2013 Wine Vintage: Central United States

Colorado, New Mexico and Texas face short crops; other states 'normal'

by Jane Firstenfeld
Whitewater Hill Vineyards & Winery
Steady warm days have been welcome in Colorado, where a January cold snap damaged dormant vines. Photo source: Whitewater Hill Vineyards & Winery
San Rafael, Calif.—While most West Coast winegrowing regions bask in what looks to be another boom year, vineyard conditions east of the Rockies have been neither uniform nor uniformly favorable during the 2013 growing season.

Colorado: Cooler than ever
It’s no surprise that much of Colorado is considered a “cool climate” for viticulture, but the winter of 2013 left many vineyards in the Grand Valley, the state’s most productive region, with a potential crop loss of 30%-50%.

“Time will tell,” said Horst Caspari, viticulturist at Colorado State University’s Western Colorado Research Center. “If you’re dead in the winter, spring weather won’t make any difference,” he told Wines & Vines. After a month when temperatures never got above freezing, the mercury dropped to 0°F on Jan. 15, when most of the damage was done to dormant vines in the Grand Valley.

Hard freezes recurred on several occasions, an increasingly frequent occurrence, but contrary to traditional weather patterns. During three of the past four years, Caspari said, the temperature fell to 0°F, compared to only one time in the 10 years prior.

“If Grand Valley has a bad day, the Colorado wine industry has a bad day,” he said. The research station is working on methods for winegrape growing in cold climates, but that’s a generational endeavor.

Some 85%-95% of Colorado’s wine grapes come from the Grand Valley, Caspari said. If that is 30% down, he predicted the total state’s total grape harvest will yield will be around 1,200 tons; if the damage is 50%, the total would be 1,000 tons.

The Merlot crop was hard hit by the freeze. Normally the No. 1 variety, Merlot has had a lot of cold damage in the last four years, he said. He predicted that Riesling should come back well.

Delta County is a warmer region, and vineyards there were not as affected by frost this year. “A lot of vineyards are looking good,” Caspari reported, although the vineyards in general have lower yields.

Caspari said that the reduced harvest might start at the earliest around the end of August or beginning of September and begin with Sauvignon Blanc and other white varieties. The season got off to a late start in spring, a warm June and July and an overall season that was somewhat wetter than normal, requiring as many as two sprays for mildew, compared with none in 2012. The expected “monsoon” season in mid-July brought rainfall and moisture from the Gulf of Mexico.

But, “we have a drought,” Caspari said. Only one of the state’s vineyards is dry farmed; the remainder are all irrigated, and always have been, he said. He explained that Colorado has “mature” irrigation rights to Colorado River water and, “because we are senior, we will have water when California doesn’t.” Reservoir levels are low, but there have been no use restrictions. Fortunately for the wine industry, Colorado’s disastrous wildfires this year were distant from the vineyards and had no ill effects on them.

“We will have a shortage of grapes this year. Some wineries will not bring in out-of-state grapes, but the bigger ones may bring them in from Washington, Oregon and California,” Caspari said.

For details about the Colorado wine industry, visit the Colorado Association for Viticulture and Enology.

New Mexico: Half full
Harvest for sparkling wine and white varieties began about 10 days ago in southern New Mexico and will continue throughout the state’s varied regions through October, said Bernd Maier, New Mexico State University extension viticulture specialist.

Maier expects tonnage to be down about 50% compared to last year due to a long, cold winter. “We had pretty rough conditions and low humidity. Late spring frosts took shoots and buds from early budding Las Cruces in the south in April to the end of May in northern New Mexico.” On the brighter side, Maier predicted that the reduced yields would produce good quality fruit.

This loss of fruit was somewhat mitigated by a hot, dry summer with no precipitation, so fungal disease was not an issue, Meier said. Insect pressure, especially from leaf hoppers, was high. New Mexico growers don’t necessarily spray more; vineyard scouting keeps them alert. “It’s not a problem that cannot be solved,” he said.

Although new plantings are going in throughout the state, Meier said no new acreage is coming into production this year, both at existing winery operations and independent vineyards expecting to sell to them.

Viticulture is a relatively small component of the New Mexico agricultural industry, and Maier said he has not heard reports of vineyard labor shortages.

Texas freeze out
The Texas High Plains AVA, normally the state’s most productive grape producer, also fell victim to a series of late frosts, reported Professor Ed Hellman at Texas Tech University in Lubbock. Normally, he explained, the last freeze day is April 10. This year, a series of freezes continued until May 3. This severely affected early bud break varieties, including some that were budding out from secondary shoots by the time the freezes finally ended.

Growers on the High Plains began to harvest what remains of their crop just this week. “Our guess is that maybe only 10% of the normal crop survived,” Hellman said. “What’s left are the late bud break varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Mourvedre. It’s not just crop loss but cordon and trunk damage requiring retraining of the vines. It’s kind of a kick in the teeth,” he said.

“What should have been a new record production year, with several hundred acres of new producing acreage, will be really low. We were gaining momentum with our new acreage, and wineries were getting increased recognition, especially for Viognier, Tempranillo and Albariño,” Hellman said. Normally, 60% of the state’s wine grape crop comes from the High Plains.

The seemingly perennial drought continues in much of the state, although not as severe as last year, Hellman said. Scattered vineyards in the Hill Country were damaged by summer hailstorms.

Texas’ grape crush typically begins as early as July, and Hellman expects it will continue this year as usual through early September.

He commented on one ironic development: A much-needed custom-crush operation just opened at what should have been the perfect time, were it not for the expected grape shortage. Texas Custom Wineworks, Brownfield, will be available to crush whatever’s left of the 2013 crop. “This should be a big deal for us,” Hellman said. “So much goes from High Plains to wineries in other parts of state. Here they can crush and press white wines prior to shipping.”

For more information about the Texas industry, visit Texas Wine & Grape Growers Association.

Middlin’ in Missouri
Dr. Misha T. Kwasniewski, enology program leader at the University of Missouri’s Grape and Wine Institute in Columbia, emailed a report about this year’s crop from the “Show Me” state.

Harvest should begin about the end of August, making it “a bit late, and much later than last year,” which came in early, Kwasniewski said. The southern part of the state should be harvesting earliest.

No unusual winter/spring freezes impacted the vineyards. Although the growing season was fairly wet, especially through the spring, Kwasniewski predicted a normal crop for 2013.

“The season has generally been normal to cool, with constant rain. While there have been a couple weeks that precipitation was below optimal, there has not really been big drought problems this year.” Hail events, which are fairly common in the state, affected some individual growers.

“Disease pressure is not unusually high, though in Missouri the pressure for mildews and rots are high in a normal year,” Kwasniewski commented. “Ultimately growers with good pest control programs have the greatest success.”

Not too chilly in Illinois
Illinois vineyards have bounced back from last year’s severe conditions. “This year is a reflection of last year, when there was a cold winter and then a drought, producing low crop loads,” said Bill McCartney, executive director of the Illinois Grape Growers & Vintners Association.

While on average wine grape vines produce about 5 tons per acre, last year’s yield was down to 3 tons. The 2012-13 winter was mild with no negative impact, and as a result, “This year we’re seeing remarkably large crops. Some growers are doing extensive thinning to manage vine balance. Completely overcropped, they’re now dropping crop,” McCartney said.

With a lot of rain early in season, it was a year to be diligent with fungicide applications near bloom. Following a dry period, it’s getting wetter now.

Growers are just now seeing véraison, but some varieties are earlier, some later. “Last year, I picked something in July,” McCartney commented. “This year, harvest is looking like considerably later Frontenac in Central Illinois is still three or four weeks out. For later varieties like Seyval and Chambourcin he predicted harvest would start in October.

With bearing acreage of just about 1,100 acres statewide, most Illinois vineyards are small enough to handle vineyard labor in-house or with volunteers, so no staffing problems have been reported.

“We’re so varied: We have 40 economically significant grape varieties in the state,” McCartney said. “The key is to find a fingerprint, to try develop something distinctive. For many start-up wineries, the tendency is to try to make what they have tasted, and we are seeing more vinifera in Southern Illinois. Most of our wines focused on the local market, dealing with local customer. We’re in the education business—consumer public education. Our style will develop, but not overnight.”

The typical Illinois “mom and pop” winery producing as many as 15 different labels is something of an experimental model, according to McCartney. “They want to make people go away happy with what they’ve tasted. It’s a slow process, but in the long term it will work out.”

Michigan maintains average
Vineyards in production for Michigan’s massive juice grape industry will begin their harvest Aug. 13, said Linda Jones, director of the Michigan Grape & Wine Industry Council. The wine grape crush should start in mid-September and continue until Nov. 1.

After a warm and dry 2012 this year was “average,” increasing disease pressure, she said. Pest activity included grape berry moth, which dropped off in recent weeks. A new pest entered the state vineyards, spotted wing drosophila.

Although powdery mildew is a perennial problem, “In Michigan we have very good scouting services through the growers; the university puts out a weekly scouting report to keep growers alert,” Jones said.

Comparing growing degree days (GDD), the five-year average for Southwestern Michigan is 1,866. So far this year the region has accumulated 1,746 GDD, Jones reported. Northern Michigan has a five-year average of 1,439 GDD. This year, it’s 1,469 (vs. 1,772 in 2012).

Jones predicted that 2013 winegrape tonnage should be larger than average. “Last year, we had frost damage; this year less.”

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