Harvest from New York to Minnesota

Wine grape growers report good quality and average yields

by Linda Jones McKee
wine grape vineyard east midwest harvest
Harvest finished up the first week of October at Alexis Bailly Vineyard in Hastings, Minn.
Lancaster, Pa.—Winegrowing regions across the East encompass a wide array of climatic conditions from hot and dry to cold and damp. For once, the weather gods cut most grapegrowers in the East something of a break for the 2016 growing season. Most important, temperatures for the 2015-16 winter were milder than the previous two winters, so growers didn’t start the growing season worrying about major freeze events.

In dry or drought-stricken areas, the berry size was smaller than normal, but the disease pressure was less. When it did rain, growers adhering to spray schedules did fine, while others had some bunch rot and/or downy mildew. Spotted wing drosophila (SWD) an increasing problem as far north as Minnesota.

It was a warm summer in Minnesota, but even so, it was not without problems for grapegrowers. Nan Bailly, owner of Alexis Bailly Vineyard in Hastings, Minn., told Wines & Vines that her vineyard didn’t go a week all summer without at least 1 inch of rain. “We’re on sandy loam soil, so the vineyard can take a lot of rain,” she noted. “I thought we had a beautiful crop, the best in 15 years. But then we had 6 inches of rain during harvest of our French hybrids. I can’t remember when we’ve had rain this late in the season. The rain knocked back the crop by about 25%, and the fruit deteriorated to the point where we’re making Port this year, not red wine, from the hybrids.”

In past years, the multi-colored Asian lady beetle (MALB) has been a big problem for Bailly’s vineyard, but she now tries to pick her grapes before the soybeans are harvested from nearby fields. As a consequence, this year the MALB was not as much of an issue. Instead SWD, a fruit fly, has become a nemesis in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan. Bailly is pulling out all the farm’s raspberry bushes, as they attract SWD when her grapes are starting to ripen. She also is trying to keep the canopies open and cluster thin to loosen up the clusters, especially for tight-cluster grapes such as Léon Millot and Maréchal Foch.

Bailly finished harvest the first week in October and is already looking toward next season. “It’s been a nice extended fall, and we haven’t had frost so far,” she said. The good weather has allowed her to begin pruning and laying down the vines so they can be covered before the arrival of cold winter weather. Explaining why she opts to drop off the wire and cover her vines, Bailly said, “We have 5 acres of French hybrids, and I like the grapes. So we do it.”

New York
The major growing regions of New York—the Finger Lakes, Lake Erie, Hudson Valley and Champlain Valley, and Long Island—often have very disparate growing seasons, but this year all areas had some common factors. As in other parts of the East, winter temperatures were much milder this year than the past two winters, and early spring was quite cool. During the summer, however, the entire state was warm and dry, and some regions experienced drought conditions.

According to Tim Martinson, senior extension associate at Cornell University, the dry conditions started early this year—at the beginning of June instead of mid-July, as has been more typical of dry years. The drought was most severe in the Finger Lakes region and in parts of Erie and Niagara counties. As a consequence of the dry conditions, berry size was reduced, sugar development was somewhat low, and yields for wine varieties in the Finger Lakes were down by 10% to 30%. Martinson also noted that in vineyards, especially older ones that were planted on deep soils, the grapes “suffered less” from the drought and responded by developing smaller canopies.

Hans Walter-Peterson, viticulture extension educator with the Finger Lakes Grape Program, reported in the Véraison to Harvest newsletter that “winemakers continue to say how pleased they are with the quality of this year’s crop.” The Finger Lakes is probably going to have had one of the warmest growing seasons on record, but maybe not quite as warm as 2010, the warmest year ever according to Walter-Peterson.

The Concord crop in both the Finger Lakes and the Lake Erie grape belt was affected by the dry conditions, with berry size below average. The good side to smaller berry size was an increase in sugar levels. Martinson reported 18° Brix in Concords in the Finger Lakes, a number he called “unheard of for Concords, that’s lots of sugar.” He then quoted Luke Haggerty, viticulture extension specialist with the Lake Erie Regional Grape Program, who said, “Heavy and sweet grapes result in smiling growers!”

Long Island also had a cool spring followed by a hot, dry summer that led to smaller berries and modest sugar development. Alice Wise, senior viticulture research and extension associate with Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County, N.Y., noted that while Long Island vineyards avoided a direct hit from Hurricane Matthew, the remnants of the storm moved slowly through the region Oct. 8-9, and between 1.5 and 1.8 inches of rain fell in 24 hours. While most of the white grapes had been harvested, red grapes were still hanging. Warm, sunny weather after the storm helped dry out the grapes, and concern about botrytis never materialized.

David Scurlock, viticulture outreach specialist at Ohio State University’s Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center, told Wines & Vines, “Both quality and yields look good.” Todd Steiner, enology program manager and outreach specialist, also at OARDC, added, “Some wineries are saying it’s one of the best vintages they’ve seen in a while. We got a decent crop in vinifera especially—and hybrids, too.”

Tony Debevc, owner of Chalet Debonne in Madison, Ohio, confirmed these statements and said, “What a difference a year makes. We had a balanced crop and excellent quality. The pH was a little higher in the whites, but the sugars were good, and the vinifera were in really nice shape. I think these are some of the best reds we’ve ever had in 45 years.”

After two extremely cold years, vineyards across the state experienced milder winter temperatures, and there was only minor damage in a few areas from spring frosts. Steiner noted that disease pressure was lower this year, partly because the summer was so hot and dry. “I did observe that evenings were also warm,” he said. “That shut down the vines a bit, so we saw lower sugars. September had cooler nights, and that helped with getting the sugars up before harvest. The acids were low, too, which is nice for cool-climate reds.” Steiner and Scurlock were both pleased with the overall quality and flavor profiles of the grapes this harvest.

In an otherwise positive report, Scurlock mentioned that he had seen some grape berry moths this summer, and possibly more concerning, some spotted wing drosophila.

Steiner said it was good to get the volume of wine available back up at Ohio wineries. “Yields in 2013 were high, and that helped with the low yields in 2014. But by this year, wineries were getting low. Now we just have to cross our fingers about this next winter.”

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