Winemakers hope to dodge winter massacre: Uncork the Forks

There are those outliers who genuinely love winter, but for most of us, it’s a nuisance and we can’t wait for it to end. We hate the frigid temperatures, the snow, the icy roads, the shoveling, the school closings and the frozen and/or burst water pipes. It’s only mid-January and I’m ready for spring already. Definitely.

You might think that local winemakers’ and grape growers’ worries ended when the fruit came off the vine last fall, but they also have to deal with all of the above this time of year — as well as their own concerns and problems.

“Having lived through a couple of winter vineyard massacres on the South Fork, it’s something that leaves a profound effect on you,” said Rich Olsen-Harbich, winemaker at Bedell Cellars.

What kind of damage can winter weather cause in the vineyard? What can lead to such “massacres”?

You may not realize it, but the crop for the 2018 vintage — the buds that will emerge sometime in the spring — is already formed within the now-dormant vines. Damage to these buds is the primary worry on Long Island, where it rarely dips below zero for long periods of time.

“Bud mortality is the main concern,” says Paumanok winemaker Kareem Massoud, “Unless it gets really cold, say below -10F. Then trunk mortality becomes a concern, too, or even vine mortality.”

The waters that surround Long Island’s grape-growing areas moderate spring and fall temperatures, safely extending the growing season and protecting vineyards against frost events. But that same moderating influence helps in the winter, too. It rarely gets down to the -10F threshold for more severe vine damage.

The buds are the real worry here. Mr. Olsen-Harbich explained: “There are actually three buds within every larger bud — primary, secondary and tertiary. Primary buds are the largest and most fruitful. They are less insulated so they will be damaged first. Tertiary buds are the most protected but tend to be sterile — without fruit.”

Perhaps surprisingly, there is another feature of the East End that helps protect vines during cold snaps: the wind.

“We have pretty constant wind flow off the bluff and over the flat farmland,” said Alex Rosanelli of Sherwood House Vineyards and Hound’s Tree Wines. “This helps us keep dry in the summer, but is almost more important in the winter as it prevents cold air from settling anywhere.”

“Air drainage is really the most important thing when it comes to cold damage,” he continued. “It’s when cold air is able to settle in low pockets in the vineyard and sit on the vines that you tend to see the most damage.”

Some of the grape varieties grown locally are more susceptible to damage than others. Riesling, for example, is more winter hardy than merlot, which is hardier than things like viognier, malbec and syrah.

“But a lot depends on the site,” Mr. Olsen-Harbich said. “A slightly lower elevation is more susceptible to winter damage in general, regardless of variety,”

After a winter weather event, growers will harvest a sample of canes — the vines that extend away from the vine’s main trunk — to assess bud damage. Once they are brought inside and allowed to warm up, the buds can be sliced to reveal a cross-section.

“This will reveal whether the primary bud is still green — alive — and, if not, whether the secondary and tertiary buds are green,” said Mr. Massoud.

It’s important to do this testing before you being pruning in the vineyard because, as Mr. Olsen-Harbich says, “A good vintner can adjust the number of buds left if some have been damaged,” meaning maybe you don’t remove as many potential buds during pruning if you know that some of those remaining buds are damaged.

Despite the frosty temperatures over the past few weeks, none of the growers I’ve spoken to seem to expect much damage here on Long Island — so far. But they’ll all be keeping an eye on the weather forecast and the thermometers. We still have a long way to go this winter.