Florence Dumps More Rain on Damp Vintage

Eastern U.S. growers, vintners had to contend with 'conveyor of moisture' before storm

by Linda Jones McKee
Members of the harvest crew at Boordy Vineyards in Maryland needed their rain gear while picking Sauvignon Blanc recently in a particularly rainy vintage in the Eastern United States.

Hydes, Md.—“We’re looking forward to putting this year behind us!” exclaimed Phineas Deford, owner and manager of special projects at Boordy Vineyards in Hydes, Md., to Wines & Vines earlier this week.

Boordy’s two vineyards, Long Green Vineyard at the winery just north of Baltimore and South Mountain Vineyard located in the Blue Ridge mountains in western Maryland, have both been impacted this summer by the wet, cool weather that has affected vineyards from North Carolina to the Finger Lakes in New York.

As Hurricane Florence moves north and east the storm added varying amounts of precipitation to already saturated soils across the entire region.

Much of the news about Hurricane Florence has focused on the Carolinas and the tremendous amount of rain that has fallen there since the hurricane made landfall in Wrightsville, N.C. on Sept. 14. The good news from North Carolina is that most, if not all, the wineries there started harvest in mid-August and were finished picking before Florence arrived.

Harvest is not as far along in Virginia. Tony Wolf, professor of viticulture at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, reported that it had been a difficult year for growers, primarily because of the “conveyor belt of moisture” that has brought rain north through the state all season. “We’ve had more than 40 inches of rain in Winchester: 20 inches in May and June, and more than 20 inches since then. It’s hard to get things ripe under these conditions,” Wolf said.

Harvest across the state is a bit earlier than usual, and some growers are picking red grapes early to make rosé wines. Yields are slightly down and growers are fighting downy mildew to keep canopies clean. “We’ve had 10 days of gray weather,” Wolf said. “The weather forecasters call these conditions ‘veiled sunshine.’ We’re hoping things will dry out, but they’re predicting a chance of showers on the weekend.”

Jennifer McCloud, owner of Chrysalis Vineyards in Middleburg, Va., said: “It’s been a wet season — we’ve had to be super-diligent about spraying. We have a huge crop of Norton. It’s the most resistant to diseases but this year we even had to do some spraying on those vines. We’ve picked the whites and are crossing our fingers about the reds. But it’s only mid-September. I hope we’ll see some drier weather, but the forecast is for another four days of wet weather.”

Deford, at Boordy, said the winery saw steady rain on Sept. 17. A localized cell that night had lots of lightning, knocked out their network and dropped about 2 inches of rain. However, most of the white varieties at the Long Green Vineyard at the winery were picked early, as was the Cabernet Franc, which will be used in a rosé. “It’s the reds at South Mountain I’m worried about,” he said.

“The flavors (of the whites) are nice, with lower sugars, but not as much fruit,” he continued. He knew crop size would be low because it was a wet year. “We had 7 inches of rain during bloom, and that annihilated the crop. Last year we harvested 28 tons of Albarino; we got 7 tons this year. My Dad (Rob Deford) said this is the worst year in 25 years, worse than 2011. That year we had a good summer, leading up to (Hurricanes) Irene and Lee with over 30 inches in two weeks.”

“We learned our lesson from 2011,” Deford continued. “Now we manage our reds intentionally, and have enough red wines to carry us through, with enough inventory for our wine club and the tasting room. We’re prepared for events like Florence — we’ve got the right soils, the right slopes to handle rain.”

As Hurricane Florence has moved up the Appalachian Mountains, it has spread rain into West Virginia and some parts of Ohio. Todd Steiner, enology program manager at the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center, reported that Ohio has had quite a bit of rain during the late summer and that the southern and northwestern regions of the state have had above average rainfall. As a result, getting sprays in vineyards to control diseases and weeds has been an issue.

While Florence has brought rain to some areas in Ohio, it has not been as much as vineyard owners anticipated. “The chemistry looks good,” Steiner said. “Acids are coming down, sugars are getting to where they need to be. With cooler nights, ripeness is getting there for the reds. While rain may force some earlier picking, the vineyards in the south and northeast should have a respectable harvest.”

As Hans Walter-Peterson, viticulture extension educator with the Finger Lakes Grape Program of Cornell Cooperative Extension, wrote in the “Veraison to Harvest” update on Sept. 29, 2017, “The story of the growing season (in the East) is never really written until September is behind us.”

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