Words from the Vineyards

Apr 19, 2016

It’s spring here in the Finger Lakes. We’ve had a handful of bright sunny days and I am contemplating removing the snow brush from my vehicle and packing my collection of winter boots away until fall. Since it is Upstate New York, however, I did just rattle my knuckles on my wooden desk out of superstition. I would not want to jinx it; we’re not out of the woods yet. With the increase in UV rays streaming through, daffodils and tulips now add a touch of color to flower beds and the grass begins to transition back to the luscious green that promises us summer is on its way. As always, with spring comes the question, “how’re the grapes”?

In his most recent Glenora Gazette, Gene Pierce, owner of Knapp Winery, stated “this is the most intense time period of the year in the vineyards”. A long list of extremely time-sensitive projects must be completed in a very short period of time, which are all weather dependent. About a month before spring, vines must be pruned in order to maximize the production potential of each plant. In the pruning process, depending on how vigorous the vines are, old growth is cut back to encourage new growth that should produce more fruit. Pruning must be completed early so that the vines can be tied to the trellis before buds begin to grow, otherwise you risk knocking them off in the tying process. Less buds means less grapes and less grapes mean less wine. Once that is complete, the vineyards must be sprayed before weeds begin to grow. Harvest is tiresome work, but many more sleepless nights occur during the spring time as vineyard specialists hope Mother Nature is kind in their race against the clock.

As one can imagine, all the pruning, tying and spraying is best to occur after the extreme cold and before very warm temperatures. In every vineyard manager’s dream world, once the warm temperatures began, they would remain warm throughout the end of fall. Those of us who know upstate New York weather; know that anything is possible, including blizzards in May. All spring long, industry conversations revolve around the condition of the vines after the cold season. I called on an expert, Vineyard Manager Chris King of Knapp Winery and various others throughout the Finger Lakes, to get an accurate update on this year’s crop.

Most grapevines can survive a really cold winter, but struggle with severe drops in temperature. This past February, on what is now being coined “the Valentine’s Day massacre” by some, temperatures dipped to as low as -18 degrees overnight across Seneca and Cayuga lakes, causing some unwelcome damage. The shock to the vines resulted in approximately 60% bud loss for Knapp’s Riesling and Cabernet Franc. In a normal year, loss averages about 20%. With anything near 50%, adjustments must be made to how many buds are pruned away in the Spring. Needless to say, Chris and his team did not prune as much from their Riesling and Cabernet Franc vines as they have in years prior. On a mature plant, 60 buds is ideal going into the warmer weather.

In instances like this, when a cold snap affected the dormant vines, pruning is extremely important. We have seen some very low temperatures this Spring, but most vineyards were pruned in time, so most were protected from bud loss. I say most, because every winery is different, every vineyard is different, and every hill, slope or valley within a vineyard can be different. At Knapp, west winds are typically cold having come across land, but east winds are warmer having picked up warm air while traveling across Cayuga Lake. For vineyards on the east side of the lake, such as Long Point and Treleaven, they are subject to colder east winds and warmer west winds. For this, some wineries use fans or even helicopters to circulate warm air throughout their vineyards. It’s an expensive tactic which only generates about a 4 or 5 degree difference in vineyard temperature. In cases when the thermometer reads -18, even a 5 degree adjustment is not worth the investment.

What makes the Finger Lakes such an idea grape growing region are the unique weather pockets that are created by the lakes and their hillsides. Some vineyards experienced higher-than-normal bud loss and others did not experience anything more than the normal 20%. Chardonnay seems to have been affected the most, but King assures me that the damage across the region was not great enough to affect retail price or supply of the wine from this vintage.

In short, we had a rough patch in February here on the Cayuga Lake Wine Trail, but with excellent vineyard management practices, we’ve once again survived the cold season with new buds to prove it!

Cassandra Harrington is the executive director of the Cayuga Lake Wine Trail. To learn more, visit cayugawinetrail.com.