Last year’s grape harvest was remarkable both for the hot, dry conditions that lasted all summer long and the almost twenty inches of rain that was dumped on the East End over eight days right in the middle of harvest. White grapes were largely unaffected because they had already been picked, but many of the Island’s red grapes weren’t so lucky.
That rain completely decimated some producers to the point where they didn’t make red wines last year at all. Others escaped mostly unscathed and have made some tremendous wines. There will be less 2005 red wine on shelves once they start being released in the next few years, but based on barrel samples, the quality is high.
But that was last year. How is the 2006 vintage shaping up?
Getting straight answers on the topic of vintage quality from winemakers and vineyard managers can be a challenge. For obvious economic reasons, few are willing to admit that their grapes are anything but pristine. They need to sell their wine regardless and don’t want bad press for any vintage.
But despite surface optimism, it is clear that rain has had, and is having, an impact on this vintage, though to a much lesser extent than in 2005.
Why is rain such a problem for vineyards? “Rain is dilutive,” said Matt Gilles, general manager at Peconic Bay Winery. “It dilutes flavors and natural sugars. It (can also restrict) a significant amount of growing days because of reduced sunshine and the added horrible effects of the mildews that stem from such weather. Mildew is catastrophic, but fortunately we managed to avoid it this year.”
Richard Pisacano, vineyard manager at Wolffer Estate, added “sluggish ripening” and the danger that “fruit will lose its integrity before reaching adequate ripeness.” This is of particular concern on the South Fork, where the growing season is typically ten days shorter than on the North Fork.
Bunch rot and split grapes are just a couple more rain-related detriments.
Experience is the best teacher, however, and many Long Island vineyard managers have learned ways to weather the storms – including pruning, canopy management, reducing the crop (known as “dropping fruit”) and more diligent spraying. Another of Pisacano’s methods is to “hope and pray.” Clearly, even the most seasoned grape growers know that they are at Mother Nature’s mercy, especially at this time of year.
So far, mostly white grapes have been harvested along with some pinot noir – both for still and sparkling wines. Peconic Bay Winery has picked their Riesling, even if some of it was less ripe than usual. At Wolffer Estate, Pisacano and his crew have harvested their chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot gris. And, to help eliminate rain-damaged fruit, “all were hand picked carefully to eliminate any undesirables,” said Pisacano.
Waters Crest Winery, Comtesse Therese and several other wineries have picked chardonnay as well with generally good results. Jim Waters, co-owner and winemaker at Waters Crest Winery, said his fruit showed “good (sugar and acid) numbers with very nice flavors.” But fans of Waters’ Riesling and gewürztraminer will be disappointed, said the winemaker. “We will only bring in chardonnay for whites in 2006.” Waters doesn’t have his own vineyard and was unable to purchase the quality fruit he wanted for the other varietals.
The red grape harvest will begin this weekend and last until mid-November – weather willing. “After a wet spring, our vineyard manager Charlie Hargrave here at Peconic Bay seriously lightened the crop load so the vines could tolerate some adversity in the weather and fully ripen the crop,” said Gillies. “We are below 2 tons an acre in places with 1100 vines per acre contributing to the effort. I believe that more than meets Robert Parker’s credo as to how to make world class wine and I think it will pay off this year.”
Weather, as you may have guessed, is the key to how the rest of 2006’s harvest will go, and a strong storm that dumped six to eight inches on parts of the East End a few weeks ago definitely brought back bad memories from last season. But luckily, the rain didn’t last and the weather has been much better since.
Pisacano doesn’t want much from the weather over the next two months, joking, “it would be great if the sun refused to set and instead rotated in the sky for a few weeks. But seriously, we need plenty of sun, dry weather, no prolonged dew and lots of wind. An interesting note is that the heat wave and droughty period in August was a huge help. It accelerated verasion (ripening period when the grapes begin to turn color) and advanced ripeness so that when the ugly weather did come we already had a nice level of maturity.” Gillies concurs, saying he’d love it to be “dry, dry, dry and warm with cool evenings, and a little wind doesn’t hurt to increase transpiration and remove that water.”
So love Long Island wine lovers will just have to wait and see. This could be a vintage like 2000 – one of elegant, flavorful wines. Or it could rain for the next several weeks and be a year filled with rosé because the reds are so diluted or damaged. Here’s to dry, warm, windy weather until Thanksgiving.
This story appeared originally in Dan's Papers.