We are well past the mid-way point for the 2012 Niagara growing season as wineries now turn their attention to the looming, yes, looming, harvest.
It’s not a stretch to predict some growers will picking grapes for sparkling wine by the end of the month with early ripening aromatics not far behind in early September.
The 2012 grape-growing season got off to a very quick start with unusually high temperatures in the early spring followed by two frost episodes that hurt some grape buds in the peninsula, especially those without wind machines.
After that, it was smooth sailing with extremely dry and hot conditions through the summer until a brief reprieve last week with cooler, wetter weather. The forecast for this week is average August temperatures with bright sunlight — perfect for grapes.
The drought-like conditions have been felt in most of the wine-growing areas of eastern North America, with some regions expecting half the harvest of previous years.
But the hot, dry conditions have meant the potential for concentrated flavours and sugars and a reduction of pests and disease, translating into higher-quality fruit.
According to a report by Reuters and the Grape Growers Association of Ontario, crops were running about two to three weeks earlier than normal. Some growers have also had to trim away fruit as parched vines shut down, especially younger ones that lack older roots that can reach down as far as 15.2 meters, according to the Reuters report.
The CEO of the Grape Growers industry group in Ontario, Debbie Zimmerman, told Reuters that production in Ontario is expected to drop to 55,000 tonnes from a normal 62,000 tonnes.
There are similar concerns in the Finger Lakes region, said Reuters.
Scott Osborn, the president of Fox Run Vineyards, where grapes are grown on the site of an old dairy farm in New York’s Finger Lakes region, said vines had “basically shut down” after almost no rain from late May to the third week of July.
But recent wet weather has revived the vines at Fox Run, whose 55 acres overlooking Seneca Lake include Chardonnay, Riesling, Lemberger and Merlot grapes.
“If we continue to get rain we’re looking at a halfway decent harvest,” said Osborn, a former California real estate developer who moved to New York to produce wine in the 1980s.
Back in Niagara, where Wines In Niagara has been following a vine from bud break to harvest at Vineland Estate’s St. Urban Riesling Vineyard (photos below from Aug. 6), the health of “Grape X” has been extraordinary.
Winemaker Brian Schmidt is succinct in his assessment of the vintage so far when I asked him for two or three paragraphs on harvest 2012:
“Two or three paragraphs? How about two or three words? “(insert expletive here) dry. And hot. Sorry that was four words.”
Harald Thiel, vigneron and proprietor of Hidden Bench on the Beamsville Bench, had this to say about 2012 thus far:
“What is dry for young vines is perfect for low yield older vines on the Beamsville Bench due to the clay-silt soils.
“It goes without saying that we have not had a lot of rain since the beginning of May but the timing has been relatively good and at this point we are optimistic about the vintage.
“But as we all know September-October makes the vintage in Niagara and only time will tell. Customized canopy management will play a critical role in this year’s vintage and we have adjusted our leaf removal and fruit thinning on a block by block basis to deal with the increased sun and heat we have had. Younger vines have required decreased crop load levels to avoid stress,” he said.
In Niagara-on-the-Lake, Michèle Bosc, director of marketing at Château des Charmes, was optimistic about an early harvest this year and explained how her winery was dealing with the drought. Photos below are Cabernet Franc and Riesling grapes from the Paul Bosc Vineyard in St. Davids taken by Bosc.
“Up until this past week lack of moisture had been a significant feature of this year’s vintage. We never irrigate but do employ other tactics to help the vines in dry conditions:
• Cultivate between the rows to maintain moisture that is locked in the soil
• Liberal use of composted manure to replace vital nutrients
• Yield management to make sure the vine is not working so hard for the crop to its own detriment
• Removing any yellow or dry leaves from the vine
“We are well into the “green harvest” to thin the crop. It is early this year by more than a week,” Bosc said.
“Very little rot so far so not as much spray has been needed and when we do spray we do it at night so we can reduce the amount lost to evaporation under the heat of the day. There are no signs of stress. Bunches look good and healthy. Veraison is well under way. We look to be about 1.5-2 weeks ahead of normal, Bosc said.