The Oregon wine industry constantly works to achieve the highest quality possible, both in the vineyard and winery. However, there are few quantifiable parameters that define optimal fruit quality. Historically, many winemakers of Pinot noir specify a crop load of approximately 2.5 tons per acre as a benchmark of high quality grapes. Yet, because of the lack of scientific parameters for crop loads combined with increasing grower and winery inquiries about the yield-quality relationship, Dr. Patty Skinkis of the Oregon Wine Research Institute has developed a new research program to determine crop level guidelines for premium Pinot noir production in Oregon.
In 2009, Dr. Skinkis met with an advisory group of 15 industry members with the short term goal of addressing the impact of timing and level of cluster thinning in two vineyard sites: one in the Dundee Hills and one in the Illinois Valley of Southern Oregon. Projects were carried out as replicated trials from 2011 to 2013. Dr. Skinkis collected detailed vine physiology data and some fruit chemistry while Dr. Michael Qian, OWRI flavor chemist, quantified fruit and wine composition. While these first projects provided key information on how crop level can impact vine growth and fruit composition, it was clear that more general yield management recommendations for growers across many sites with different vine vigor conditions, and across a longer range of years and climatic conditions would be necessary.
In 2012, Dr. Skinkis developed a long-term goal with the help of 10 industry collaborators. The Statewide Crop Load Project is a 10-year study to provide definitive evidence of a yield and quality relationship, and more importantly, to determine metrics by which producers may be able to make better decisions in yield and canopy management. Now in is its fourth year, the project has expanded to include 14 participants spanning five Oregon AVAs.
This collaboration-intensive research project involves vineyard managers and winemakers working with Dr. Skinkis to adjust crop load in vineyards and collect vineyard data based on protocols developed by the research team. Wines are produced in-house from the different crop levels using simple protocols developed by OWRI scientist, Dr. James Osborne. Wines are then evaluated for sensory qualities both in-house and through formal sensory panels conducted by Dr. Elizabeth Tomasino of the OWRI. This interactive research collaboration between OWRI and industry is a learning experience that allows both growers and winemakers to take a new objective look at crop level from the vineyard to the final product based on new scientific findings. Furthermore, because this research is conducted in partnership with commercial vineyards and wineries, the work has greater potential for developing valid production metrics for industry to use.
This research program is one example of the projects that encompass the “Vine to Wine” research model employed at the Oregon Wine Research Institute. OWRI’s goal is to produce whole systems research that spans from the vineyard to the winery, and examines critical questions and problems that are important to members of our wine community. OWB’s goal is to fund research that is of the highest relevance and quality for Oregon’s wine industry while also addressing current or emerging challenges confronting Oregon’s wine growers and winemakers. Funds for this project were also provided by the Northwest Center for Small Fruits Research and Oregon Agriculture Research Foundation. For more about this research, an online webinar can be found here.