You probably thought 2020 was never going to end!

However, as we teetered into early December, some good news emerged to brighten our weary spirits. COVID-19 vaccines were on the way. The presidential election was finally over, according to the Electoral College. And, if you are a lover of Finger Lakes wines, you might be rewarded with a vintage that may well be one of the finest in memory.

A mild winter had led to some speculation that bud break would occur early in 2020, but a cool April slowed down the wake-up process of the vines. If anything, bud break for most vinifera grapes wound up a few days later than usual.

Then came a memorable summer. From June into September, it was gorgeously warm and dry. Surely, 2020 felt like the warmest year of the decade. But, on paper, both 2016 and 2018 had warmer growing seasons than 2020, as measured by Growing Degree Days accumulation.

So, why did 2020 feel warmer than those two years?

Hans Walter-Peterson, Cornell’s viticulture extension specialist for the Finger Lakes, explained: “From late May through early September, it was a warmer season than usual, but cooler periods in the spring and the fall kept us from reaching GDD numbers like we saw in 2016 or 2018.”

One factor though was consistent throughout: It was dry. 2020 was a drought year.

“We finished the season with just under 15 inches of rain at Geneva, about 8 inches below normal,” Walter-Peterson added.

Parts of the Finger Lakes south of Geneva had even less rainfall. A dry year also means lower humidity, which is a blessing for FLX winegrowers, as low humidity means low disease pressures like mildew in the vineyard.

Morten Hallgren, owner of Ravines Wine Cellars, was ecstatic over the quality of the grapes at harvest.

“After the 2016 harvest, I didn’t really think that it would be possible to experience a more favorable vintage,” he said, “but then 2020 came along. Disease pressure was the lowest that I have ever seen in the Finger Lakes.”

Melvin Goldman, owner of Keuka Lake Vineyards, agreed wholeheartedly.

“The grapes were perhaps the cleanest I can remember, but they also had flavors that were extraordinary, with a balance between acid and sweetness that was glorious,” he said.

If there was a negative to the 2020 vintage, it is that yield was down. The warm weather and drought brought on heat stress in certain areas and generally smaller berries. Young vineyards with shallower roots were especially vulnerable.

Mike Wilson, the owner of Bright Leaf Vineyard on Cayuga Lake, had a rough summer.

“We are not an old vineyard, and some of the vines were stressed, as evidenced by small canopies and leaf-yellowing in areas,” Wilson explained. “Yield overall was 30% below normal. But, so far, the quality is excellent.”

Small berries adversely affect a winery’s bottom line, since less wine would be produced. But, smaller berries often translate into excellent wines.

“The berry size and tons per acre were down across the board, but this often lends itself to more concentrated fruit and tends to make better wines,” said Craig Hosbach, the winemaker at Hunt Country Vineyards.

The Finger Lakes made its name with its white wines, and the 2020 whites will be outstanding.

“What I have noticed in the whites is an unusual palate weight, where the wines seem more substantial than usual,” Hallgren said.

Steve DiFrancesco, longtime winemaker at Glenora Wine Cellars, raised one possible concern. “I’ve seen a phenomenon called Atypical Aging Aroma in some years when there are drought conditions late in the summer around veraison.”

First documented in Germany and Switzerland in the 1970s, ATA could cause white wines to lose their varietal flavors quickly, replaced by a waxy and varnish-like taste. Luckily, cooler fall temperatures and a bit of rain helped retain acidity levels a little higher than usual. DiFrancesco thought that the high acidity levels, along with decades of experience dealing with the issue, should alleviate any ATA problems.

As nice as the whites are shaping up to be, 2020 could turn out to be a benchmark year for Finger Lakes reds. The ones I have tasted so far were deep in color, with great concentration and aromatics.

“2020 seems out of this world for the reds,” said Kelby Russell, the winemaker at Red Newt Cellars. “At this point it would be hard to ask for much more of the ferments in the cellar.”

Goldman put it more bluntly. “This year could be the year of breakthrough for the cab francs and pinot noirs of the Finger Lakes,” he forecast.

As to the age-ability of the wines, we might get the best of both worlds.

“Depending on the winemakers’ pivotal decisions, the wines of 2020 may be equipped for both early consumption and for extended bottle aging,” remarked Vinny Aliperti, co-owner and winemaker at Billsboro Winery.

Of course, only time will tell. But, as of now, the excitement over the 2020 Finger Lakes vintage is truly palpable.

After spending over 30 years running the day-to-day operations of media companies, Dave Sit moved to the Finger Lakes to pursue his many passions, of which wine and writing are two. His “Wine Ranger” column runs the first Saturday of every month. He can be reached at flxwineranger@gmail.com.

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