11.03.2016  
 

Wineries Finish Harvest in the East

Successful seasons draw to a close in Pennsylvania, Virginia and Michigan

 
by Linda Jones McKee
 
wine grape vineyard early mountain virginia harvest
 
In spite of two spring frosts, it was a warmer than average growing season at Early Mountain Vineyards in Madison, Va.
Lancaster, Pa.—This year’s growing season across the East has had two common threads: relief that winter temperatures were not nearly as cold as in 2013-14 and 2014-15, and the recognition that summer was much warmer than usual. These themes were apparent in mid-Atlantic states such as Pennsylvania, as well as in Virginia, a bit farther south, and in northern states such as Michigan. While yields may not be at record levels, they are quite good, and the quality of the grapes is above average. In some areas, quality levels may be very good indeed.

Pennsylvania

Dr. Michela Centinari, assistant professor of viticulture at the Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences, told Wines & Vines, “Finally, we had a mild, an OK, winter. There were no problems with cold temperatures, except briefly in northeastern Pennsylvania in mid-February. And that didn’t have lasting damage, so growers were happy.”

Pennsylvania basically has three different grapegrowing regions: the Lake Erie grape belt in the northwest, the central “mountains” region that stretches across the state from southwest to northeast, and the southeast region from Gettysburg to Allentown down to the counties around Philadelphia. While the entire state had a warm March, temperatures were higher in the Southeast, and when colder nights arrived in April, there was concern that buds were swelling on some early grapes. But unlike southern Virginia and North Carolina, the first leaves were not out when frost hit the first week in April, and there was little (if any) damage.

As in nearby states, summer temperatures were very warm across the state, both during the day and at night. The northwest, central and northeast regions were quite dry in May, June and July, but those areas didn’t have the drought conditions that existed in the Finger Lakes region in New York. The northwest, according to Centinari, was down between 1 and 2 inches of rain through each of those dry months, but precipitation started in mid-August and continued at intervals into September.

The dry conditions reduced vegetative growth on the vines but also lowered disease pressure. In the Lake Erie region, Concord vines responded with the smaller, but very sweet grapes, with between 17° and 19° Brix at harvest, a sweetness level rarely achieved in native grapes.

The Southeast had hotter temperatures, more rain and higher humidity, with more vegetative growth as a result. As in other areas, Centinari noted, “The vines responded to the hot conditions, especially at night. Acids dropped quickly, and sugars rose slowly. There was some concern in the Southeast that the sugars were low in Merlot and other red varieties.” However, as September cooled down, especially at night, the grapes responded, and both quality and quantity should be good, especially in the red varieties.

Virginia

According to Dr. Tony Wolf, professor of viticulture at Virginia Tech, the 2015-16 winter was “pretty benign” and was followed by a warmer than average March. When frosts hit in early April, many of the early varieties such as Chardonnay and Viognier had leafed out, especially in vineyards south of Charlottesville, and those vines were hit hard by the frosts.

Ben Jordan, winemaker at Early Mountain Vineyards in Madison, Va., told Wines & Vines that the two spring frosts in his location north of Charlottesville dropped temperatures well below freezing. “The lowest temperature at one spot in our vineyard was 17° F. The vines were just pushing, and we lost some crop. What I did notice was differential ripening during harvest. We made lots of passes through the vineyard, did lots of sorting. It was a very labor-intensive harvest.”

Wet weather in late May and June was followed by dry conditions from July through the third week in September. “It was a warmer-than-average growing season,” Wolf stated, “and harvest was a week to two weeks early. Growers around Charlottesville were pleased with the quality, although the quantity was down a bit—there might be 20% or less of a reduction from the two frosts in April. Many of their grapes came in before the wet weather in late September.”

In northern Virginia around Winchester, harvest was halted in late September, when the region got 4 to 6 inches of rain in four days. The quality of later varieties deteriorated to a degree after that rain. Southeastern Virginia got hit by some of the wet weather from Hurricane Matthew on Oct. 8 to 10. While much of the crop was off the vines, grapes left hanging “probably were not in very good shape,” Wolf said.

Wolf also noted that the warm weather had led to “an uptick in ripe rots, but problems with mildews were not bad.” He noted that some areas had more Japanese beetles than normal, but that spotted wing drosophila were not a huge problem: “They seem to be very specific to given areas and varieties, such as Petite Verdot and some Pinot Noir.”

Jordan commented that with the weather being dry at the end of August and for most of September, Early Mountain got good ripening for their red grapes. “It seemed like the most even harvest; we didn’t have the ‘panic picks’ because of rain. I think you always wish for another week or two before picking the reds, but we had pretty good quality.”

Michigan

“The season in 2016 was very warm and very long,” Dr. Paolo Sabbatini, associate professor of horticulture at Michigan State University, told Wines & Vines. “After two years of almost no fruit, the vines came back this year with a big crop.” After a milder winter than the previous two, there were no spring frosts. Summer temperatures were quite warm, and both southwestern and northwestern Michigan had more than 10% higher growing degree days than normal.

Sabbatini noted that summer was “a little bit wet, especially around véraison,” which led to some problems with fungal diseases and later in the season to some sour rot. Growers who managed their vines well during the summer didn’t have as many issues with disease. He also said, “People were concerned about SWD (spotted wing drosophila). We grow a lot of blueberries in Michigan, and now we’re seeing SWD in vineyards as well.”

Growers in Michigan are still learning from the extremely cold winters of 2013-2014 and 2014-2015. “Many of the vines came back,” Sabbatini stated. “The problems I saw were more related to how growers managed their vines. If they used a lot of bull canes to bring the vines back, the trunks had a lot of crown gall, and we saw a lot of vine collapse during véraison.”

As in other regions around the East, the warm summer season in Michigan resulted in grapes with somewhat lower sugar levels and good acid readings. Overall, 2016 was a good season with good yields and good quality fruit.

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