Alder Ridge finds niche with Rhone varietals
Alder Ridge Vineyard has been called a “dream location” by some winemakers.
Alder Ridge Vineyard and Estate is known for its Bordeaux red varietals, with nearly half of its 800-some acres planted to Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. But the vineyard, which also serves as a testing ground for some ten different clones, is finding success with uncommon Rhone and Mediterranean varietals.
“We’re heavy into reds here, especially Cabs,” said John Farmer, vineyard manager at Alder Ridge, which is one of the most extensive vineyard sites in Washington State.
With a diverse variety list that reads more like one found in a grape nursery, Alder Ridge has small plantings of Grenache, Barbera, Malbec, Mourvedre, Sangiovese, Cinsault, Tempranillo, Roussane, Carignane, Carmenere, and Counoise, as well as a few others. Most of the blocks are less than ten acres.
Some of the Cabernet Sauvignon clones at the vineyard include C2, C4, C6, C10, C21, and C24; Sangiovese clones are C3 and C2. Merlot clones include C15 and C9.
The majority of the grapes at Alder Ridge were planted in 1997 and 1998, according to Farmer. The planting of the smaller Rhone blocks began in 1999. Acreage of the more successful of the experimental varieties, such as Grenache, is being expanded.
“There’s a lot of excitement with the Rhone varietals. Many of these, like Grenache and Barbera, are grown all over the world, and they can be very nice wine,” he said, adding that they have to be grown under the same practices used in producing other premium wines. “But if you grow them to 15 tons to the acre, they’ll end up in $3 bottles.”
Farmer noted that grapes from Alder Ridge are sold to 30 Washington and Oregon wineries, with estate wine produced on site by Zefina Winery. Alder Ridge is one of six Pacific Northwest vineyards owned by Corus Estates and Vineyards, which also owns Zefina Winery and Sawtooth Winery in Idaho.
Corus previously produced wines at Columbia Winery, Covey Run, and Paul Thomas before selling most of its brands to wine industry giant Constellation, Inc. Corus retained its vineyards, the Sawtooth Winery, and some of its marketing staff. Zefina was built in 2004 and is one of the few wineries in the state making exclusively estate wines on site where the grapes are grown.
Alder Ridge’s location and changing topography make the vineyard unique. Its close proximity to the Columbia River helps to moderate winter and summer temperatures and enables it to enjoy a long growing season, a dream come true for many winemakers.
The wide variation in elevation, slope, and soils has encouraged the establishment of many small blocks within the vineyard, offering a variety of site and soil combinations to those who purchase Alder Ridge grapes.
Elevation at the vineyard ranges from blocks planted on the river’s edge at 300 feet to the highest point at 1,000 feet.
Protection from frost and cold temperatures is not needed for those grapes planted at the lower elevation, but wind machines are used in some of the higher elevation blocks.
Alder Ridge is contained within the boundaries of one of Washington State’s newer wine appellations, Horse Heaven Hills. The appellation was approved last summer by the federal government and is the seventh Washington State American Viticultural Area.
Water management at Alder Ridge combines some of the latest technology in soil moisture monitors with the human element, Farmer explained. Simplot Grower Solutions just installed Enviroscan probes for them that provide “real time” soil moisture measurements.
“It won’t change the amount of water that we put on, but, hopefully, we can time it better.”
He noted that the low average rainfall—around three inches per year—is an advantage for them. “We have the ability to control things here in regards to irrigation.”
Regulated deficit irrigation is the standard water management regime followed at Alder Ridge, a practice that he said is implemented with a “moderate to moderately aggressive” approach. Pressure bombs are also used during the growing season to help monitor plant stress.
“With deficit irrigation, there is no perfect information to help guide you,” he said in regards to knowing how far to stress the plant. “All of the technology just gives you clues. It still boils down to some guy or woman making a decision when to turn water off or on.”
He credited deficit irrigation with helping them control canopy size and berry size and playing a part in producing premium wine grapes.
Mechanization is key to containing the rising costs of production inputs, such as labor. Whenever possible, vineyard tasks are mechanized, Farmer said, although harvest is a mix of hand picking and mechanical harvesters, depending on the preference of the winemaker buying the grapes.
He noted that they recently bought two pre-pruner machines to help reduce their labor costs. The machines—which each cost $30,000—are used to prune the top and sides of the grape canopy. Hand crews then follow the pre-pruner machine, fine-tuning the pruning with electric pruners.
“When you have 850,000 vines, each needing 20 to 30 cuts, any little second that can be shaved off the time needed for each plant makes a big difference,” he said. “You need enough acreage to make the specialized equipment pay for itself within the first few years. But unlike smaller growers, we have that here. And we have the vertical trellises that are needed for many of the mechanized tasks.”
Farmer commented that it is a balancing act between retaining skilled crews and mechanizing all vineyard tasks.