Grape expectations

A grape harvesting machine makes its way through a vineyard adjacent to the Seneca Shores Winery on Route 14 in Penn Yan in September 2016.

Unlike many other grape growing regions in the world, the weather conditions that influence each vintage in the Finger Lakes can vary drastically from one year to the next. For proof, look no further than the 2016 season. In the span of 12 months, we had one of the warmest winters on record (except for one night in mid-February), followed by the driest (by far!) and one of the warmest growing season in 50 years. Last year, we had one of the coldest winters in a long time, followed by a relatively wet and cool season. So grape growers, like all farmers, have to be able to change how they farm each year in order to adapt to the curve balls that Mother Nature throws at them year in and year out, as they always have. This year was no exception.

During the winter, growers will prune the grapevines in preparation for the following season. In early 2015, pruning was delayed in a lot of vineyards until early March, when the weather finally got warm enough to melt the snow that was burying entire vines in some areas, and putting a lot of spring work behind schedule. In 2016, most growers were done with their pruning much earlier than normal because there was almost no snow to speak of and the temperatures were relatively mild. It takes only one cold night to throw a wrench into an otherwise good winter, though, and we got one this year on Feb. 14 when temperatures dropped to -15F or lower in some areas. Temperatures this low often result in some amount of injury to buds or entire vines, which hurts productivity for at least one year and sometimes more. Fortunately, most vineyards seemed to handle our one very cold night this year relatively well, with less injury in many cases than we thought might occur.

Once the growing season got underway, attention turned from any possible winter damage to the developing drought. Our program has detailed weather records going back to 1973, and this year’s drought was much more severe than any other during that period. In the first four months of the growing season (April to July), our weather station in Geneva recorded a total of 4.5 inches of rain, and only 0.65 inches in the entire month of June. On average, we get a little over 3 inches every month. In other words, it was dry. And very few vineyards in the Finger Lakes have the ability to irrigate, so most growers were forced to do other things to help preserve what little moisture did fall.

So what happens to grapevines in abnormally warm and dry seasons? Fortunately, many vineyards in the Finger Lakes are on fairly deep soils that can hold lots of water. In rainy years, this can be problematic, but this year it was a good thing. Most vineyards showed some signs of water stress, like smaller berries, less shoot growth and maybe a few leaves turning yellow earlier than normal, but otherwise were able to carry a reasonable crop all the way to harvest. The biggest problems we saw were in vineyards with very shallow soils, which can’t hold much water, or in young vineyards where vines haven’t grown a lot of roots yet. In those situations, growers could be seen bringing water to new vines using tanks on trailers. Not the most efficient way to water the vines, but it made the difference between young vines surviving or not. On the plus side, however, the lack of rain meant that there was much less disease pressure this year, which means better quality and quantity of fruit that reaches the winery.

In the end, the combination of some winter injury and smaller berries meant that yields for most growers were down a bit from normal. However, the warm temperatures, lack of disease and return of some more rain during the ripening period, from late August through October, has resulted in quality that winemakers are very excited about.

Grapevines are perennial plants, and therefore what happens one year in the vineyard can have an impact in the following years. Now that harvest is wrapped up, the question that lingers is how much impact this year’s drought will have on the vines during the coming winter and next year. There really is no similar situation that we can look back to and get an idea of how things might go. As in many aspects of farming, growers will have to wait and see, and adapt to the situation.

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