Welcoming Bud Break in the Willamette Valley

Tasting rooms are slowly gearing up for the bustle of travel season, red wines are mellowing in barrel, and bottling lines are humming along getting whites wines and rosé ready for picnics in the sun. It’s spring in the Valley, and while there’s lots to do in the winery and tasting room, the most important action of the year to date is happening very quietly out in the vineyard.

Bud break is the moment of awakening for a vine from its winter dormancy period. The new growth, which sets into motion a vine’s growing season, begins when plants sense warming earth, rain and ever-so-slowly lengthening days. Roots begin cycling stored nutrients and water through the vine, encouraging it to essentially yawn and stretch its fingers into the air—bursting soft, fragile buds from yesterday’s hard, dark bumps on the cane. These begin to photosynthesize, and the growing begins.

Late April is typical for bud break in much of the Valley, but sites vary widely due to sun exposure and aspect, altitude and several other factors. “I would characterize this as a ‘classic’ Oregon start to the growing season from a historical perspective,” says Tom Fitzpatrick, winemaker at Alloro Vineyard, who saw 90% bud break by April 21. However, he adds, “I don’t think there really is a ‘normal’ anymore. Climate change seems to be delivering dramatic variability in weather conditions and wide swings in the start of the vines’ time clock from year to year.”

Just as with bud break itself, what constitutes perfect spring conditions may vary from site to site based on a host of factors. “What is fantastically beneficial to us this year is the unusually dry weather we’ve been having,” says Chris Lindemann of Evesham Wood and Haden Fig (bud break at Evesham is pictured at left). “Given that we are farming organically and prefer to source our grapes from dry-farmed, organic-practice plots, this luck of dry weather has allowed us to get ahead of the usual inter-vine weeding.” Wetter weather after weeding, he says, “can develop a situation where the remnants of the weeds out-compete the cover crops.”

Vines are vulnerable during bud break. Frost is always a potential concern in cool-climate winegrowing regions, especially when buds break early. Since cold air moves downward and settles, air flow, elevation and slope position are crucial to frost protection—just one of the reasons winemakers put such an emphasis on site selection. “Thankfully, [frost] is not an extreme threat for a properly chosen, elevated site like Alloro,” says Fitzpatrick.

Pests such as rust and bud mites love to munch on the vulnerable buds, so growers must be vigilant about them, too, he adds. Fortunately, a simple sulfur spray keeps them at bay. Finally, winegrowers must keep adequate soil moisture in mind—since lack of moisture during bud break can stunt vine growth—and try not to use tractors excessively this time of year, since the weight can compact the soil and reduce drainage.

While challenges can turn up during bud break, ultimately, it’s only the first step in a long growing season. “What we’ve found is that the date of bud break is less important in the grape growing process—and defining the quality of the vintage—than are those last ten steps ending with the conditions surrounding the harvest and pick date,” Lindemann explains.

On your next trip to wine country, take a moment to appreciate the hard work represented in bud break and the weeks that follow. This time of year sets off a period of incredibly rapid growth for a vine, and today’s emerging buds are the first chapter in the story of the 2018 vintage.

 

By Julia Burke

Julia Burke is a wine lover originally from Buffalo, New York, who moved to Oregon in August 2017 to work a harvest and decided to stay. She is the Willamette Valley Wineries Association’s marketing and communications coordinator and a fan of Riesling, peanut butter, and the Chicago Cubs.