Grape harvest: 'A dance with the weather'
FINGER LAKES--Vineyardists and winemakers keep weather diaries. They know every growing year is a little different from the previous one, in some respects entirely unique, in others reminiscent of another year for which records were kept. And they're pretty united in saying the vintage year 2019 is--so far--too early to characterize. Most hope for a lot more warm sunny days over the next weeks to develop fruit sugars and ripening.
"You never know until you know," says Tom Prejean of Prejean Winery (2634 NY-14, Penn Yan). "Right now, things are great, though we're a little behind. If we get some good weather we'll have a good harvest but it's too soon to call." He adds, "Every year is like this."
He's seen early picking begin in neighboring vineyards for sparkling wines. But Prejean does not currently make sparkling wines, so he says, "We'll probably start picking in early October. It could be another two to three weeks before our Chardonnay is ready. Last year we took everything in two weeks, but this year it could stretch to a month and a half."
Don Kilcoyne, owner/winemaker at Catharine Valley Winery (4201 NY-414, Burdett) compares the harvest season to a dance with the weather. "I'm not in the lead," he says. "I take seasonal cues Mother Nature gives us and try to translate that into wine people will enjoy. I definitely feel we're a little later than we usually are but that shouldn't be an issue with our Riesling, Chardonnay and Niagara. Outside of everything being later and the acidity being a little sharper than most years, it's nothing we haven't dealt with before."
However, while he worries about ripening his cabernet sauvignon, he has an alternative plan in mind. "Last year we had the same problem and I ended up making a dry rosé. I actually sell more dry rosé than dry red wine, so unless we're blessed with a wonderful late fall, I'll do it again."
"The next month will determine what will happen but the season seems to have some resemblance to the 2014 vintage," Mel Goldman, owner of Keuka Lake Vineyards (8882 Co Rd 76, Hammondsport) says optimistically. "[That year was cool and we wondered] are we ever going to ripen the grapes? Then we had this lovely relaxed fall with warm weather and sun. We not only had a very good quality vintage but a substantial harvest quantity wise. We're hoping this vintage will resemble that but we don't know yet."
Everyone contacted referenced 2019's long period of cool weather in spring and early summer. It meant a later than usual bud-break and blossoming for premium varieties. The cool early September weather hasn't helped. However, climate change has meant later fall frosts in the Finger Lakes, giving the grapes, in many recent years, time to catch up. "Like much in life, a lot is luck," Goldman concludes.
Like many in the area, Tim Miller, winemaker at Chateau Lafayette Reneau (5081 NY-414 Hector) has gotten no break from home lawn mowing this August. "It's been a strange, wet season like last year--we never had a dry spell," he says. "The grapes aren't as sweet as we'd like and the acids are high. "If we can get some nice sun--the grapes are nice and clean--a few weeks of good weather will definitely turn the season around."
The advantage to the farm's site on the west side of Seneca Lake means the grapes needing the longest season can take their time ripening for a later harvest. "We won't get a good frost til mid-November," Miller says. "This year will definitely be a bit better than last year." And if things don't go as hoped-for with the weather, "We'll have to do some magic in the cellar," he says.
Steve Shaw, owner and winemaker at Shaw Vineyard (3901 NY-14, Dundee) is confident about ripening for a good harvest. While the timing of frost is not predictable, he notes he's planned as always to maximize the quality and harvest his crop on time by doing an earlier "green harvest" of unripe grapes to lower the yield of his crops to a target of two to four tons per acre.
"My point of view is controversial," he warns. "I think wine is made in the vineyard. It's all about vineyard management and the terroir of the site. If you have to wait a long time for ripening, the grapes will have to break down and my personal view is if you're trying to grow five to six tons per acre, you're going to have to cross your fingers and hope for a late frost."
Shaw says apart from the early part of the season when "we were a little short-changed in the spring and things didn't progress as normal, I'm pretty happy with the season so far. I'd call this year above-average growing conditions."
This conversation happened on an ideal, sunny, mid-September day, prompting him to add, "And days like this are perfect."