanc to a potential new varietal lineup. She adds that she planted Nebbiolo in the Willamette three years ago.

While Pinot Noir may continue to thrive in Oregon, the state is also likely to be a hotbed for new varietals in the future.

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