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Cabernet Sauvignon vine sales are still strong, though Merlot and Chardonnay sales softened last year, says  Jeff Sample.

Cabernet Sauvignon vine sales are still strong, though Merlot and Chardonnay sales softened last year, says Jeff Sample.

Melissa Hansen

Nursery grapevine sales have been strong the last three years, with volumes ranging from 2 to 2.5 million vines annually, according to a major Washington State grape nursery.

What are grape growers in Washington and elsewhere planting? Do planting trends reflect consumption trends? Jeff Sample, representative for Inland Desert Nursery in Benton City, shared wine grapevine variety planting trend data with growers and winemakers attending a wine market workshop in November. Data cover the years 2009 through 2011.

Top sellers

Four varieties—Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot, and Riesling—have ­consistently been the top sellers in the last three years, each selling significantly more than 100,000 vines per year, Sample said.

Cabernet has been the varietal leader, with nearly two million vines sold in the three-year period, followed by Merlot and Chardonnay, each totaling more than one million vines. Riesling showed the biggest jump of the top four sellers in 2011 when 350,000 vines were sold. Sales in 2009 and 2010 were around 130,000 vines annually, making a total of more than 600,000 vines for the three-year period.

Sample is unsure if the Riesling upswing will continue. Volumes of Merlot and Chardonnay dropped some last year, suggesting that planting might be slowing down.

Second string

The next most popular varieties sold are what Sample calls the “second string.” To be in the second string, sales must total at least 100,000 vines per year. Of the ten varieties in the second-string category, Malbec, Syrah, Cabernet Franc, Pinot Gris, and Sauvignon Blanc are the main hitters. Pinot Noir, Sangiovese, Tempranillo, Mourvèdre, and Grenache round out the second-string bench.

“Sales of Malbec for each of the last three years have been pretty steady,” he said, adding that Syrah seems to be making a slight comeback after a big dip in 2010. Cabernet Franc has been steady and Sauvignon Blanc “amazingly steady,” he said. He’s been surprised at the amount of interest in Pinot Noir, especially in places like Texas, Canada, and eastern states that are outside the ­traditional planting regions of Oregon.

Inland Desert provides certified self-rooted and grafted material, which has opened many doors in out-of-state locations. Although Washington growers plant mostly own-rooted vines, other areas plant grafted material, and growers are coming to Inland Desert because of the strength of its certified program, Sample said. Inland Desert has worked closely with the Northwest Grape Foundation Service to replant its registered mother blocks from new foundation-level material. Foundation material is indexed for common grapevine viruses, but also for Rupestris stem pitting virus, and material is ­propagated in a way to assure freedom from crown gall.

“Washington State certified grapevines are in very, very high demand,” Sample said, noting that there are many areas outside Washington that need certified vines. “The biggest area for grafted orders right now is Pennsylvania because of the strength of our certification program.”

Clonal selections are increasing in demand as growers become more comfortable in planting them and as the clonal choices have increased, he said.

“We get a lot of calls for cold-hardy varieties, like the new ones that have been developed by the University of Minnesota, but very few orders for them.”

Surprisingly, the nursery receives almost no calls for Semillon or Chenin Blanc, he said.

New or replacement vines?

Sample thinks that many of the Cabernet Sauvignon vine orders in the last year were to replace damaged vines. “Cabernet got hurt pretty good, and some Syrah has also been to replace damaged vines.”

Although sales volume has slowed in recent months, he’s unsure if the trend is cyclical or a long-term change. “Growth to reach that two-million-vine mark happened so rapidly that we don’t know what normal is yet. Before, selling one million was a big year. And, that’s not counting juice or table grape sales, both which have been growing rapidly.”

The wine market workshop was held in November and sponsored by the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers.