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Feeling the Heat in Walla Walla

by Jay DeWitt, Managing Winemaker and Vigneron

Birch Creek Vineyard House

The start of the DeWitt block in Birch Creek vineyard with the vineyard rental house in the background.

We will remember the summer of 2021 for quite some time; it was a scorcher! I don’t go a day without hearing the question, “How are the grapes handling the heat?” It is a good news/bad news situation.

The bad news is the yield will be reduced. The good news is the wine could be amazing!

Grape plants generally handle heat without much trouble but the grapes were in a vulnerable condition when the heat hit in early June. Bloom had just ended, and many of the young berries that weren’t shaded by a leaf simply burned up in the hot afternoon sun. The remaining berries did not enlarge normally, so the clusters have fewer, smaller berries. I am expecting yields to be reduced by 30%. If the heat had come two weeks later, the berries would have been acclimated and much of the damage would have been avoided. In our family we have a saying for this type of bad luck, “that’s life on the farm. ;)”

We will harvest some of the varieties earlier than normal due to heat and small berries; but not all, in fact some of the varieties will likely be harvested later than normal. This is because grape plants have the ability to halt their metabolic processes and conserve water when the temperatures get too hot, depending on the variety.

The good news is that what happens early in the year doesn’t have much impact on flavor. Let’s hope that is the case in 2021! I believe the most important contribution to the terroir of the Walla Walla Appellation has to do with the sun filled days and moderate temperatures that are normal for the end of summer and beginning of fall, following veraison. Daytime highs in the 80’s and nighttime lows in the 50’s helps us craft the balanced wines we seek. Delicate flavors have time to evolve and the tannins soften without losing all of the acid. This is know as “Hang Time.”