Hard rains complicate grape harvest for wine
Volunteers worked their way through the grape vines at White Silo Farm and Winery, cutting the fruit to be turned into wine.
It’s a scene that’s a week delayed — just one of the latest challenges this year’s difficult growing season has presented with the abundance of rain in July and August.
“We’ve had the worst weather imaginable for grape growing,” said Eric Gorman, managing partner at White Silo in Sherman. “It’s challenging to grow grapes in Connecticut, period, with the short season and cold winters. This year we had a wet spring, summer and fall, with lots of humidity.”
But even with the hard growing season, the actual wine won’t be affected.
Vineyards were generally able to harvest an average crop, though some saw a bit of a loss in a few varieties. The grapes just took a little more attention and care than usual.
This included extra hedging, leaf pulling and mildew sprays.
This year also stands in contrast to the two excellent seasons in 2016 and 2017, when the weather was dry and sunny.
“Grapes love a good hot summer, and dry conditions lead to easily ripened grapes with little threat of mold and mildew damage that plagues fruit in general in Connecticut, but grapes as well,” said Jonathan Edwards, president of the Connecticut Vineyard and Winery Association.
This year also differed because there were more intense rainfalls with 2 to 3 inches of rain each time, rather than the occasional storm.
“It’s pretty much been nonstop,” Gorman said.
The Danbury area saw three to five inches above normal for August and one to two inches above normal for July, according to the National Weather Service.
Heart of growing season
A lot of rain is not always bad. It just depends on when it hits in the growing season.
In May or June when the grapes are flowering, an abundance of rain can hinder pollinating and cause less fruit to set, translating into a low yield.
Growers have to keep an eye on the leaves to make sure they don’t mildew, which affects photosynthesis and prevents them from ripening, Edwards said.
“The great weather we had in June and early July led to wonderful fruit set, and most wineries have average to above average crops on the vine at this point,” Edwards said. “The challenge has been the excessive rain. Western Connecticut has had a fair amount more rain than eastern Connecticut, due to the weather pattern bringing all of the moisture up from the mid-Atlantic.”
But Jamie Jones, a Cornell University graduate of plant study who tends the vineyards at the Jones Tree Farm in Shelton, said wine lovers need not fret — at least not yet.
“We had a great harvest in 2016 and 2017,” Jones said. “So they’ll be tasting some of our best wines we ever made.”
Come 2020, Jones said, there might be a different taste to Connecticut-grown wine.
“It was a challenging season — kind of the tale of two summers,” said Jones. “We had the heat wave in early July so we had to do more irrigating. Then beginning July 17 we started getting all the rain, which created a lot more growth.
“So we had to do a lot of leaf pulling and hedge trimming to expose the vines to sunlight and air. Grapes can adapt to hot weather — they don’t thrive in excessive rain and humidity.”
Large amounts of rain during the harvest can dilute flavors because the plant takes in an excess of water. It can also lead to mold and rot in the grape clusters if too much water is put in the grape, causing the skins to split.
“The rain’s been challenging, to say the least,” said Mark Langford, business manager at DiGrazia Vineyards in Brookfield.
Vineyards have to address other aspects of the growing season with the weather out of their control. This includes changing when to pick and how often to spray fungicides.
Meeting state criteria
Gorman left his grapes on the line a little longer so they had some more time to ripen and allow the sugar content to return, while Langford took some of his varieties in a little early to prevent the risk of ruining the crop.
Langford said he lost some of his crop when Tropical Storm Florence hit the area.
DiGrazia’s vineyard is on a hill, which helped drain the field and prevent the grapes from sitting in water, Langford said.
“It wasn’t as bad as you’d think it was with the frequent rain,” he said, adding the deer and birds were hungrier than usual though.
Langford’s organic grapes tended to do better than those grown the traditional way during the wet weather, but he said the research isn’t out yet on why this is. He also found the white grapes have thicker skins and fared better than red varieties.
Because the harvest sizes have been around the same levels, growers aren’t worried about meeting the state’s wine criteria.
At least 25 percent of the fruit used in wines made by licensed farm wineries in Connecticut must be grown here, according to state statute.
“This has been a most challenging growing season, but Connecticut growers have managed the challenges to date,” Edwards said.
Bunches of grapes grown to make wines at The Jones Family Farm winery in Shelton.