North Fork vineyards enjoyed an early bud break this spring

The petit verdot bud break at Bedell Cellars in Cutchogue. (Credit: Mahreen Khan)

While the first week of May is the norm for a North Fork bud break, many local vineyards reported an early start to the season late last month.

Richard Olsen-Harbich, winemaker at Bedell Cellars in Cutchogue, said this year’s bud break is the earliest his winery has seen since 2010 – but it’s not necessarily early from a historical standpoint.

“The historical average is usually the first week of May, at some point before May 4 or 5t,” Mr. Olsen-Harbich said of his vineyard’s grapevines. “We typically don’t see them in April very often.”

At bud break, small grapevine buds resting between the vine’s stem and leaf stem start to swell, eventually bursting and growing shoots. Traditionally, they would begin swelling between late winter and early spring, but negative climate factors have set that trend back a bit.

“It’s about the amount of heat that we’ve accumulated over the past couple of months,” Mr. Olsen-Harbich said, “and we track that through what’s called ‘growing degree-days,’ which is a way to look at total heat accumulation, and basically the average temperature of a given day.”

Growing degree-days are heat units that allow growers, like those on vineyard grounds, to track the development of plants. They are calculated each day, based on daily average temperatures. The formula involves adding the highest temperature of a given day to the lowest, dividing the total by two and then subtracting from that the base temperature of the crop in question – which, for grapes, is usually 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Mild weather, plus ample groundwater to defrost and warm the soil often produces the best results, and there has been no shortage of rain recently.

Buds break as soon as the first 18 inches of soil the grapevines are planted in reach base temperature, said Russell Hearn of Lieb Cellars. The recorded average at Lieb Cellars is usually between April 28 and May 5. This year they saw bud break on April 30, also the earliest since 2010.

Anthony Nappa, winemaker at Raphael in Peconic, said buds started breaking towards the front of Raphael’s grounds between the middle and end of last week.

“Every year, different varieties break differently,” he said. “Usually, pinot noir and pinot grigio break first, but cab franc breaks even earlier.”

For Kareem Massoud, winemaker at both Paumanok and Palmer vineyards in Aquebogue, chardonnay was the first variety to break through and it did so nearly two weeks ago.

Warm spells, like the one we in mid-April, tend to yield earlier breaks. But a warm spell, followed by a frost, can be detrimental to the crop. Buds don’t close, but they do await higher temperatures and some, or even the entire vintage, can be lost in the process.

“The weather is the biggest factor and it’s been cool and wet, so it kind of slows everything down,” Mr. Nappa said. “If it was really hot in April, then things would speed up and those years, we have an earlier bud break.”

While an earlier bud break without a frost can extend the season, allow for more ripening time and offset spraying costs, “it isn’t necessarily a good thing,” says Mr. Nappa. “Over the last bunch of years, bud break has been later and later. The whole world is a mess, so it’s hard to know what’s normal. In the old days, normal was early April.”

The last full moon in April, which this year was on the 19th, is the region’s last frost risk. So it looks like local wineries are in the clear this season.

“My overall impression is that with climate change, everything has been pushed back, not forward,” Mr. Nappa said. “December is really more like November, and January is really more like December, so we’re shifted back a month.”

Mr. Massoud said the early bud break is a great first step to what will potentially be a great year.

“But it is still too soon to tell,” he said. “It is dependent on the weather, overall. As my father [Charles Massoud] says, ‘You can’t take it to the bank before it is in the tank.’”