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Bud Break: The Promise of the Next Vintage

By Annelise Kelly

The art of winemaking is bound to the wheel of the seasons like any agricultural ritual.

Vines grow, flowers open, fruit swells. Stained fingers harvest the bounty, and the vines retract their sap, bracing themselves against the cold winter and awaiting rebirth.

Bud break, the springtime eruption and unfolding of delicate leaves, tells the age-old tale of dormancy overcome. The promise of rebirth grows from whisper to chorus in the vineyard, echoing the mundane miracle of annual resurrection and renewal.

For winemakers, spring's bud break is “kind of the birth of the season, with these little buds coming to life and starting the clock of what will be the 2021 vintage,” says Michelle Kaufmann, communications director for Stoller Wine Group. All who dwell in a temperate climate - like the Willamette Valley - can relate to the quiet thrill of spring revealing itself through buds and blossoms, reassuring us that we've cheated mortality for one more year. It's a harbinger of the vintage to come, launching the winemakers' year while also a critical interval in the development of the vine and the fruit.

Origin of a New Vintage

Bud break on the vine at Chehalem Winery (Photo courtesy Chehalem Winery/Mindy Gimarelli)

“The bud break period really sets the tone for the season,” says Kaufmann. “It's still a delicate and dicey time. If we get too many freezes that could change things; if we get large hailstorms, that can change things. But in general, there's hope and optimism as our vines wake up from their slumber. It definitely is a moment in the industry. There is a buzz and excitement as bud break begins.”

As Kaufmann points out, harsh weather events after bud break can have a lasting impact on the vintage. “If we get a long, hard, cold spell, we're going to have smaller clusters or maybe fewer clusters per vine. The wines will still be beautiful,” but the yield might be lower, and it will be one of a constellation of factors that impacts the final product.

Bud break also represents a deadline - the last chance to dispatch winter chores before the vines burst forth, as noted by Stefan Czarnecki of Black Tie Tours, a wine tour and private car service. This spring, he finds himself on a different end of the equation than usual.

“I've been on the hospitality side for a long time,” says Czarnecki. “Bud break, from the hospitality perspective, is a talking point for our guests when we're driving to the vineyard, about how it kind of lays out the year.” This year, however, he's partnering with a few friends to restore a neglected vineyard - so now “bud break is kind of like a ticking time bomb for us, because we have to get all this work done and we're not hiring help. We've got to push and get these vineyards all trimmed up and ready for bud break and ready for the real season.”

Nuances Revealed

Bud break on the vine at Chehalem Winery (Photo courtesy Chehalem Winery/Mindy Gimarelli)

One of the charms of bud break is how it highlights the uniqueness of each grape variety as they emerge at slightly different times, as well as the variety of microclimates around the Willamette Valley.

With seven vineyard estates spread over about 25 miles and a range of elevations, “bud break usually lasts about one to two weeks in our vineyards,” says Grace Evenstad, owner of Domaine Serene. “We go from 300 feet up to a thousand feet, and things are a little cooler, the higher you get. We also have vineyards that face east, south and west; usually, the western vineyards are later to bloom and later to harvest, which gives us a very long harvest time.”

For winemakers, bud break starts the calendar on the progress of the vines, predicting when bloom and harvest will take place, albeit imperfectly. It also helps contextualize the narrative of the seasons, which is part of the storytelling that so captivates wine enthusiasts.

“There's an energy associated with bud break that the guests kind of feed off of,” says Czarnecki. “Visiting wineries, they ask questions like, ‘Is this late? Is this early? What does it mean?'” Part of the attraction of geeking out on wine is learning about how the infinite variables collaborate to influence each vintage.

Attention Turns to the Vines

Bud break also coincides with the ramping up of activity at wineries, heralding departure from the cellar and a return to the field.

“Bud break in general is always a great season to come out and taste,” says Kaufmann. “This is the time of the year when we release our club wines and our new spring wines, like the 2020 rosé, which is one of the first snapshots of what the vintage has to offer… You feel the energy that's built up with spring coming and everyone excited to get back out there and the rebirth of the season.”

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