Mother Nature seems to be playing her usual tricks this spring. Cool weather and seemingly incessant rains dampened spirits here in the Mid-Atlantic, with flooded cities in the headlines. Perhaps it’s the wine nerd in me, but the other day as I was squeegeeing the dog, I wondered what effect this weather was having on vineyards. The 2018 vintage is underway, after all.
The news reports have been alarming, especially in Europe. On May 26, a long swath of vineyards north of Bordeaux was “devastated” by “hailstones the size of pigeon’s eggs,” the Telegraph reported, as anxious Brits worried about their beloved claret. The next day, another fierce storm struck vineyards in Champagne. That led the Telegraph to do some frantic math: “Eight million bottles’ worth of Champagne grapes wiped out by freak hailstorms,” the headline wailed, figuring in losses from earlier storms in April. And on May 28, torrential rain and hail struck vineyards in Portugal’s Douro Valley. That’s our entire dinner, from champagne toast to Port with dessert, struck over a long weekend.
Hail storms make for great Chicken Little headlines, as the sky really seems to be falling. But their damage is typically localized. A storm can rip through a vineyard and leave the neighboring one unscathed. According to British writer and winemaker Gavin Quinney, writing on the wine marketing website Liv-Ex.com, the May 26 hail began south of Bordeaux near the town of Pessac, then moved northeast through the city, nicking the southernmost part of the Left Bank before crossing the Gironde Estuary into the areas of Bourg and Blaye and heading off to strike Cognac.
“It’s a case of the unlucky few, and phew for everyone else,” Quinney wrote. The storm hit only about 6 percent of the Bordeaux region’s vineyards. In contrast, damage from the late spring frost in 2017 was widespread — not just across Bordeaux but throughout much of Europe. If there’s a shortage of claret from the 2018 vintage, it won’t be because of this spring storm.
Weather’s effects are often more subtle. In Virginia’s Monticello wine region, vineyards received anywhere from a quarter-inch of rain to 14 inches over the last two weeks of May, said Jake Busching, owner and winemaker of Jake Busching Wines. The rains came just as the vines were beginning to flower, a crucial time that helps determine the size of the eventual crop. Viognier and petit verdot are particularly fragile.
“Sticky clusters of flowers have a difficult time setting fruit and completing cluster development when they can’t dry out to complete the bloom process,” Busching said. “To help the vines along we are pulling leaves hard to allow any amount of available sunlight and air movement in to dry them and assist the bloom process.” That is painstaking work when the vines are fragile and vigorous.
If the weather turns and remains dry throughout the summer, “we still have potential for an excellent vintage and an abundant crop,” he added. But if the rainy pattern holds, it may be a “winemakers vintage,” testing the skills of vintners to keep up with the weather.
Busching cited an upside to all this rain: About 50 to 60 acres of new vines were planted in Monticello this spring, and “they are off to a great start with all this water and heat.”
Farther north in New York’s Finger Lakes region, “it’s been a relatively uninteresting spring, and that’s a good thing,” said August Deimel, winemaker at Keuka Spring Vineyards in Penn Yan. Flowering is still a few weeks away, as a cool spring delayed the vines’ growth. Recent years have been warmer, causing early bud break and a risk of frost, but this year frost was not a problem.
The rain, however, could still be an issue. Rain during flowering can increase disease pressure throughout the season by giving fungi a foothold. So far, however, the rain just has vintners contending with weeds.
“All in all, so far so good,” Deimel says. “Nothing drastic to complain about yet.”
The season is off to a better start in California. “The spring weather here was pretty much everything I could have hoped for,” said Adam Lee, co-founder of Siduri and Clarice wineries. Lee makes pinot noir from vineyards throughout California and Oregon. A cool, wet March delayed flowering, and the fruit is just beginning to set in the Santa Lucia Highlands, he said. That means harvest should begin in mid-September, a more normal time than the past five years, when harvest started in some places in August.
That’s good news for a state that saw wildfires threaten or damage vineyards in Santa Barbara, Napa and Sonoma counties last year, and is coming off an extended drought.
Lee even tossed aside the vintner’s typical pessimism and reluctance to predict the weather.
“All in all, I’m stoked about the vintage at this point,” he said.