Challenging Growing Season in New York

Warming trend brings "intense" rainfalls, grape prices flat or lower after large 2017 harvest

by Linda Jones McKee
Comparative grape variety prices in the Finger Lakes for the 2017 and 2018 vintages. Courtesy of Cornell Cooperative Extension.

Geneva, N.Y.—Like much of the East Coast from North Carolina to New England, the Finger Lakes region in New York has had a wetter than normal growing season. While the Finger Lakes haven’t received the tremendous amounts of rainfall that hit North Carolina during and after Hurricane Florence, the area has had more rain than usual.

Hans Walter-Peterson, viticulture specialist with the Finger Lakes Grape Program at Cornell Cooperative Extension, told Wines & Vines that in addition to the increased rainfall in August, the humidity level during September has also been higher. “The numbers don’t tell the whole story,” he said, “because the amount (of rain and humidity) we’ve had and the timing has made things more difficult. We’re seeing more sour rot, more bunch rot than last year, especially in some places.”

Tim Martinson, senior extension associate at Cornell University’s department of horticulture, confirmed Walter-Peterson’s report, and added: “It’s been a pretty challenging season. The wet weather has brought warmer night temperatures with it, and the warm and humid nights are contributing factors for the pathogens taking off that cause fruit rot.”

Martinson noted that there has been a continuing warming trend in the Finger Lakes since about 1991. “One thing that stands out,” he said, “is that we seem to have more intense, heavy rainfalls; there’s a lot more moisture in the rain events.”

He pointed out that one storm in August poured 9 inches of rain onto vineyards on the east side of Seneca Lake, and a total of 3 inches on the northern and southern ends of that lake.

As far as yields are concerned, Martinson noted that “It looks like a lot of fruit in the vineyards, but it’s not as much as last year, when growers under-estimated the crop by about one-third. This year is more average.”

Because of the additional moisture, growers are harvesting grapes at somewhat lower Brix than they might like, Walter-Peterson said. “They’re picking earlier than usual; they’d rather pick clean fruit than wait until after it rains. There’s plenty of fruit that looks fine and can hang for a while. You can pick Riesling at 20° Brix with higher acids and have a nice wine. Riesling’s versatility is handy in a year like this,” he said.

Finger Lakes grape prices, 2018
The complete list of prices for 60 grape varieties grown in the Finger Lakes region for the 2018 harvest is available at flgp.cce.cornell.edu. New York wineries that purchase more than five tons of any grape variety are required to provide the prices they will pay for grapes to the New York Department of Agriculture and Markets. Some of the prices reported are those wineries that pay for their own grapes, while others are contracted prices between growers and wineries. The Finger Lakes Grape Program requests those price lists from wineries or processors and then compiles the data from those willing to share into a single listing.

Overall, most prices in the Finger Lakes this year are flat or slightly down from 2017. This is not a complete surprise, however, as many wineries had harvested a very large crop last year. As Walter-Peterson noted, many wineries “don’t have as pressing a need as sometimes for vinifera, and the prices have leveled off.”

For the wine grapes included in the price survey, prices went up on 14 varieties compared to last year’s 24. None of the 17 vinifera varieties included on the list rose in price where last year nine increased; 13 were flat and four dropped in price. Cabernet Franc, which had risen by 12% in 2016 and another 3% in 2017, this year fell by more than 2% to $1,573. Lemberger, Pinot Noir and Riesling also dropped by small amounts. Chardonnay, which rose 6.4% in 2016 and less than 1% in 2017, was close to the same price in 2017, as were Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.

Of the 33 hybrid varieties listed, nine rose in price, while 13 were flat and 11 dropped by more than 0.5% from last year. Baco Noir, which rose in price by 2% in 2017, went up again this year by another 2%, from $608 to $621, while Rougeon had the largest drop in price, from $553 per ton to $533, a fall of 3.6%. Valvin Muscat, the New York cold climate variety, had four years of rising prices: it had been up 5% in 2014, 11% in 2015, 1% in 2016, and another 11% in 2017. This year the variety dropped by 3.5%, from a high of $950 last year to $917 in 2018.

For the second year in a row, Cayuga White had 12 of the 13 wineries reporting a price. In 2017 it rose slightly, from $572 to $577, and this year it had a similar increase of 0.7% to $581. Marquette, a Minnesota cold climate variety, had only two wineries reporting, one of whom paid $900 per ton and the other $650, As a result, the average cost per ton of Marquette dropped 3.1%, from $800 to $775.

Five of the eight native American varieties increased in price, one was flat, and two were lower. Concord and Niagara, which had both been lower in 2017, this year rose. Concord went from $285 to $291, an increase of 2% and Niagara rose 3.4%, from $327 last year to $338 this year, which was the largest increase for native varieties with more than two wineries reporting their prices.

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