Short Wine Grape Crop in the East

Cold winter, late spring and cool summer lead to smaller yields in several states

by Linda Jones McKee
Bins of Vidal are harvested Oct. 8 at Indian Springs Vineyard in Shenandoah County, Va. Source: Natural Sole Photography
Lancaster, Pa.—No question about it: Last winter’s extremely cold temperatures and the late arrival of spring have had a major impact on the quantity and quality of the wine grape harvest across the East, from Michigan to Pennsylvania. That said, as always, the specific details depend on location, cultivars planted and past practices by growers.

The “polar vortex” of the 2013-14 winter had a big impact on vineyards in Ohio. Northeastern Ohio, home to many of the larger plantings of vinifera grapes in the state, saw multiple freeze-thaw events prior to the temperatures dropping well below zero. Nicholas Ferrante, winemaker at Ferrante Winery and Ristorante in Geneva, Ohio, told Wines & Vines last spring that he anticipated a 100% loss of his vinifera grape crop.

Recently, he confirmed that his earlier assessment had proved to be accurate. “The temperature went to -20°F at our vineyard, and that killed all of the fruiting buds on the vinifera,” Ferrante reported. “Our younger vines survived better than the older ones, where 40% to 50% are dead. We’ve pulled out a lot of Riesling, mostly because the wood didn’t harden off before it got so cold.” He plans to replant 7 acres of Riesling next spring.

“It’s been a tough vintage,” Ferrante commented. “Our summer was wet and cool, although the past three weeks have been above average in temperatures.” Yields are down dramatically, even in French hybrid grapes. For example, Ferrante normally harvests about 200 tons of Vidal; this fall he got 7 tons from 10 acres of Vidal.

Ferrante’s experience is not unique in Ohio. According to Imed Dami, associate professor of viticulture at The Ohio State University, the entire state saw close to 100% bud damage on vinifera grapes. In southern areas, where growers typically do not hill up around the vines before winter arrives, vines died to the ground. Even in northern parts of the state, where some growers do hill up, vines still had major damage. Dami noted, “The day before the polar vortex, the temperature was in the 50ºs (F), with no snow, and then dropped to -12°, -15° overnight. In many places, there’s no crop; it’s a question of the number of dead vines.”

Dami reported that there has been more crop loss in French hybrid grapes such as Vidal and Chambourcin than had been anticipated. He attributes that to two factors: first, the successive cold events from early January to the first week in March; and second, the recognition that growers have not been thinning hybrid grapes in previous growing seasons and, consequently, varieties such as Vidal, Seyval and Cayuga have been overcropped.

On the other hand, Dami noted that at least Ohio did not have any spring frosts, and that September has been a good month, with drier than normal conditions and warmer temperatures. Harvest has been quick this year, as it didn’t start until after Labor Day and only the later varieties such as Chambourcin and Frontenac remain to be picked.

It was a difficult, cold winter in Michigan as well. Paolo Sabbatini, associate professor of horticulture at Michigan State University, told Wines & Vines, “There’s not a lot of fruit on the vines. There’s about a 50% loss, although that depends on the variety and on location. The southwestern part of Michigan was hit harder than the northwest, where they had more snow.” The very low temperatures also caused Lake Michigan to freeze, an unusual event that also had an impact on vineyards across the state.

Michigan had a late spring followed by a cool, wet summer, and the result of all these weather-related events has been a reduction in the quality of the fruit as well as the quantity. The hybrid varieties did better than the vinifera grapes, but even some of the hybrids, such as Chardonnel and Traminette, suffered almost as much damage as the vinifera. The cool temperatures and wet weather also increased disease and insect pressure for some growers.

Harvest is not yet finished in Michigan, with growers in the southwest region of the state just beginning to pick the hybrid varietals. Low Brix numbers in vineyards in the northwestern areas of Leelanau and Grand Traverse counties are a problem. Sabbatini reported that Riesling in the southwest was at 19°-20° Brix, and Cabernet Franc at 20° Brix; in the northwest, Riesling and Cabernet Franc are both only at 16°-17° Brix. Growers are still hoping they will see more warm days to raise those numbers.

According to Tony Wolf, professor of viticulture at Virginia Tech in Winchester, Va., the report on this year’s grape harvest in Virginia varies, depending on the vineyard’s location. Overall, yields are somewhat depressed because of winter injury, spring frosts and poor fruit set, but on the other hand, the pressure from birds and predatory animals has been lower than during the harvest in 2013.

While 2014 has been a cooler than average season in Virginia, Wolf reports good levels of sugar in the grapes after a warm and dry September. He was concerned, however, that mid-October weather forecasts are for some rain, which could aggravate the harvest of later varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Menseng. Higher acidity levels in some of these later varietals may reflect the cooler growing season, according to Wolf, and the problem with waiting for those acidity levels to go down is, “We’re running out of sunlight and temperature” to do that.

Looking ahead, Wolf thinks that some of the damage from last winter’s cold temperatures may not show up until next year. “We’re seeing some crown gall developing in places,” Wolf said. “We may have more damage from 2013-14, as it takes another winter to bring out damage such as trunk splitting.”

Harvest in Virginia will probably finish late next week.

For many growers in southeastern Pennsylvania, the 2014 growing season has been a good one with beautiful, dry weather, especially later in the summer. Elaine Pivinski, owner of Franklin Hill Vineyards in Bangor, Pa., told Wines & Vines that there has been no disease pressure; the grapes are perfect, and the yields are good. “We had no damage from the cold temperatures last winter,” Pivinski stated. “And none of our fruit has come in under 22° Brix. The numbers are good at other local vineyards as well. It’s a nice year.”

In northwestern Pennsylvania, the vintage is more similar to the experience in Ohio than in the southeastern part of the state. According to Mario Mazza, general manager of Mazza Vineyards in North East, Pa., the best word to describe the 2014 harvest is “variable.” “It’s been a challenging year,” he commented. “Some sites have lots of damage, but we’ve also had good quality fruit coming in. Some vineyards are variable—some vines are okay, others are not. It’s very erratic and has been very hard to estimate the crop.”

The cold temperatures hit some vineyards in Erie County hard, and many vines will have to be pulled out and replanted. “Long-time growers have been through this before,” Mazza noted, “and they can weather it.” Newer growers without that experience were more of a concern, but Mazza thinks most are now planning to replant and go forward.

Yields this year are somewhat lighter than last year and vary according to the individual vineyard. Some acid levels were initially very high; however, warm sunny weather in September has moved the grapes to a better level of maturity. “Deacidification will be necessary, and we’ll have to think through our winemaking decisions, but overall, we have an optimistic outlook.” He concluded, “We just hope this winter is kinder to us!”

Currently no comments posted for this article.