Eastern U.S. Needs a Sunny September

Cornell wine grape specialist says month will 'make or break the vintage'

by Linda Jones McKee
marquette new york grape
A cluster of Marquette goes through véraison at the Finger Lakes Grape Program teaching and demonstration vineyard.
Lancaster, Pa.—What a difference a year makes. March 2012 was exceptionally warm across the eastern United States, which led to early bud break and problems with spring frosts in some areas. Some rain in May and June was mitigated by warm, even hot, sunny weather in mid-summer that accelerated grape maturity, and some growers in the East reported 2012 was the earliest harvest they had ever experienced. By the time hurricane Sandy hit Oct. 29, almost all grapes were harvested.

The growing season in 2013 has been very different for vineyards from North Carolina to Connecticut. A cool spring led to bud break that was as much as three weeks later than normal, and the weather this summer has been cool and excessively wet. The wettest area has been from North Carolina up into the Mid-Atlantic region that stretches from northern Virginia, across Maryland and into southeastern Pennsylvania. Vineyards to the north and into the Appalachian Mountains have had less moisture and a more normal growing season.

How will the 2013 vintage turn out in the East? Most vineyard observers agree with Hans Walter-Peterson, viticulture extension specialist at the Cornell Cooperative Extension in New York, who told Wines & Vines, “September will make or break the vintage.” Sunny, warm days and cool nights until the end of harvest would make a big difference in overall wine quality.

North Carolina
In contrast with 2012, which saw a record number of days with temperatures in North Carolina of 100°F or higher, the 2013 season has been much cooler, with temperatures rarely getting above 90°. According to Sara Spayd, professor and extension specialist at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, N.C., bud break was two weeks later than normal, and the development gap has continued throughout the summer growing season because of the cool and very wet conditions. One advantage of the later bud break was that vineyards in North Carolina had little or no frost damage.

Spayd noted that it has been cloudy and rainy all summer, with some growing areas reporting that they had received the normal average yearly rainfall by mid-July. “Getting into the vineyard to spray has been an issue,” she said. “Growers almost need snow tires, it’s been so wet. But growers who have stayed on top of their spray programs should be in good shape as far as quality is concerned, especially if we get a gap in the rain for a few weeks.”

Because of the late bud break and the overall wet conditions, Spayd thinks harvest will probably be delayed by two weeks. “Usually harvest starts in early September,” Spayd said, “but this year it will probably be mid- to late September before we’re into the thick of things. Then let’s hope that hurricane season behaves, and we don’t have more rain during harvest!”

According to Tony Wolf, viticulture professor at Virginia Tech, how much wet weather has affected vineyards depends on their location. “The frequency of wetting periods on the west side of the Blue Ridge and into the Shenandoah Valley has not been much different from normal, and the volume of rain hasn’t been as great. The eastern shore has had more rain than usual, with some vineyards getting 13 inches when they usually would get 3-4 inches.

A May 14 frost event affected vineyards in the northern Piedmont region and the northern Shenandoah Valley, with some growers estimating a 10% to 15% loss of grape crop. The actual date for bloom was normal in 2013, compared to several weeks early in 2012. Harvest usually starts in Virginia around Labor Day, and Wolf anticipates that some early varieties may start coming in by then in more southern vineyards.

“With lots of wetting periods during the summer, we’re seeing above-average pressure from downy mildew. Now there’s a question about botrytis and how much of a problem that may be,” Wolf reported. “We’re keeping our fingers crossed, and hope we get some reasonable heat and sun.”

“The 2013 growing season has been a nightmare for many growers,” Joe Fiola, professor and viticulture specialist at the University of Maryland Western Maryland Research and Education Center, stated. “I’ve seen botrytis on unripe, green fruit, and vineyards hard hit with downy mildew, even with growers who are on top of things. It’s been crazy weather. We had erratic frost on May 14, when some good sites lost crop while vineyards on bad sites missed it.” Some vineyards thought they had lost 100% of their crop as a result of the frost, but will probably get as much as 40% of normal crop from both undamaged primary buds and from secondary buds. An additional problem for those growers will be the uneven ripening on different parts of the vine.

While the higher areas of central and western Maryland have had cloudy, damp weather, the heavier rain has been on the eastern shore of Maryland. “It’s been relentless,” Fiola reported. “Some places have had 24 to 30 inches of rain. It reminds me of 2003, when we had rain on 70% of summer days. It’s not quite as bad as that, and the good news is we still have the rest of August and September. Last week was good, with warm days and cool nights and we hope that continues.”

Between June 1 and Aug. 15, southeastern Pennsylvania had rain on 39 of those 75 days. As a result, according to Mark Chien, viticulture extension specialist at Penn State, “The vines continue to grow like weeds—and so do the weeds. Having weeds both in and under the vines may be helping to relieve excess soil moisture. It doesn’t look pretty, but many growers are willing to sacrifice appearance and tidiness for benefits to the fruit. There is some consensus that vegetative vigor is extending deep into the season, and that red varieties will have a difficult time reaching full maturity.”

Chien added, “Hanging a big crop in a wet season may be prudent since it can act as an ‘anchor’ or significant resource sink to help moderate vegetative growth, but the vine may not ripen a big load, so thinning may be necessary. Whites are almost inevitably more malleable and agreeable than most red varieties, but they can also benefit from proper crop management.”

He concludes, “If the weather dries out and the sun appears, we’ll certainly make wonderful white wines and still can pull a rabbit out of the hat with reds. In years like this one, hybrid varieties make good sense for their general sturdiness and disease resistance. Chambourcin, for example, simply winks at conditions like these. The white hybrids are all at risk to rot, but have good wine potential.”

The vineyards near Lake Erie in the northwest part of Pennsylvania have experienced a more average season than southeastern Pennsylvania. According to Kris Kane, winemaker at Presque Isle Wine Cellars in North East, Pa., the vineyard year for 2013 feels far behind last year’s season. “Bloom was later, and harvest will be delayed compared with last year, when we were finished with harvest by October 20.” Kane thinks the aromatic white varieties will be “fantastic,” but the quality of the red wines will depend on good weather in September and October. While Erie County had a lot of rain in June, conditions dried out during July and August, and the overall crop is heavier than in 2012.

New York
According to Walter-Peterson of Cornell University, vineyards in the Finger Lakes are normal in grape maturity and have not been as wet as farther south. “Our problem has been that it was wet around the time of bloom. It didn’t affect the fruit set, but we have seen some early botrytis that could be an issue.”

While the large processors such as National Grape began picking fruit before Labor Day in 2012, they will begin harvest slightly later this year. Growers will start harvest of vinifera and hybrid grapes in early to mid-September.

Bill Nail, assistant scientist with the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station, told Wines & Vines that while the state has had a lot of rain this summer it hasn’t been as rainy as farther south. The weather was cool during the spring, with bloom being somewhat late, but the vines have since made up for a slow start. The major problem for the area has been excess vigor in the vineyard, a result of plentiful rainfall. Harvest is anticipated to begin in early September.

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