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Idaho Vineyard Harvest-Wine Grapes Back on Track After Poor 2017


Gary Cunningham likes what he sees as wine-grape harvest progresses in southwestern Idaho.

“Absolute perfection,” said Cunningham, who owns 3 Horse Ranch Vineyards northwest of Eagle and manages five other vineyards in the immediate area. “Weather has been perfect for harvesting. And sugars are higher, earlier, this year.”

He expects this year’s grape tonnage to exceed by 25 to 30 percent the previous high in the fairly new Eagle Foothills American Viticultural Area, the first sub-appellation of the larger Snake River Valley AVA.

Idaho vineyards mostly recovered this year after a heavy, long-lasting winter wreaked havoc on the 2017 crop. Harvest typically starts around the beginning of September and wraps up from mid-October to early November.

“There are places that are 100 percent better,” said Mike Williamson, who co-owns Williamson Orchards & Vineyards, between Caldwell and Marsing, in the Sunnyslope grape-growing area. “There was zero production on some vineyards last year. It’s really nice to see good, healthy fruit in the vineyard.”

Recovering and re-training vineyards last year apparently paid off, he said. The crop probably won’t be as plentiful as it was in the strong 2016, but the grapes’ sugar-to-acid balances and flavor profiles so far appear to be as good.

Williamson Orchards likely will harvest 80 to 100 percent more grapes than in 2017, “the caveat being we had 0 to 1 percent production on many of our vineyards” in 2017, Williamson said. Some other growers in the region last year saw production of up to half of normal, he said.

“We are not overflowing our barrels by any means this year, but it is a good, healthy crop, the kind of crop that makes winemakers and grape growers really happy,” he said.

Harvest crews in the area are collecting about 3.5 to 4 tons of red grapes per acre and 4.5-plus of white, both similar to the typical harvest season, Williamson said.

A fairly mild June was good for fruit set, and July “was a pretty hot month — but it was at the right time if we were going to have high heat,” said Gregg Alger, who owns Huston Vineyards west of Caldwell. “If anything, it helped us with our quality.”

In the vineyards, a good canopy of vegetation “has been able to get the higher-yielding crop to the finish line well balanced,” he said.

“Across the board, I would say every varietal looks like it is just beautiful, which is exciting to see,” Alger said.

“The vines recovered very well from last year,” said Meredith Smith, winemaker for Ste. Chapelle and Sawtooth wineries. “Everything that was cut back and retrained had some nice yields, which was good to see. The fruit I have pulled off is very expressive and has nice flavors.”

The ripening season was good and long, but saw some stepped-up pressure from pests during the hot, dry stretch, Smith said. “Now we are just dealing with bird pressure. Amazing. That is hard to watch.”

Ste. Chapelle and Sawtooth processed about 2,500 tons of grapes in the good 2016 season and around 300 in 2017.

But 2017 “showed what varietals withstood cold temperatures,” Smith said. “As we move into ’18, I see the fruit. I thought it had a really good recovery.”

For winemaking, she seeks a balance between a grape’s total acidity and pH at the Brix, or sugar level, she targets for a particular varietal.

Cunningham said Idaho’s shorter growing season reduces the likelihood of sugar levels getting too high and acid levels dropping, as they might in places where it’s still hot in October.

At 3 Horse Ranch, grape tonnage per acre so far has been high, and “in every varietal, we are just seeing excellent quality in the fruit,” he said. An aggressive nutrient program he started about three years ago is paying off, he said.

A mild spring, mostly mild summer — with just a few days above 100 degrees in the higher-elevation Eagle Foothills AVA — and “an incredible September” helped, Cunningham said.

Source: Brad Carlson, Capital Press

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