No, it’s not fall yet in Oregon Wine Country, but we are starting to see the first glimpse of Veraison in the Willamette Valley! Veraison is the ripening process as wine grapes change color from green to a deep blue purple for red wine grapes, autumn colors for grey grapes (or gris), and frosty light green for white grapes. This color change typically takes place in late August/early September. Bergström just facebooked that they are seeing the first signs of Veraison. This is a month earlier than normal. California typically is going through Veraison at this time, and afterward Oregon follows suit, but every year brings something different! Specific to the Willamette Valley, the north end of the valley typically starts Veraison earlier. Since Youngberg Hill is located at a higher altitude, we are usually a couple of weeks behind the majority of vineyards.
Along with color changes in the grapes, there are many other changes taking place during Veraison that are important to the development of the fruit and the resultant wine. As the color is changing, we are able to identify fruit that is most likely not going to ripen or will not ripen when a majority of the fruit will. When this unripe fruit is found, it is best to cut it off so that it is not picked at harvest time. During Veraison the sugar content (brix) of the grapes is increasing, ph (acidity) is increasing, and tartaric acid is going down. These three quantifiable measures help gauge the ripening of the grapes, but we are more interested in the other physiological ripening characteristics that are occurring such as how the seeds are turning from green to brown, the consistency of the pulp to see that it is losing its firmness and adherence to the seed, and, of course, how the flavors are developing in the fruit.
Every vintage is different. Some years the flavors tend to set in earlier during the ripening of the grapes and then there are other years when the flavors do not begin to show up until the very end. Even if all other elements are where you want them to be, if the flavors are not apparent in the grape on the vine, they will not be apparent in the wine. It is important to pay attention to the flavor development in the grapes as they ripen in order to make sure that the grapes will yield a quality, delicious flavor profile for the wine they will be made into.
The characteristics that grapes acquire during Veraison is highly dependent on Mother Nature and the weather. It is very important to have dry sunny days that are not too hot. September and October weather conditions can make or break a vintage in the Willamette Valley, especially for Pinot Noir. We need to allow the grapes to have time on the vines, to ripen the fruit to its full potential and maturity. At the same time, the weather is changing in September and October. Rain showers start to come in from the ocean. If the rain only lasts a day or so it will be fine as long as we have some sunny dry weather following a short rain. Grape growers and vintners in the Willamette Valley are constantly watching the weather patterns out on the coast and over the Pacific to determine what to anticipate for weather, and whether to hold tight and hope that the weather passes, or decide to harvest fruit while it is dry. Waiting for the physiological ripening of the fruit to provide a balanced and unique combination of characteristics, along with predicting weather patterns and anticipating the perfect weather conditions for harvest are most important for attaining the highest quality fruit possible. We are looking forward to the unique impressions that August, September, and October will leave on the grapes, and are excited to share our observations when harvest time arrives!