Bitter Cold Hits Eastern Vineyards

'Siberian Express' brings winds and low temperatures to the East and Midwest

by Linda Jones McKee
Mike Williams, owner and winemaker of the Winery at Versailles (above) in Versailles, Ohio, said temperatures in the past three weeks “ratcheted down and stayed down.”
Lancaster, Pa.—New England has been buried in snow this winter, but until February arrived, other regions in the East and Midwest had had a somewhat “normal” season. In general, vineyards didn’t experience variations in temperature as the vines hardened after harvest. Growers in some areas took a lesson from the previous year and did a better job of preparing for cold weather by hilling up around vines.

According to Nick Ferrante, winemaker at Ferrante Wine in Geneva, Ohio, it has been even colder this February than last. “While it’s been really cold—it was between -21° and -23° on Monday night (Feb. 16)—we have a lot of snow, 1.5 to 2 feet, and we hilled up the vines last fall, with as much as a foot of dirt on some.” Last night the temperature wasn’t quite as cold, registering about -12° to -15° F. He told Wines & Vines, “It’s been colder in Ohio than in Siberia. We just hope to have less damage than we did last year.”

Mike Williams, owner and winemaker of the Winery at Versailles, in Versailles, Ohio, reported that until early February, the winter in western Ohio had been relatively mild. But “the last two to three weeks have been brutally cold and windy,” he said. “The temperatures ratcheted down and stayed down.” The low temperature this morning (Feb. 20) was -6° F.

The Finger Lakes region of New York has not been as cold this winter as it was last year. Hans Walter-Peterson, viticultural extension specialist with the Finger Lakes Grape Program at Cornell University, commented that while temperatures have been below normal, the lows of -15° to -20° from 2014 have not been repeated. “And this year, we have 2 to 3 feet of snow around the vines, so the trunks are insulated. It’s been too cold and windy to prune, and we don’t know a whole lot yet about the amount of damage. But I’m more optimistic than I was last year.” He added, “Growers think that if we come through this winter in decent shape, there will be a market for New York grapes in other regions in the East.”

This morning the low temperature in Geneva, N.Y., was -2°, while in Watkins Glen at the southern end of Seneca Lake the temperature reached -7° F. Of greater concern was a temperature of -24° reported at the Lake Erie Research Station in Fredonia, N.Y., earlier this week. “That’s a Concord-killing temperature,” Walter-Peterson stated.

Virginia and farther afield
Overall, the 2014-2015 winter has been milder in Virginia than the previous year. Tony Wolf, viticulture extension specialist at Virginia Tech in Winchester, Va., commented in his Feb. 17 Viticulture Notes supplement “that our common vinifera varieties that went into the 2014-15 winter in reasonably good physiological condition will not sustain appreciable trunk or bud injury late this week if temperatures remain above 0° F toward southern Virginia and above about -3° F in northern Virginia.”

Wolf stated, “Temperatures over the past week have been much lower than normal, with repeated dips into single-digit temperatures and daytime highs hardly rising above freezing—particularly in northern Virginia. While these temperatures have been much lower than normal for mid-February, they have provided a positive, reinforcing maintenance of the vines’ midwinter cold hardiness levels. We want low, but non-damaging, temperatures at this time of year, and daily lows in the 5° to 15° F range are ideal for well-managed varieties that are reasonably well adapted to Virginia’s winters: the Cabernets, Chardonnay, Petit Verdot and Viognier, for example.” The temperature in Charlottesville at 6 a.m. today was 0° F.

The 2013-14 winter cold temperatures in Iowa reduced the grape crop by 30% to 40%, and quite a few vines died to the ground, according to Mike White, extension viticulture specialist at Iowa State University. White reported to Wines & Vines, “This winter has been very easy on the vines. November temps averaged approximately 8° F below normal, allowing our vines to acclimate well before going into December/January. December temperatures were approximately 5° F above normal. January ended up being our 51st warmest month in the past 143 years of records. Our January coldest temperature was -25° F in northwest Iowa.…We did have a warm up in the past 2 weeks of January, but I don’t think it was warm enough long enough to de-acclimate our vines.”

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