Midwest Winemakers Expect Early Harvest, Lower Yields
Winemakers across the Midwest are now preparing to harvest their grapes. For many growers, the warm winter, the spring freeze and now the ongoing drought have combined to push harvest dates forward by two to three weeks. The harvest for some varieties could start within the next fortnight. Yields at many vineyards are expected to be down significantly from last year, but some winemakers say the dry conditions will produce a high quality crop.
In Indiana, where about 40% of the state is in extreme drought, at the Country Heritage Winery in the north, winemaker, Kevin Geeting says that unless it rains during August, they will be harvesting two to three weeks ahead of schedule. Geeting has 21 acres of young vines – the oldest are 2 years old – including Cayuga White, Traminette and Vignoles.
Irrigation has allowed his youthful vineyard to cope in the hear. He says he suspects the current conditions will make the sugar levels in his crop high and the fruit quality very good. Geeting partly attributes the healthy state of his vines to planting French-American hybrids that are better suited than vinifera to the extremes of climate in the Midwest and says anyone planting vinifera, ‘could be struggling in these conditions.”
However in Missouri, 30 miles east of Kansas City, where conditions are just as hot, winemaker Michael Amigoni’s five acres of vinifera seem to be coping in the ongoing heat. Most of the vineyard is planted with Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon and according to a posting on Amigoni Winery’s Facebook page on Friday, irrigation is keeping the Chardonnay vines healthy and they expect them to be the first ones ready for harvest in about three weeks.
At his 10 acre, family owned vineyard in the Shawnee Hills of Illinois, Alto Vineyard’s Paul Renzaglia says they’ve only had three inches of rain since late February. ‘I’ve been in southern Illinois for fifty years and I’ve never seen anything like this where it [the drought] started so early and lasted so long and the heat has just been oppressive.”
Even overnight he says temperatures rarely drop below 80 degrees. Alto Vineyards does not irrigate and many vines are only a year or two old. But Renzaglia says that while his vines are showing signs of stress, like lack of vigor, even the youngest ones are so far coping with the heat. Renzaglia attributes this drought resistance to the distinctive soils at the vineyard: sandy on top allowing for good drainage, clay two to three feet down that could be helping with water retention and also subsoil at three to four feet. ‘That helps a lot for handling this drought,” he says.
Renzaglia’s yield estimate is much the same as other winemakers and viticulture experts across the Midwest. He expects his harvest to be down by about 25% and says the same drop is expected at the four or five vineyards they purchase grapes from. A week ago, he was also concerned about how the drought could impact sugar levels and fruit quality.
Due to the lack of vigor in the vines, Renzaglia suspected that the grapes had not produced any sugars for several weeks. However, recent tests confirmed that sugar, pH and tartaric acid levels are much the same as last year. Curiously, the grapes are not maturing as fast as they are in other parts of the Midwest so Alto Vineyards expect their harvest to start within a week of last year, so during mid-August.
Winemakers we interviewed expect the lower yields at harvest time to force prices of some grape varieties up. However, rather than the drought, most of the current upward movement in the price of grapes is a result of the spring freeze. For example, Renzaglia says the Concord juice they buy in from Michigan, New York and Pennsylvania has gone up 30%. Winemakers can’t absorb all of that increase, he says, so it’s very likely some wines will become more expensive
In Central Illinois, Bradley Beam, Enology Specialist and winemaker at Willett’s Winery says he could start bringing in his 7 acres of irrigated grapes within two weeks. ‘We’re a little past veraison (the onset of ripening when the berries change color) at this point, in fact I just tasted some fruit that seemed dangerously palatable. It made my eyes jump out a little bit!”
He says they probably only have a couple of weeks before they should start harvesting early ripening varieties like Frontenac and Leon Millot. Beam says their yield will be down because of frost damage to primary buds earlier in the year and also the current heat. Secondary buds that survived the frost and budded afterwards tend to have smaller clusters of grapes (if they produce grapes at all), and; even with irrigation, the extreme heat has decreased grape size and weight by reducing water content.
Beam says berries they expected to weigh 1.5 grams are 1.2 grams because of the hot conditions. ‘I wouldn’t be surprised if you saw 25% lower yields across the board,” he says. However because the drought will reduce the amount of water in the grapes and concentrate the flavors and sugars, Beam says fruit quality — and probably the wines that result – should be excellent.
Beam at Willett’s also said that some clusters are ripening unevenly. Further north in Illinois, Bill Shoemaker, Viticulture Specialist at the University of Illinois Department of Crop Sciences, near Chicago is concerned about how uneven ripening could affect fruit quality. ‘We will need continuing rain or I think we will have problems with ripening and the integrity of the fruit,” he says.
And, if the drought continues on into mid to late August, Shoemaker estimates grape crop losses could be as high as 40%, about half of that loss attributable to the spring frost, the rest to the current dry conditions. Like Beam, Shoemaker expects the harvest to start two to three weeks earlier than usual. He says the white grape, Brianna will likely be the earliest gathered in, closely followed by varieties including Leon Millot, Foch and Aurora.
Diane Brown from Michigan State University’s Berrien County Extension in Southwest Michigan reports in MSU’s July 24th Grape and Wine Newsletter that “we expect to see the beginnings of veraison soon.” She said that young vines in the area are showing the effects of heat and lack of soil moisture.