By Keith Whitten, Billsboro Winery, Wine Education and Events Manager
Perhaps you have heard news as it is filtering to all of us in bits and pieces. The basic point: the Finger Lakes region was hit with a frost on Thursday, May 18th. Temperatures somewhat unexpectedly dropped below freezing (in some vineyards temperatures in the low 20’s were reported). We all remember the very warm weather in April. This coaxed fruiting plants (apples, cherries, definitely grape vines) to produce buds about two weeks earlier than usual. These buds are the first green leaves from the plants for the year, and they mark the beginning of the growing season, as these buds eventually grow to produce fruit. Once bud break occurs, these green shoots are highly susceptible to cold weather and a frost can kill them thus leaving the plant unable to produce fruit for that growing season.
The cold temperatures experienced across the region on May 18th did lead to significant plant damage. Apple orchards, berry farms, as well as grape growers were affected. Some wineries in the region are reporting near total losses, which is of course devastating as it means that the crop in the fall, and total wine production for 2023 will be very low (and maybe non-existent in some places).
As with everything regarding vineyards: different sites had different outcomes. The extreme low temperatures, and thus their effects, were highly localized (and strangely in some cases occurred in sites that are often a little warmer than surrounding areas). In general, vineyards close to the lakefront, receiving the full benefit of its temperature-modifying presence, survived well. Vineyards on slopes were also less affected, as the slopes allow for movement of air. In flat areas or forested areas cold air can get trapped and just sit there, bringing the temperature down. This is why some wineries have wind machines (they look like windmills). The machines turn on and blow air around, potentially keeping an area up to 5 degrees warmer than it would otherwise be.
Our primary vineyard partners at Sawmill Creek Vineyards in Hector were fortunate and made it through the night with minimal damage. Their home farm, close to the lakefront where they grow vinifera varietals, was mostly unscathed with a little damage occurring to Riesling vines that are planted on a plateau above the slope that leads down to the lake shore. The vines on the slope look good. Remember: those sloped sites allow for good “air drainage” (the cold air sinks down the slopes, eventually going out over the water, instead of lingering around the vines). Their secondary plot, Budd Farm, where they grow hybrid varietals such as Vidal Blanc and Vignoles, is located farther up the hill and suffered near complete loss (too far up slope, away from the lake, and the temperature is naturally lower, regardless of “air drainage”). Looks like Vinny will be making another Chardonnay Late Harvest wine in 2023 (I kid). The good news is that the blocks of vinifera varietals that Kim and Vinny have long term contracts on are still in good shape, so let’s hope for further good fortune through the summer and fall. Other growers near Sawmill Creek were not so fortunate and did suffer major damage to their vines. It is important to note that the effects of this weather incident were felt very differently at different sites around the Finger Lakes, even on the same farm.
As climate change continues, the people that work close to the land see the effects. A very warm early spring that leads to early bud break brings a lot of risk. Frost occurring after bud break is perhaps the most feared weather event in any cold climate wine growing region. This happened famously in the Burgundy region of France, home to the world’s most sought after (and expensive) Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs, in 2016 and 2021. In both cases yields at the end of the vintage were very low. I think that we can expect low yields in the Finger Lakes this year, with some wineries only making a very small amount of wine. Here’s hoping the rest of the growing season treats us well, and in the meantime, let’s appreciate the wine we have.