Outstanding 2021 Oregon Harvest Foreshadows Quality Vintage

By Sophia McDonald November 24, 2021

Everywhere you turn, professionals are predicting 2021 will be an outstanding vintage.

2020 was a heartbreaking year for the Oregon wine industry. In the Willamette Valley and Columbia River Gorge, early September wildfires created dense clouds of smoke and ruined many wine grapes. A devastating fire ravaged several communities around Medford, even destroying one winery.

With memories of last year still fresh in people’s minds, the 2021 growing season was a tense one. “We were all just holding our breath all summer,” said Luisa Ponzi, director of winemaking and viticulture at Ponzi Vineyards.

But in the end, the year was everything growers and winemakers could have hoped for. “It’s the best harvest that I have in recent memory,” said Steven Thompson with Analemma Wines in the Columbia River Gorge. “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’s not alone in that statement. Everywhere you turn, professionals are predicting 2021 will be an outstanding vintage.

Hot, Dry Weather Leads to Lower Yields, Less Disease Pressure

It was another hot and dry year in Oregon, which may have led to lower yields in some places. Alex Fullerton with Fullerton Wines works with fruit from every AVA in the Willamette Valley. At some of his partnering vineyards, yields were normal; in other places, they were 50% lower than usual. Heavy rain in late June seemed to affect pollination in late-blooming sites such as the Dundee Hills but didn’t have any impact in the neighboring Ribbon Ridge AVA, which tends to be warmer.

It was a similar story in Oregon’s Umpqua Valley. Dyson DeMara, owner of HillCrest Vineyard and a partner in Paul O’Brien Winery, said pollination of Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris was good but rains impacted flowering for Malbec and Tempranillo, putting yields off by 30 to 40%.

“Leading up to (harvest), we thought we might have some effects from the heat waves that rolled in in the late part of summer,” said Ponzi. “We also thought we were going to have pretty small yields.” But both cluster size and the volume of grapes were very close to normal.

In fact, hot daytime temperatures in August and early September seemed to help the vintage. It shut down the vines a few times, delaying ripening until cooler weather set it, and killed off mildew and other problematic organisms.

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.

Slightly Early Harvest Unaffected by Smoke

The Oregon grape harvest started and ended slightly earlier than usual. “We started picking for still wine around September 7, which is still a little early, but it’s becoming the norm,” said Ponzi. “We finished up right about October 22.”

Typically, harvest would run closer to eight weeks, but much of the fruit ripened around the same time, making the picking window shorter. (The lower overnight temperatures made it possible to hang fruit a little longer, so growers didn’t necessarily have to rush to pick, Ponzi said.)

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. This year, they picked their last grapes on October 21.

Wildfire smoke was visible in southern Oregon as early as July, and Willamette Valley residents began catching whiffs of it in August. But this year, smoke stayed at atmospheric levels and did not cause any destruction in the vineyards.

The challenge that’s stayed consistent the last two years is the availability and cost of labor. Ponzi typically brings in several international harvest interns, but all of them dropped out this year. “In the end, we had to source locally for workers in the winery,” said Ponzi, and it was hard to find people with experience.

“I heard of a lot of people who couldn’t find pickers, or the price of pickers was going up the morning of the pick, or they were picking at night when they couldn’t get a pick during the day,” she added.

Softer Reds, Riper Whites

So far, it seems the 2021 Oregon harvest will be one to remember for the right reasons. “I harken back to maybe even the 2008 or 2012 vintage — these years where I feel like the fruit came in the door really balanced and beautiful without a lot of input on the winemaker’s part,” said Ponzi. “These are deeply-colored wines with pretty intense fruit for such young wines. There are really big aromatics. The tannins seem to be right in line, but I think what’s most striking is the natural acidity we got this vintage. The chemistry of the vintage was spot on. I’ve never seen it so perfect.”

There’s a certain softness that winemakers are already seeing in the red wines. Fullerton described the wines as plush, with lower-than-average acidity but still enough to add structure and allow for good aging. “I think this is going to be a vintage that comes out swinging and is really delicious,” 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.”

DeMara called his Pinot Noir “very consistent and very measured” and said the bigger reds were what surprised him. “Typically, in a warm, dry vintage, you expect a lot of power and intensity.” What stood out instead was an elegance and brightness. While it’s too early to tell what will turn the most heads, so far, he’s seeing great quality in the Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Teroldego.

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,” said Thompson. But the chemistry should still make wines with good acidity and crisp fruit.

“The whites came in just a little riper than I would have liked,” said Ponzi. She expects Chardonnay, Pinot Gris and other whites to avoid a jammy character but lean more toward yellow fruits such as apricot and yellow apple.

“I think this is a vintage that is going to be a real standout in terms of its personality,” said DeMara. In some years, the wines are pretty even across the board. In others, they evolve in different and intriguing directions. It remains to be seen where this vintage is heading, but it looks like things will only get better.