Heading toward the 2021 vintage, the Pacific Northwest experienced a relatively warm winter during 2020-2021, with temperatures 1.7°F above the 1901-2000 period. In Oregon, the winter averaged 1.5°F warmer than normal, with maximum temperatures slightly lower than minimum temperatures compared to averages. Drought conditions over the west continued into the 2020-2021 winter, with most locations seeing below average winter precipitation. In the Pacific Northwest the driest areas were southern and eastern Oregon, eastern Washington, and southern Idaho with 50-80% of normal precipitation. For Oregon, the Willamette Valley was close to average while eastern and southern portions of the state saw only about 50% of average winter precipitation.
The growing season in 2021 started out relatively cool but continued dry in Oregon and the PNW. Many locations in Oregon saw mild to moderate early to mid-April frosts, followed by an early season heat event at the start of May. Wide swings in conditions continued with an abnormally cold period starting the third week of May, which was followed by another heat event in early June, then a relatively cool and wet period around bloom.
The major weather event of the 2021 vintage came over three days in late June during a heat dome over British Columbia and the PNW. All-time temperature records were broken by 5-10 degrees across the region and state. Fortunately, the plant growth stage at the time was such that there was not as much damage to the vines or developing berries as anticipated. Native and other crop plants were not so lucky.
The remainder of the 2021 growing season across the Pacific Northwest was warmer than average until the cool down into October. Locations throughout Oregon wine regions experienced more days than normal over 95°F during the vintage. Overall, the 2021 vintage in the PNW ended up 3.0°F above the long-term average from 1901-2000 and the second warmest on record. Oregon’s average was slightly higher than the Pacific Northwest’s at 3.3°F above average with the regions ranging from the Willamette Valley +2.7°F, the Columbia Gorge and Columbia Valley +3.3°F, and Southern Oregon +3.4°F. Maximum temperatures were the warmest on record (3.9°F above average) while minimum temperatures were the third warmest on record (2.6°F above average)
For most of the vintage, growing degree-days tracked close to 2015, one of the warmest vintages to date in the western US, until falling off some in August and even further in October. In the end, the 2021 vintage growing degree-days across most of California, Oregon, and Washington ended up 17-28% above the 1981-2010 range, 7-12% above the last fifteen vintages, and up to 10% greater than the 2020 vintage. For Oregon wine regions, growing degree-day totals for the Rogue and Umpqua valleys in 2021 ended up the highest since the very warm 2015 vintage, and in the Willamette Valley, growing degree-day totals for 2021 was the highest over the last four vintages.
Following the ongoing dry conditions over 2020 and through the winter of 2020-2021, the 2021 vintage started dry and did not let up until welcomed rain events in September and October. The result was one of the driest growing seasons on record, adding to the ongoing drought concerns for Oregon and much of the western U.S.
Across the state, the phenological timing averaged April 10-15 for bud break, June 3-8 for bloom, August 7-12 for véraison, and mid to late September for harvest. Growers in the western valleys reported generally earlier phenology, while those across the Columbia Valley were closer to average. Fruit set was more consistent than experienced in 2020, but many reported smaller berries and clusters. Ultimately, yield reports from growers across the state were average to below average depending on region and variety. Most said that the combination of cold events in spring, rain during flowering and fruit set, heat events, and a very dry growing season put downward pressure on yields in 2021.
Positive comments from growers about the 2021 vintage included generally low disease pressure, relatively low pest pressure, little to no bird pressure until later in the picking window, and a harvest that presented very good to exceptional fruit quality across the state.
2021 Vintage Observations
While the 2020 vintage will long be remembered as one that truly challenged the winemakers of the Oregon wine industry, 2021 has many winemakers celebrating the return to enjoying the abundance of quality that is the hallmark of Oregon wine. Some have even been so emphatic as to report 2021 was “everything growers and winemakers could have hoped for!”
Warm and dry conditions in August and early September helped the vintage, with heat events shutting down the vines, and helping to delay ripening until cooler weather set in, and limiting mildew disease pressure overall.
2020 figures show that 995 wineries now dot the state, an increase of 10% over 2019. In addition, the number of vineyards increased from 1,297 in 2019 to 1,370 in 2020, representing growth of 6%. Leading the charge are two areas: First, the Oregon side of two-state Columbia Gorge, Columbia Valley and Walla Walla Valley AVAs, as well as The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater, showing a 20% increase in wineries in 2020 over 2019. The Rogue Valley AVA, which includes the nested Applegate Valley AVA, now has 122 wineries, an uptick of 12%.
While the leading variety in Oregon remains Pinot noir, accounting for 59% of all planted acreage and 49% of wine grape production, recent figures show the Rogue Valley and Columbia River regions had increases of 20% and 76%, respectively. This was captured well by Josh Raynolds’ Vinous, February 19, 2022 article, in which he stated:
“This is truly a golden age for high-quality Pinot Noirs from across Oregon. One could convincingly argue that the last six vintages, from 2014 through 2019, produced many of the greatest wines to ever emerge from the state.”
Sam Tannahill, founder of A to Z Wineworks and Rex Hill, buys fruit from Ashland to Umatilla and everywhere in between, so he has widespread knowledge on 2021 harvest conditions. He said: “The wines are darkly colored, concentrated, fresh and complex. It will certainly rank as one of our top five vintages. It’s certainly a great vintage in the making and I don’t say that lightly.”
He continued: We just broke the Portland record for the most days above 80 degrees, but most of those days were moderate so we saw a really slow, even ripening curve. The extreme heat we had was in June and, due to the more moderate temperatures during and preceding harvest, there has been no shriveled or overripe grapes. All of that has translated to great but not over-the-top concentration, higher sugars, fresh acidity and, above all, great balance.
The best thing about 2021 is that after two rather short years (especially dramatic in 2020!) we have a good crop this year. Due to the growth of Oregon wines in the market, more wineries than ever in the state, and the low yielding years in 2019 and 2020, the fruit market is tight with little to be found on the spot market. That being said, growers are happy, wineries are happy, and we all wish there was more fruit!
Harvest for most Oregon wineries started in early September, but lower temperatures across the state allowed for a long and measured harvest season. “With the heat tapering off, harvest started early and fast,” said Todd Alexander of Force Majeure in The Columbia Valley and The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater, Oregon. “The heat helped sugars to get where we wanted them, and with the cooler weather following that heat, we have seen phenolic ripeness catching up, as we hoped.”
Also from Alexander: Quality looks great, smaller berries overall, very nice concentration. No disease, very clean. Not as much juice yield as usual.
The summer wasn’t fun, but most of the heat happened pre-véraison, and the vines all handled it just fine. But with the heat tapering off, harvest started early and fast, things felt compressed, but then the weather cooled dramatically, and we have had nice hang time especially for late ripening varietals. Getting ripeness won’t be a problem in this vintage, even with Grenache and Mourvedre. The heat helped sugars to get where we want them, and with the cooler weather following that heat, we have seen phenolic ripeness catching up, as we hoped. If things had stayed hot, it would have been an out-of-balance vintage, but so far with the few dry lots we have in the cellar, things look beautiful. Cab Franc was a strange one as far as ripening goes this year, but it got there.
In some blocks of Cabernet, I have seen significantly smaller berries, while other blocks are normal. Syrah is nicely balanced, as is Merlot. I don’t see why Cabernet won’t be very nice as well, but we have just started picking that. Vintage quality, as always, will depend some on site and farming practices too.
In some varietals, like Cabernet Sauvignon, it is down 30%. Syrah is normal from our vineyards, as is Grenache. Mourvèdre berries are smaller this year, which could be a good thing.
In the North Willamette Valley, Jason Lett of The Eyrie Vineyards said:
Harvest 2021 is shaping up beautifully in the Willamette Valley. It has been a dramatic year, kicking off with an epic ice storm in the winter that took out power, rain at bloom followed by a weekend heat event in June that set records, and a dry summer. I have been utterly amazed by how well our unirrigated vines handled the drought and early season heat with aplomb, remaining green and vibrant throughout. Due to the June rains however, yields are only about 75% of normal.
Early September 2021 saw the Valley’s first significant rain in 95 days. At that point we were about two thirds picked, mostly whites. The majority of the Pinot noir was only about 21-22 brix going into the rain, with overly high acids, so clearly, they needed more hang time. The vines responded to the water by shifting into overdrive and with the benefit of rain invigorating the vines’ metabolism, ripeness has leapt ahead. We’re now seeing 23 brix and pHs in the 3.3 to 3.4 range – numerically perfect, with great flavor and long finishes. Over the next 4-5 days we’ll complete the pick, working site by site as the grapes reach ideal flavors.
Overall, this has been a well-paced and extremely pleasant harvest and while we could wish for a bit more fruit, the quality seems absolutely superb.
Echoing the excitement for the 2021 vintage, Ximena Orrego of Atticus Wine, also founder of Celebrating Hispanic Roots said: “I am excited about the quality of the Pinot Noir this year I see beautiful balance, aromatics and flavors and I can’t wait to see how things develop.”
King Estate Winery in the South Willamette Valley had this to say about the 2021 vintage:
A warm and dry spring continued through May. First signs of bloom appeared in early June, ahead of normal. As fruit set was occurring later in June, temperatures cooled and up to two and a half inches of rain fell. While rain during bloom can lead to lighter yields, the precipitation was critically important to alleviating serious drought stress. The grapes weathered a couple of summer heat spikes with no damage. A couple of rain systems in September were short-lived and typical of an Oregon harvest. Yields were slightly lower with somewhat smaller berries. Overall, the fruit quality was outstanding.
Southern Oregon—The Umpqua Valley
Dyson DeMara, HillCrest Vineyard said:
The vintage is the driest in modern history, but the vines don’t show it. All the vineyards I farm are hillside and dry-farmed and many of us are surprised at how healthy the canopy conditions are. If I had to use one word for the vintage, it would be “classic”. The vintage has the largest spread, in a good way, of sugar to acid of any vintage I have seen here. In the fermenters I have filled so far, I am getting the brightest fruit aromatics I can remember of any vintage and I associate that with the low pH’s I am seeing. This is also adding to very opaque color in the reds.
Whites are along the same lines with very focused and rich mouthfeel, but laser-like acid more reminiscent of northern European whites than many new world variations. Yields are average for most varieties, with the exception of Malbec and Tempranillo, which I have on a couple of properties. These two varieties were in the middle of flowering when we had a spring rain event and this caused us to lose about 20-40% of the potential berries.
I do see a press yield about 15-20% below average gallons per ton. I associate this with the vintage, which does have thick skins and a greater pulp content…I think this vintage has the potential to be as great as the 2006 vintage here in the Umpqua Valley.
Southern Oregon—The Rogue Valley
The summer heat could not have come at a better time than when it did. Even though the temperatures were historically high during the June heatwave the berries were still hard and not at a vulnerable stage,we had little if any sunburn. The ground was also fairly wet and the vines did not suffer any kind of drought stress. If the heat came any later it could have been a disaster.
We did have two issues somewhat related to the heat. First, we have more “hens and chicks” than normal in the clusters (very small berries and regular berries) and some of the small berries never colored up and remained green. We are taking care of this by sorting out those clusters.
The other issue was due to the high heat. Because of the lack of rain, some irrigation districts in Sothern Oregon turned off their water in mid to late July. This led to some of our growers having to truck in water to irrigate and some vineyards stalled out as far as ripening. Luckily, we had some rain across the state which gave the vineyards a bit of a “drink” to help them push through the final ripening.
Ross Allen, owner of 2Hawk Vineyard & Winery in Medford and president of Rogue Valley Vintners, reported that yields were about where they should be in southern Oregon.
“If you take the incredible heat we had this summer, then the early rains, we’re really happy with what’s come out of the vineyard,” he said. Aging these wines may not be necessary. “The ’21 vintage wines are going to be drinkable earlier and require less cellar time,” predicted Allen. “They’ve got great balance and great fruit, but chemistry-wise, the tannins seem to be a little softer than what I would anticipate.”
Allen said 2Hawk began picking right on schedule, although some growers started as much as one week before they typically would. 2Hawk often wraps up the Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc harvest around Halloween. In 2021, they picked their last grapes on October 21.
Wildfire smoke was visible in southern Oregon as early as July. Unlike 2020, smoke stayed at atmospheric levels and did not cause destruction in the vineyards.
The Columbia Gorge
On the 2021 vintage, Steven Thompson of Analemma Wines in the Columbia River Gorge told Wine Business Monthly: “It’s the best harvest that I have in recent memory. It was extra special this year to be able to move through harvest in a normal fashion and be able to taste the beautiful flavors and not be inhibited on making great wines. I truly believe these are some of the best (wines) we’ve ever had the privilege to produce.”
He continued: ”In white wines, people may notice riper fruit this year. In September, there was one hot spell, so the brix on the whites were higher than a perfect-world scenario. The chemistry should still make wines with good acidity and crisp fruit.”
Written by Sarah Murdoch, Oregon Wine Board Director of Communications March 8, 2022. email@example.com This report was edited by and heavily reliant upon the info gathered and compiled by Gregory V. Jones, Ph.D. Climatologist. Dr. Jones has verified this report.