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If you love Oregon Pinot Noir, it may be time to stock up.

Howard with Oregon winery owner Bill Sweat.

Three years of forests fires and an untimely spring freeze is challenging winemakers to change their standard production. It’s also forcing decisions on wine distribution, tasting rooms, and club memberships

The Willamette Valley had smoke damage in 2018 and 2019 but the worst smoke taint was in 2020 when the fires burned in the valley and not just adjacent areas. Smoke penetrates the thin skins of Pinot at a much more significant rate than Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon. While there is no danger to using the grapes, the taste can be mildly to profoundly affected.

The solutions vary to making wines requiring less skin contact to making no wine at all. There will be lots more Pinot Noir Rose’ from the 2020 vintage but less, and in some cases, a lot less Pinot Noir.

“Our sparkling, whites and rose were unaffected and we bottled the usual amounts,” said Winderlea owner Bill Sweat. “We made about 800 cases of Pinot Noir versus a more typical 4,500.”

Sweat explained much of his grape crop was picked the first day of the smoke while some of the fruit came from a windswept vineyard. “It will only affect our retail and wholesale businesses to the extent that 2020 will not have a lot of wine so we’ll move to 2021 more quickly. We’re pouring 2018 Pinots right now.”

Alloro’s Tom Fitzpatrick

At the higher elevation in the Chehalem Mountains, smoke taint was less of an issue, Alloro vineyards lowered its fruit set and clusters. “The forest fires did not impact our yield,” said General Manager and winemaker Tom Fitzpatrick.

Alloro mitigated any significant smoke impact by using 60 percent of its Pinot grapes in a trendy white Pinot Noir. Again, a pale pink wine which requires less skin contact during the winemaking process. But that move obviously reduced the cases of the highly rated Pinot Noir.

Fitzpatrick took the most unique view of the challenge. “With our focus on terroir-driven wines, we embraced the potential influence of the fires – a natural environmental element in 2020 that an honest terroir-driven wine should display. Our hope was to craft a wine that might present some influence from the fires but only only one small and pleasant element that adds complexity. We are very pleased with the results.”

Still, that results in less Pinot Noir for the up-and-coming Alloro Vineyards. Fitzpatrick had sold 50 cases of Pinot Noir to the Indianapolis wine shop I have worked at over the past two years. We’ll not be getting any new wine for the coming year.

Having had a least one extensive conversation with the Alloro winemaker at the vineyard a few years back revealed significant concerns about the reality of climate change. Fitzpatrick has planted the northern Italian red wine grape Nebbiolo for future vintage production. He’s gone so far as to pouring Italian Nebbiolo wines in the tasting room to introduce customers to the grape which makes the big, sought-after Barolo wines.

While optimistic about surviving the freeze, Fitzpatrick knows the freeze is going to reduce yields this growing season. “The year promises to deliver very high quality, though possibly at the expense of yield and the ultimate quantity of the wine produced.”

Long-time industry leader Lange Estate Vineyards’ winemaker Jesse Lange is simply trying to manage the problem. “Our whites were pretty unaffected” he said. “Certainly, smoke compounds and how they interact with any given wine is the most complex wine chemistry I’ve ever delved into.”

Lange called it an endeavor fascinating as much as it was intimidating. He transitioned to the frost challenge with similar winemaking intellectual perspective. The frost experience was different from vineyard to vineyard, he said.

The valley was hit in mid April this year with temperatures in the mid-20s. Grape vines bloom at that time and are very delicate, there is a second bloom with a decrease in yield with slightly less flavor but a crop can produce wine though at perhaps a lesser quality.

Determining the exact frost damage will continue throughout the growing season. “Our early estimates were in the 10-20 percent range but that doesn’t mean the crop will be reduced by that much,” Sweat explained. “Given that our vineyards naturallycrop 4-plus tons per acre and we thin them back to 2.5-2.75 tons peradcre, I don’t think this will have much affect on us. Impact seems varied widely across the valley though.”

Oregon’s agricultural leaders have said crop loss from the freeze could wipe out up to 50 percent of the normal crop. The iconic Domaine Drouhin winery is making no Pinot Noir while most of not many are cutting back significantly.

If you love Oregon Pinot but it up now. If not try some red Burgundy to quench your Pinot palate.

Howard’s note: This is a magazine piece I wrote this summer for Madison Magazine based out of Anderson. They have an exclusive right to the content for a period after publication.