Catching up after season’s slow start: Uncork the Forks

vineyard grapes

The vines at Paumanok Vineyards on Thursday, July 13, 2017. (Credit: Vera Chinese)

We’re two-plus months into the 2017 grape-growing season, a time when I always like to check in with local growers and winemakers to find out how the season is going, how it compares to other seasons and how close to “normal” it’s been so far.

Of course, I put “normal” in quotes because there really isn’t such a thing as a normal growing season on Long Island, unless you think of normal as different every year. It rains here, but not always at the same time of year or to the same degree. We get plenty of heat and sunshine here to fully ripen many grape varieties, but sometimes it comes all at once while other times it simply builds over the course of the long season. And, of course, we have the yearly threat of hurricanes that can slide up the coast and wreak havoc.

So there isn’t really a “normal” growing season, but most folks I’ve spoken with think after a slow start things are back on schedule in terms of where the plants are as we head into mid-July. Though not everyone feels that way.

If you have a garden or even perennials in your yard, you know firsthand that things were a little behind this spring thanks to cooler temperatures and periods of rain. Similarly, bud break was a bit delayed in wine country.

“Bud break on average this year was around May 1, which is late for us,” said Raphael winemaker Anthony Nappa in an email. “Early would be April 5 to 15. Normal would be April 15 to 25. And late would be April 25 to May.”

Russell Hearn from Lieb Cellars, Suhru Wines and T’Jara, agreed that things started a bit late: “It’s because we had a pretty cool April with a decent amount of rain so the soils didn’t warm up quite as quickly as they normally do.”

A late start in and of itself isn’t a problem. In fact, there are advantages to a gradual beginning.

“A late start just means less spraying and frost risk,” said Nappa. “We have to start spraying as soon as we have new tissue. With little heat, the vines did not grow much or fast. And with a lot of wetness we were worried about disease pressure but we stuck with our normal spray schedule; because it was cool at the same time it helps keep disease pressure down.”

Kareem Massoud, winemaker at Paumanok Vineyards, said he has experienced the same in his vineyards.

“Whenever you have warm, wet weather you have increased disease pressure,” he said. “I would not describe what we’ve experienced in 2017 so far as anything out of the ordinary.” He also saw a sluggish start, pointing to “unseasonably cool weather” in the second half of May, which “put the brakes on growth.”

June and the early part of July have been breezy and warmer, with lots of sun and less rain, which is important during flowering. Flowers damaged by rain, hail or other weather will result in lower crops during what is called “fruit set.”

At Raphael, Nappa said he thinks the vineyard is “caught up to average on growth” with healthy fruit set.

So what does the perfect summer and fall look like from here on out?

“An ideal July to October would be lower-than-normal rainfall, reduced humidity and lots of sun,” said Hearn.

“July through August — hot and dry but not a lot of humidity, with one inch of rain per week, all at night,” Nappa said, adding, “For September and October, clear and sunny. Seventies during the day, 50s at night and half an inch of rain per week, also at night. Oh — and no hurricanes.”

“In a word, dry. There is a very high correlation between water deficit and wine quality,” said Massoud. “Virtually all of the most heralded vintages in wine districts around the world, including Long Island, coincide with dry growing seasons and dry vintage periods.”

I guess you could say that grapes like their summers and early autumns the same way that we do. If you’re happy with your summer, there is a good chance local grape growers will be as well.