State has a bounce-back year after several smaller harvests

After a series of vintages where Washington’s grape production numbers were lowered by various growing season events, 2022 was a bounce-back year for the state. Washington harvested 240,000 tons of wine grapes, a staggering 34% increase from 2021. It was Washington’s largest total since 2018 and the third largest crop in state history. In addition to the higher quantity, quality for both white and red grapes was very high.

“It’s a standout vintage for Washington wine,” says Chris Stone, vice president of marketing and communications at the Washington State Wine Commission.

Cabernet Sauvignon led the way in production, with 67,015 tons, or 28% of the state’s total. This was an increase of 32% from 2021. Chardonnay was the state’s second most produced grape at 39,450 tons, 16% of total production. This was a whopping 54% increase in production from 2021. Riesling (38,300 tons), Merlot (33,000 tons), and Syrah (21,000 tons) rounded out the top five. These varieties made up 83% of total production.

Though both red and white production were up, much of the increase from the prior year was driven by white varieties, which saw a 50% increase from 2021. Every white variety showed substantial increases from the prior year. Red varieties increased a more modest but still substantial 23% from 2021.

Recent production numbers impacted by environmental factors

There are a variety of reasons for Washington’s substantially larger crop in 2022. Grape production numbers for the previous three vintages were impacted by various events during the growing season.

In 2019, there was a state-wide frost in early October, which impacted production numbers for late ripening varieties. There were 201,000 tons harvested that year, down from 261,000 tons the year prior. Harvest numbers in 2020 were impacted by wildfire smoke, with 178,500 tons harvested. Meanwhile a heat dome in late June of 2021 limited the crop size to 179,600 tons.

Additionally, in 2022, growers saw larger berries and larger clusters than average. Washington’s largest harvests, which occurred in 2016 (270,000 tons) and 2018 (261,000 tons), were both also notable for their larger berry sizes.

“The crop was heavy but very high quality,” Marty Clubb, owner and managing winemaker of L’Ecole No. 41 said after harvest last year. “It was the best finishing weather I ever remember.”

Indeed, winemakers say that if vineyards were cropped appropriately, quality was exceptional for both whites and reds in 2022. In the previous three shorter years, quality remained high.

Fluctuating prices and growth in minor varieties

The plentiful crop impacted fruit prices, with Cabernet Sauvignon down to $1,820 per ton on average from a high of $2,090 per ton two years previously, a decrease of 13%. Meanwhile, given the particularly short supply in 2021, prices for Chardonnay and Riesling both increased by 13% in 2022. Cabernet Franc was the state’s most expensive variety at $2,074 per ton.

There are some subtle changes taking place in the state’s grape production. Washington had its largest crop ever of Sauvignon Blanc in 2022 at 12,800 tons. That is a 27% increase over the previous largest crop for the variety in 2018, signaling strong growth in the variety. Overall, Sauvignon Blanc is Washington’s third most produced white grape, though it remains a distant third behind Chardonnay and Riesling.

Additionally, Pinot Noir is quietly showing strong growth, albeit still at low levels of production. In the large crop year of 2018, 1,100 tons of Pinot Noir were harvested. In 2022, that number ballooned to 2,860 tons.

Part of that growth is fueled by Charles Smith’s new Pinot Noir project. The rest is driven by increases in sparkling wine production in the state.

Recent harvests make for challenging comparisons

There was time when Washington broke harvest records almost every year. However, the calculus has changed in the last five years.

Ste. Michelle Wine Estates (SMWE), the Northwest’s largest wine company, has pulled back from some of its grape contracts. Ten years ago, the company contracted with nearly 70% of the state’s total wine grape acreage. Today that number stands at less than 50%, with some fruit the winery used to contract no longer harvested. (Some of that change is also due to increased plantings.)

This, along with environmental factors, makes comparing numbers across recent harvests challenging. For example, in both 2019 and 2020, substantial amounts of grapes were not picked due to frost (2019) and smoke (2020). In contrast, in 2021, nearly every berry was picked, but the crop was light.

Overall in 2020, both growers and winemakers got what they needed. After two very short harvests, all were happy to see tanks full. Even better, the quality of the vintage looks to be exceptionally high.

“The wines are so dark and fragrant, great acids,” Chris Figgins, president and winemaking director for Figgins Family Wine Estates, said after harvest. “I’m very, very high on the wines.”

Rosés and early release white wines from the 2022 vintage are already hitting the shelves.

Image by Richard Duval.

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