A Vintage for the Ages: Reflections on Oregon’s 2023 Harvest

Photo credit: Carolyn Wells-Kramer Photography

Although it was a few snowstorms ago, winemakers often are so busy during harvest they can’t afford to stop to sum it all up until winter hits Oregon. And hit it has.

During the 2023 harvest, winemakers across Oregon faced a season unfolding differently for each, turning challenges into opportunities to do what they do best—make beautiful wine. Winemakers reporting a warm May in Oregon had Clive Pursehouse at Decanter surmising, “In a region known for producing wines of balance and complexity, a warm vintage may mean different things for winemakers when it comes to picking decisions.”

Here’s some of what our winemakers report with this vintage:

Lynette and Bob Morus, Phelps Creek Vineyards, Columbia Gorge AVA

Phelps Creek Vineyards embarked on a season marked by a delayed start, with the vintage trailing about two weeks behind the norm. “The curse of Oregon grape growing endows us with a relatively short season between the final killing frost of the spring until the first killing frost of the fall,” the duo wrote in their club newsletter’. “The flipside beauty of our area is we stretch out the prime season for our varietals to take in the entire available growing period and thereby achieve hang time.”

The initial projection foresaw a September 18th, 2023 harvest, strategically chosen to beat the impending rains. The duo noted, “…it’s not unusual for us to begin harvest and get an early rain, causing us to pause and resume in the next dry spell. Because we perform extensive canopy management of the vines, we feel comfortable taking a period of dampness before the grapes are all in.”

For Phelps Creek, “The crush continued at a brisk pace with a several day pause in the middle for some sprinkles. By October 3rd, we were all done with Riesling, completing the final pick. The team is very pleased with the results. Great concentration of flavors, clean fruit with no spoilage or rot and beautiful acidity, which will lead to long lived selections.”

April and Brian Zawada, Violet Vines Winery and Vineyard, Willamette Valley and Rocks District of Milton-Freewater AVA

With roughly a third of their grape haul coming from their estate vineyard in the McMinnville AVA, Violet Vines says in their 2023 Harvest recap that their “Set-in-Stone vineyard in the Rocks District will start producing next year. In addition to harvesting from our estate vineyard (from our 2008 and 2020 plantings), we also sourced fruit from the McMinnville AVA (Pinot noir), Yamhill-Carlton AVA (Pinot noir and Chardonnay), Chehalem Mountain AVA (Pinot noir), Eola Amity Hills (Chardonnay), the Rogue Valley (Chenin Blanc) and the Rocks District of the Milton-Freewater AVA (Syrah, Albariño, Grenache, Mourvèdre, Malbec and Cabernet Franc).  All totaled, we worked with seven growers this vintage and they truly delivered outstanding quality despite the many challenges they faced throughout the state.”

 “Grapes arrived at the Violet Vines winery from August 27th through October 16th…we received 51.9 tons of grapes – all from Oregon.  To be exact, we processed 103,808 pounds of grapes, 80% of which were red grape varietals and 20% were white grape varietals,” said the Zawadas.

Scott and Vicki Nokleby of Mongata Estate Winery, Walla Walla Valley AVA, Oregon

Mongata Estate Winery is located on the Oregon side of the Walla Walla Valley. Said Scott and Vicki Nokleby, “We were fortunate to have a long dry summer here, the last spring rain came in mid-April with no significant rainfall until mid-August and then was less than an inch. We were getting excited for the potential of perhaps harvesting in mid-September or at least when everyone else was harvesting (we are usually last in for crush each year).”

The nature of the location, known for its abrupt weather changes, played its part as summer came to an end. Mountain breezes turned cold prompting an early harvest. In the end, the Cabernet and Cab Franc were picked in the last week of October, following the Syrah the week prior, while the Chardonnay and Syrah for Rose were harvested in the third week of September, adhering to their usual timeline.

Despite the challenges presented by the fickle weather, the fruits of the harvest in 2023 showcased a remarkable quality. “We picked Cabernet and Cab Franc the last week of October as usual, Syrah the week before. Chardonnay and our Syrah used for Rosé came off the third week of September. The fruits this year are riper than 2022, with more complex flavor and richer color. Even after just a few months in barrel we can taste and see that 2023 wines are going to be exceptional.”

Jesse Lange, Lange Estate Winery, Willamette Valley, Dundee Hills AVA

In 2022, Lange Estate Winery navigated a tumultuous growing season, beginning with a challenging spring marked by an unexpected mid-April freeze. Despite initial despair, the season concluded miraculously with a stunning fall, setting the stage for another world-class vintage in the Willamette Valley.

vista view of lange estate winery and vineyard

“Comparatively, the 2023 growing season felt like a relative breeze. With a restrained start due to cool spring weather, vineyard growth began in earnest the second week of May with welcomed temps in the upper 80s that supercharged shoot growth and pre-flowering conditions,” says Jesse Lange, Head winemaker at Lange Estate.

Confident decisions were made as stable weather in July and August allowed for extended organic vineyard applications, bringing a sense of relief. Lange added, “I felt I could comfortably push out organic vineyard application intervals without fear of disease blooms…It was nice to mitigate vineyard inputs this season compared to 2022 which required much more extensive canopy management.”

Ultimately, Lange is feeling excited for the vintage: “Across our core varietals of Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, and Pinot noir, the 2023 wines are amongst the most precocious wines I’ve ever come across for our 35+ years in the Willamette Valley. From the moment they began fermenting, the wines have vibrancy, energy, and explode out of the glass. In a word: Gregarious.

The Pinot noirs have color much like the 2021’s: almost neon at the edge with incredible violet and fuchsia depth and density. A bit more tannin density on the palate, they remind me of 2015, 2012, and 2004- all stunning vintages themselves. Aromatically, they are in a class all their own, with power, beauty, and complexity in droves. I can’t wait to see them with more elevage and development in barrel.”

Alisha Young, Walnut Ridge Vineyard Willamette Valley, Lower Long Tom AVA

Harvest stories ran deep in the Willamette Valley, and according to WVWA, the 17th of September marked the commencement of the harvest for Walnut Ridge, as sugar levels seemingly surged overnight. Alisha recalls, “Our Emma block (aka the Queen) of Pinot Noir along with, our Pinot Gris told us they were ready simultaneously. Emma is generally one of our last picked Pinot blocks so this was interesting!”

Young continued,” The intensity of picking the ready fruit took about 10 days. Day after day we had BIG picks that had us all running on adrenaline and excitement. Getting this beautiful fruit to the cellar before the rains moved in was a ticking clock.

When initial rains arrived, a sigh of relief and a well-deserved nap followed. Mother Nature granted a second pick window at the end of the first week in October, allowing for the harvest of all remaining fruit, including varietals like the eager Riesling. “Our Riesling didn’t want to miss all the fun and chaos so she was ready the same day too!” Young added. With Walnut Ridge’s rich history of producing wine grapes since 1995, this marked only the third harvest, emphasizing the wisdom shared by friends that “no two vintages will ever be alike.”

Nate Wall and Hannah Thorning at Troon Vineyard, Rogue Valley, Applegate Valley AVA

Finally, Troon Vineyard winemaker Nate Wall and assistant winemaker Hannah Thorning reviewed the 2023 harvest on their Troon Talk podcast.

Excited about their new concrete Dolium fermenter where Troon’s estate Vermentino  is aging, as well as their smaller amphorae aging their amber wine, Troon winemakers harvested 72 tons from 16 different grape varieties in 2023. “In terms of tonnage this may be a little lower than we were hoping for, but there was some interesting weather that happened around fruits at bloom and fruit set–some rains and some cold weather for slightly lower than expected yield but beyond that we did get pretty good yield across many of the varieties,” Wall said. “Our largest single variety we brought in was Syrah. Then other Rhone varieties like Vermentino and Mourvèdre, and more. We’re really starting to see, especially with some of the new plantings that these grape varieties that we have really what they’re going to start offering us for the future.”

“The most important parameter for harvest decision and picking is acid levels, and because we don’t modify our chemistry in anyway, we really need to acid to be correct to lead to balance in wines without us manipulating them in the cellar,” Wall continued.  “Even though this wasn’t necessarily a warmer year, the conditions we did have were so perfect in terms of the warm , but not blazingly hot that it actually led to a year where the acids were where we wanted them to be.”

All would seem to be in agreement with Pursehouse who concludes, “The way things are tracking, winemakers anticipate generous wines with ample fruit character.”