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January 2008 Issue of Wines & Vines
 
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Georgia's Perfect Storm

How growers sometimes succeeded against 2007's cold, heat and drought

 
by Gregory D. McCluney
 
 
Georgia's Perfect Storm
The damage to Blackstock's steeply sloped vineyards was 100% kill of green tissue. The advective freeze did not spare hillsides or hilltops. Wind machines were rendered useless.
 
    HIGHLIGHTS
     

     
  • Problems began with a hard freeze in April after unusually high temperatures brought initial bud break for many growers. Then temperatures soared again into triple digits, and a severe drought settled in.
     
  • While many growers found their frost prevention measures fruitless, Persimmon Creek Vineyards credits a new wind machine.
     
  • Georgia growers contacted for this story agreed, at least to some extent, that the wild growing season was an example of climate change.
In one of the most bizarre years in Georgia's vinifera-growing history, 2007 left some growers in a near state of panic to find fruit, while others looked forward to a great drought-induced vintage of excellent, concentrated wines.

This mixed bag resulted from a perfect storm, beginning with a hard freeze in April after unusually high temperatures brought initial bud break for many growers. Next, temperatures soared again into triple digits, and finally a 100-year drought settled in. According to David Harris, owner and winemaker at Blackstock Vineyards near Cleveland, "We'll run out of water before we run out of wine."

Meanwhile, others are looking forward to a somewhat lower yield, but a successful and promising vintage. And some are ordering bulk wine from as far away as California, just so they can have wine to sell in their tasting rooms.

Georgia's Perfect Storm
This mixed bag results from several factors including location, altitude, position to the sun, Georgia microclimates and, of course, vineyard management and techniques. Some are within human control; others are certainly not, as in any farming operation.

Blackstock Vineyards

David Harris of Blackstock believes global warming is real and already affecting his vineyard. The winter of 2006-2007 was one of the mildest on record, but similar to several others in the last 20 years.

"We experienced very early bud break in our vineyard near Cleveland, Ga.," Harris said. "Our area has supported vinifera plantings of nearly 30 years, particularly at Mossy Creek vineyard. Usually, Chardonnay would be in bud break in the first week of April. In recent years, by that date, most vineyards were at 85% bud break," he said.

Then on Easter weekend, Georgia experienced an advective--cloudy, windy and sudden--freeze, which was especially tough on the early-budding vines.

"The vines went through a long revival, with some species not rebounding for weeks," Harris said. "Then a heatwave hit, which brought harvest dates back on track. The net was the shortest hang time our fruit has ever spent on the vine."

The freeze was considered a 50-year anomaly, with winds blowing 20 to 30 miles per hour all night. Sustained temperatures of 21ºF were recorded in the vineyard. Harris has two wind machines and 250 orchard heaters, but on Easter day under these conditions, 85% of the buds looked like the dead of winter.

Harris brought in a helicopter to push heat down into the vineyard. "We burned hay bales, brush piles, wood piles and all our heaters to no avail," Harris said. "Our losses were high. Merlot came in at around 30%. We expected 30 tons of Chardonnay; we got 2.3, and about the same for our Touriga and Sangiovese."

Georgia's Perfect Storm
Steep terrain, 1,800-foot elevation and extra-tall trellising at Wolf Mountain Vineyards served to protect most of its crop.
 
Wolf Mountain Vineyards

According to Karl Boegner, owner and winemaker at Wolf Mountain Vineyards near Dahlonega, his steep, hilly terrain at 1,800 feet elevation protected his vines from the brunt of the frost damage.

"I think the worst of the cold slid past us," Boegner said. "We had some white grape damage, but the reds are a wonderful thing, thanks to long hang times." Wolf reported high sugars of 23º to 24º Brix during an early October harvest. "Our high trellising was designed for both humidity and frost protection," Boegner said. "And it worked well last spring. We see no problems next year at all."

Habersham Winery

Habersham near Helen, Ga., was one of the hardest hit by the Easter freeze. Steve Gibson, general manager, reported a harvest of slightly over 31 tons from two vineyards, almost all of which were French-American varieties, as compared to 117 tons from the same vineyards last year.

"We used wind machines, vineyard heaters, frost dragons and irrigation, none of which were successful," Gibson said. "I think we spent over $10,000 in diesel fuel alone, not to mention labor costs. I'm just not sure there is anything you can do for this type of extended period of cold."

For the first time in 20 years, Gibson has brought in over 9,000 gallons of Viognier, Riesling and Chardonnay from California.

"I believe the grapes harvested were probably better than usual. Drought is not, even in the extreme, a major problem--often a blessing," Gibson said. The good news is that there seems to be no carryover damage for 2008 in the vineyard, barring of course a similar freeze after bud break next spring.

Georgia's Perfect Storm
Tiger Mountain's outstanding M albec harvest proved that even a killer freeze can have a silver lining: John Ezzard says this crop will match his outstanding 1999 vintage in ripeness and sugar content.
Tiger Mountain Vineyards

Located in extreme northeast Georgia near Clayton, Tiger Mountain used a combination of vineyard practices to combat April temperatures of 19ºF, something that's never happened in 12 years of grapegrowing.

"We know how to ward off frost," said Dr. John Ezzard, winegrower and one of the winemakers at Tiger Mountain, a family operation of the Ezzard and Stack families, with a total of 15 acres in vines. "But a deep freeze is another thing. We used smudge pots and a propane frost dragon working all night--but it was impossible. Fortunately, not all of our nine varieties were budded out at that time. But we suffered a 60% loss of Viognier, and a 10% loss of Petit Manseng."

The 2007 drought, however, proved to have a silver lining. "The quality of our grapes in ripeness and sugar content this year is a match for our 1999 vintages, which were the best we've ever produced," Ezzard said. "I feel our Malbec and Tannat will be outstanding. And our Cabernet Franc looks good; our sugar levels in the Petit Manseng were high; and our Viognier, although short on quantity, is of excellent quality."

Further, Ezzard sees no ongoing problems for the 2008 crop, and not much to change in the future. "We've had little disease this growing season; no mildews, mostly due to the dry conditions," he said. "This is the only such freeze the vineyard has seen in Rabun County in 100 years. Even windmills won't protect you from a hard freeze," Ezzard said. "It doesn't do much good to stir air that cold."

Georgia's Perfect Storm
Persimmon Vineyards relied heavily on its new, $25,000 wind machine similar to this one, shown near supplier Orchard Rite's base in Yakima, Wash., and plans to add another.
Persimmon Creek Vineyards

Mary Ann and Dr. Sonny Hardman's Persimmon Creek Vineyards, near Clayton, was one of the least affected by the deep Georgia freeze, partly due to a new wind machine Hardman recently installed, plus four all-night vigils in the fields.

"Prior to Apr. 4, it had been very warm, with highs in the 70s to low 80s Farenheit," Hardman said. "We had already experienced early and focal bud break. On Apr. 4, we had 25 mile-per-hour winds, and by midnight, the temperature had dropped to 32ºF. I ran the wind machine for two hours at 5 a.m. The next night, I lit the heaters in the Riesling vineyards, and about half of the other heaters by 11:30 p.m., and the temperature had already dropped to 32ºF. I ran the wind machine until 7 a.m. At about 5 a.m., it was down to 26ºF, but with no frost because of overcast conditions."

Little did Hardman know what was to come, including wind, snow and a hard freeze.

"The temperature was 33ºF at 11:30 p.m. on Apr. 6, and it was very windy," he said. "Thirty minutes later, it had dropped to 30ºF. It was snowing, beginning at 10 p.m. for several hours. At 4:30 a.m., I cut the wind machine on. The temp was 27ºF.

There was no frost formation. On Apr. 7, it was down to 38ºF at 5 p.m. with quite a bit of wind. We started the wind machine at 10 p.m. and began lighting the heaters. At 6 a.m. it was 18ºF. We cut off the wind machine at 9 a.m. On Apr. 8 and 9, we again ran the wind machine as temps got down to 27ºF, usually for eight hours each night."

Hardman stressed the importance of constant monitoring of the microclimates around his vineyards. "Decisions had to be made very quickly," he said. "When to start the wind machine and the order in which the heaters were to be lit, and this varied each night. But the results were worth it, as we suffered little, if any, cold or frost damage."

Hardman's wind machine is a model 1500 by Orchard Rite in Yakima, Wash. At about $25,000, it includes a 350-horsepower Chevy engine and auto ignition. It runs on liquid propane, and uses 11 to 12 gallons per hour. Hardman notes that not only does it blow air through the vineyard, but it pushes the inversion layer (warmer air) down on the vines, a very critical part of the frost/freeze protection program. Each machine can cover about 14 acres, depending on the terrain. Hardman's vineyard is quite hilly, and he has added some new vines. For these reasons, he will install a second wind machine at the opposite end of his vineyard this year. He believes this will also allow him to use fewer heaters.

Pushed by his 14-year-old son Mitchell, Hardman has switched to biodiesel for all farm equipment and heaters. He admits it costs a bit more (and is harder to find), but it also lights quicker, burns more efficiently and burns longer than standard diesel fuel.

All the Georgia growers seem to agree on the fact of climate change, at least to a degree. The long-term effects of this change are open to discussion and argument. Some weather events can be planned for; others, like the 2007 Easter deep freeze, can leave a grower with a difficult scenario and at least some fruit losses--especially when 80°F days had the buds popping just a few days before.

Gregory McCluney is a contributing editor to The Wine Report in Atlanta, and also writes about wine and spirits for AirTran Arrival in-flight magazine and the James Beard Newsletter. He is a member of the International Food, Wine & Travel Writers Association. Contact him through edit@winesandvines.com.
 
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