Reminder that nominations for the 2009 Reader Survey Wine of the Year and 2010 Wine to Watch are due by Monday 12/7 at 9pm. Read about the survey here.

Since 2005, Washington has seen a series of exceptional vintages with each vintage seeming to improve on the previous one. While it is too early to make predictions about what the 2009 vintage will look like, it is clear based on the growing season and harvest that few would refer to it as the type of ‘textbook year’ Washington has seen recently – at least not any textbook growers and winemakers would like to read again soon. That said, many have high expectations for the wines from 2009.

Over the last several weeks I have spoken with winemakers and growers in each of Washington’s ten American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) east of the Cascade crest. This is where the vast majority of Washington’s grapes are grown. It is difficult to speak in generalities because there was a good deal of variability in the specifics this year. However, it would be even more difficult to speak in terms of specifics due to this variability. Given this, I have tried here to provide background on various factors that affected this year’s growing season and harvest.

Overall, 2009 was a challenging year for many Washington growers and winemakers. There were three factors people mentioned that contributed to these challenges: the late start to the season followed by an extremely hot summer, a compressed harvest, and the October frost.

Bud break occurred a bit later than normal in 2009 compared to the previous years this decade. While this initially caused some concern about whether the grapes would get enough hang time, this was followed by a long, dry, extremely hot summer. The hot summer not only allowed the grapes to catch up to their historical dates, it actually accelerated these dates ahead in many cases.

One of the effects of this acceleration was a compression of the harvest. In a typical year, different varieties come in at different times based on the amount of heat they need to reach maturity. In terms of the reds, Merlot often comes in first and Cabernet last. The staggering of what grapes come in when allows growers to focus on picking one variety at a time. It also allows winemakers to focus on one batch before turning their attention to the next. In 2009, despite the late start, Merlot came in earlier than usual for many wineries. Additionally, due to the hot summer, different varietals came in on top of each other. Many of the individuals I spoke with stated that harvest times were literally cut in half, in some cases, for example, from six weeks to three.

For both growers and winemakers, the compressed schedule created a number of challenges. For growers, they needed additional people to pick the fruit and in some cases worked nearly around the clock. For winemakers, they needed to sort through and ferment many of their grapes simultaneously. Most wineries in Washington are small and have a finite amount of equipment and space. In a typical year, one batch of grapes comes in, are sorted, put into fermenters, and are subsequently moved to barrels. This process is repeated when the next batch comes in, using the same fermenters used for the first batch. The compression of the 2009 harvest left many winemakers struggling to physically fit all of their grapes into the winery and have the equipment to process them. This was particularly true for wineries that borrow space and equipment. This led to a lot of scrambling, purchasing of additional equipment, and many long days and nights.

Adding to the challenges this year was the early frost that occurred on October 10th. Given that the frost occurred at the tail end of harvest, the effects were quite varied. Many producers had all or the vast majority of their grapes picked at the time of the well-forecast freeze. Cabernet, which requires a fair amount of heat and is often on the vine the latest, appears to have been the most affected. Some producers wound up picking fruit earlier than they wanted to. Some gambled and left the fruit out. Producers reported having anywhere from 5% and 50% of their grapes still hanging at the time of the frost. Most of these grapes were picked immediately after the frost which kills the leaves but may not affect the grapes.

One of the difficulties of determining the effects of the frost is that what happened where was quite varied. Traveling through a number of different AVAs the week after the frost, many vineyards looked like the leaves had been hit by a blowtorch. That said, some did not and were still green. A number of factors, such as elevation, aspect, and proximity to large bodies of water, appeared to dictate the effects. In all cases, one could draw an almost exact line through the vineyard above which the leaves were green and survived and below which they were brown and killed by the frost.

So what does all of this mean for wine from the 2009 harvest that will be appearing on the shelves starting in 2010? While some winemakers and growers I talked to gave a Manchurian candidate-esque “The 2009 vintage is the best, most wonderful vintage I have ever seen” (and some meant it), most were more circumspect. Given the large variability between vineyards, it is difficult to say how the vintage will turn out at this early date. However, the last four years have been known in large part for their uniformity. While many remain enthusiastic about the 2009 vintage, few would claim that there was great uniformity and that it was a textbook season. For this reason, I expect there to be more variation both in terms of quality and quantity than we have seen in the past several years. Of course, only time will tell, and the proof will be in the barrel and bottle. Stay tuned.

Growers, wine producers and others out there, feel free to send in any thoughts on the season or corrections to any of the information above.