Long Island Winemakers Waiting and Seeing

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You probably noticed already—we didn’t have much of a winter and have had an early, warm start to spring.

As much as I’m enjoying getting an early start on my garden and flower beds—our crocus have been up for weeks already—there are concerns about what this uncommon weather will mean for local wineries.

The annual growth cycle of grapevines begins with bud break in the spring and culminates in leaf fall in autumn, followed by winter dormancy.

The earliest anyone can remember seeing bud break in Long Island vineyards was mid-April in 2010—a vintage that ended up being one of the longest and warmest on record. Bud break was two weeks earlier than average that year.

Long Island vineyards could see bud break even earlier in 2012.

“The potential for an early bud break this year appears higher than normal. If the weather continues to trend the way it has over the winter season it is increasingly likely that an early bud break will occur,” said David Page of Shinn Estate Vineyards, where bud break occurred on April 17 in 2010.

A mild winter and the current warm weather doesn’t necessarily mean early bud break, however.

According to Alice Wise Sr., Resource Educator for the viticulture program at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County, bud break is “related to a certain number of days with the average temperatures greater than 50 degrees Fahrenheit. But there is no magic formula to predict when it will occur. There are likely other physiological processes at play as well. An early bud break is a possibility but it is difficult to predict. Depends on the weather over the next month.”

Channing Daughters Winery partner and CEO—and soil scientist—Larry Perrine echoes that wait-and-see approach. “Are we at risk for an earlier bud break in 2012?  Only the next three weeks or so will tell,” he said in an email, adding “However, with sustained warmer than average temperatures, as we are having, bud break can be up to two weeks earlier than average.”

Even if bud break does come early—it’s not necessarily a problem. In fact, some of the earliest bud breaks have occurred in years like 2007 and 2010, considered among the region’s best. An early start offers the potential for a long, even ripening process. It also mitigates the impact less-than-optimal growing conditions later in the season can have on the overall vintage.

That’s the bright side of early bud break. The risk is hard frost in the spring—after bud break—which could significantly damage buds and just-forming leaves, greatly reducing crop size. Entire blocks or even vineyards could be lost.

For now, Rich Olsen-Harbich, winemaker at Bedell Cellars, is focusing on the positive possibilities, saying, “The beauty of eastern Long Island is that we rarely experience frost problems. That’s one of the big reasons we’re so successful growing wine grapes here—our spring temperatures usually prevent that from happening.”

A lot can happen after bud break, but Olsen-Harbich also reminds us that it’s still very early and a lot can happen between now and when buds open. “I’ve also seen things warm up early only to be set back with weeks of cold April weather. One thing I do know is that no two years are the same on the North Fork. That’s what makes it so challenging, interesting and exciting to grow grapes here. As for this year?  We’ll see!”

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