Home Wine Business Editorial Grave Concerns Dot Finger Lakes Grape Harvest

Grave Concerns Dot Finger Lakes Grape Harvest

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By Randy Agness

The reliable Finger Lakes Riesling vines remain in abundance for harvest
The reliable Finger Lakes Riesling vines remain in abundance for harvest

As Issue 2 of the weekly Veraison to Harvest e-newsletter published by the Cornell Enology Extension program indicates, the vineyard managers and winemakers’ across the Finger Lakes concerns about the quality of wine grapes to be harvested on the vine has dramatically improved with the extended two week stretch of warm and sunny summer like weather, which has continued into September. After an unusually mild and wet summer, a period of time without significant rain and above average temperatures will allow the grapes to catch up. For a seventh consecutive year “We are again reporting berry weight, brix, titratable acidity (TA) and pH, and yeast assimilable nitrogen (YAN),” reports Veraison to Harvest co-editors.

The concern about the quality of the grape being harvested has diminished, as the weather has begun to cooperate. There’s now a seemly calm resignation with what’s not on the grapevines. “It has been hit or miss even between nearby vineyards as two consecutive harsh winter’s weather conditions have damaged vines across the Finger Lakes region,” commented Matt Doyle of Doyle Vineyard Management, “that coupled with a poor bud break this spring, certain vinifera varieties will have yields drop up to 30% off the 2014 total amount of harvested grapes.”

The grapevines which had difficulty last season remaines the ones the most vulnerable this season. From the sample cross-section of comments, overall yield expectations for the 2015 harvest are estimated much lower than 2014 for Gruner, Pinot Grigio, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Gewurztraminer.

“It’s a question of the size of the individual vineyard and the block of the grapevines affected as part of the total acreage,” explained Doyle, who’s managing hundreds of acres throughout the Finger Lakes, “within a variety the losses can be severe, but if that variety represents a smaller percentage of the vineyard planting, then the impact would be less overall.”

Dependence on a single vineyard or a larger percentage of only vinifera grapevines could be devastating. After suffering severe vineyard losses with their vinifera vines especially Riesling in 2014, “everything seems to have rebound and at least we expect a more characteristic yield amounts,” according to Bradon Zugibe, Vineyard Manager at Zugibe Winery located on the Northeast side of Seneca Lake, “yet below average.”

Pinot Noir hanging ready for the Finger Lakes harvest at Leidenfrost Vineyard
Pinot Noir hanging ready for the Finger Lakes harvest at Leidenfrost Vineyard

Elizabeth Leidenfrost – Winemaker at Leidenfrost Vineyards explained, “We planted Pinot Noir with the fruiting section higher and in an ideal location close to the Seneca Lake and expect the harvest across the board to be exceptional in quality and near average in quantity.”

The actual extent of the drop in yield especially with Vinifera grapes won’t be fully realized until the harvest has been completed as Jim Trezise noted indicating “call me in November,” but may be predicted by the initial transactions.

“Most of the ads on the NY Wine and Grape Classifieds looking for fruit are focused on vinifera varieties while ads from those selling grapes are primary selling hybrids and native varieties,” commented Hans Walter-Peterson reporting on the Finger Lakes region for Veraison to Harvest, and overall “many growers have more buyers than they have fruit in some varieties this year (to sell).”

Fred Merwarth – Winemaker at Hermann J. Wiemer sees the current situation as something to be planned and budgeted for. “Pinot Noir, Pinot Grigio, Gewurtraminer, Gruner, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon are more delicate grape varieties especially when grown in the Finger Lakes,” notes Merwarth, “our wines produced from these grapes are only sold in our tasting room, or on-line, but are not distributed for that reason.” Merwarth continued, “some of the varieties mentioned have little or no fruit hanging so we are being realistic about yields.” In New York, 85% of all wine grapes are grown in the Finger Lakes region representing the vast majority of the overall crop yield statewide.

“This is a tough business to be in,” noted Jim Trezise, President of the New York Wine and Grape Foundation. “Most here are in it for the long haul,” commented Doyle, “in 2013 the harvest produced near record amounts of grapes.” Across the vineyards of the Finger Lakes, the comments were similar.

Meaghan Frank – Dr. Frank Vineyards noted, “Yes, that’s correct unfortunately, we are looking at yields that are lower than last harvest which will be about 30% down.” This situation is not across the board in the Finger Lakes and can differ between vineyard sites. “Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris and Cabernet Sauvignon yields are going to be dramatically cut,” continued Frank.

The evaluation from the Dr. Frank’s Hector vineyard site is much more positive. “Many sites did not have good bud break due to frost,” explained Paul Brock – Silver Thread Vineyard, “luckily our vineyard has remained basically unaffected.” At Fox Run, winemaker Peter Bell echoed the concerns about lower vinifera grape yields without going into detail. Riesling, Chardonnay and Cabernet Franc which perform exceptionally well in the cool climate of the Finger Lakes are expected to achieve at an average crop yields at harvest, but should the weather situation change abruptly a wet harvest would be problematic.

Chardonnay and Pinot Noir tend to ripen early whereas the Riesling and Cabernet Franc require more hang time to full develop their flavor characteristics. “The damage is significant from the last two winters and absolutely had an impact,” mentioned Doug Hazlitt – Owner Hazlitt 1852 Vineyard, “as dead vines are evident throughout the vineyards. I think that the surviving vines need a break and would benefit greatly from a more mild or moderate conditions versus the heavy snowfall and freezing temperatures of the last two years.”

At Red Tail Ridge, Co-owner and winemaker Nancy Irelan indicated that picking grapes has already begun focusing on the early season varieties including pinot noir. For the vineyards which supply Constellation Brands, the harvest has started as well as for those picking Chardonnay for sparkling wines.

The cold hardy native and hybrid grape varieties have fared quite well may even reach above average tonnage as these berry sizes are tracking above average which coincides the early survey noted in the Veraison to Harvest report.

There is no doubt that the last fourteen sunny days and cooler nights has put the harvest schedule back on track something that both Jim Trezise and the Finger Lakes vineyards had been praying for. Due to the favorable strength of weather, the vines have no indication of being over stressed and simultaneously minimized the worries about potential disease development in the vineyards. The bottom line remains what the overall tonnage on vinifera wine grape will be, in early estimates, less than in 2014, which itself was lower than average harvest as well. The National Weather forecast for the Finger Lakes shows temperatures to remain seasonal through September which will be considered a hopeful sign for harvest.

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