SHERWOOD — The founding families of Oregon pinot noir scoured the Pacific Northwest to find the perfect place for vines that need long, cool, consistent summers. An area with a growing season that won’t freeze the buds before they burst into grapes, but won’t scorch the delicate fruit, either.
They settled in the Willamette Valley, and their hunch was right. Oregon burst onto the world’s wine scene in the decades that followed — becoming as closely identified with pinot noir as the grape’s original home territory in the Burgundy region of France.
As Oregon toasts the 50th anniversary of the first pinot noir grapes to be planted in the Willamette Valley, though, the state’s fast-growing wine industry is facing the possibility that there might not be a 100th.
Luisa Ponzi took over winemaking duties at Ponzi Vineyards in Sherwood from her father in 1993 and quickly had to adapt his process to one better suited to warmer weather. The climate had already started to change from the time her parents first planted pinot in the late 1960s.
“Just within 40 years, we’ve seen dramatic change,” said Maria Ponzi, president of Ponzi Wines, and Luisa’s sister. “The challenges she has are very different challenges he had.”
Greg Jones, who teaches and studies how climate change affects wine at Southern Oregon University, says it’s entirely possible that the warmer growing seasons of the Napa Valley and Sonoma Valley in California will eventually migrate to Oregon.
“The pioneers who originally planted in Oregon, you’ve got to give them kudos all around,” Jones said. “You fast forward to today, it’s completely different.”
It could be a boon for the Northwest wine industry in some ways; the Northwest commands only about 1 percent of the global wine trade now and has room to grow. But, said Jones, “Likely, it’s only going to get better up to a given point.”
Climate matters to a grape, because it determines how long the fruit can stay on the vine as sugar, color and acidity levels fluctuate and mature. If a grape ripens too quickly and has to be picked early, it might not have all the qualities winemakers — and wine drinkers — prefer.
A lot of that can be adjusted in the winemaking process, says Harry Peterson-Nedry of Chehalem Wines in Newberg. Even so, Peterson-Nedry has been urging the Oregon wine community to be proactive at reducing its impact on the environment and prepare to be nimble in the processing stage.
Not only are grapes going to be grown differently, the winemaking must also adapt.
Jason Lett, whose father planted the first pinot noir plant in the Willamette Valley, is planning beyond just how to continue growing and processing the state’s most famous wine grape.
Now head of Eyrie Vineyards, Lett is trying to reduce the amount of electricity needed in the winery and is experimenting in the fields with which direction to plant rows of grapes and where. His father taught him that considering the climate is as important to a successful grape as the soil or any other factor.
“Don’t pick a site and throw a varietal at it. Look at the site from the point of view of the varietal,” Lett said.
Already, heat-friendly grapes that grow in warmer climates are being planted in the state, and more vines are being introduced each year.
Syrah grapes, which typically grow at a warmer climate than in the Willamette Valley, have been toyed with in the Northwest before but are now gaining prominence.
“I don’t think they could have done that 10 years ago,” Jones said. “Is that a varietal that will happen more as it warms? Possibly.”
It is, for example, one of the primary grapes grown in the Northwest’s newest federally designated viticulture area, the Walla Walla Valley — which includes parts of Oregon and Washington. There were 570 acres of Syrah grapes planted in 2013, producing 1,370 tons of wine, according to Southern Oregon University.
Pinot noir leads the state still, accounting for 58 percent of all grapes grown and crushed in Oregon.
Walla Walla is one of the warmest grape growing regions in Oregon. Others, including the Rogue River and Umpqua valleys, were up to 140 and 70 wineries, respectively, in 2013.
As those areas grow, pinot noir risks losing its place as the wine grape synonymous with Oregon.
Jones’ father, Earl Jones, is a winemaker and has been praised for his Spanish-style wines grown from tempranillo grapes. He gets about 20 inches of rain a year at his vineyards in Roseburg.
Greg Jones helped pick out the spot for his dad in the 1990s, because its intermediate climate in the Umpqua Valley — warmer than the Willamette, cooler than the Rogue — allows a 200-day growing season for tempranillo grapes.
The pinot pioneers 50 years ago picked the Willamette Valley with soil and climate science guiding them, and Jones recommends that growers and winemakers in the future do the same. Will your grape be able to adapt to climate projections? Pinot noir might not be the safe choice anymore.
“If what we know about pinot noir is correct, it really can’t perform to the same quality standards in wine quality and wine production we know it to perform today,” Jones said.
“In the short term, a warming climate has already benefited the Oregon wine industry tremendously, but if it keeps going, where do you draw the line?”