Wednesday, April 15, 2015

#WBC15 Preview - Viticulture in the Cold Climate Finger Lakes

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The 2015 Wine Bloggers Conference will be held August 13-16 in New York's Finger Lakes Wine region. This is the first time the conference is being held in an East Coast cold climate region, in particular, one that is both wet and cold. Historically a region noted for Concord and French hybrids, the Finger Lakes has expanded beyond these varieties because of modern viticulture techniques. Many of these techniques were first implemented by Dr. Konstantin Frank who introduced vinifera varieties into New York in the 1950’s. In his opinion, if "vinifera could be grown in Ukraine, then it could survive in New York". The main problem he theorized was the lack of a suitable rootstock, not the cold weather. He found that rootstock in Quebec and after a couple bountiful harvests founded the Vinifera Wine Cellars in 1962.

Now known as Dr. Konstantin Frank Vinifera Wine Cellars, the winery has passed from Dr. Frank to his son Willy to his grandson, Frederick Frank. The latter explains the first two fundamental steps in grafting pioneered by the winery.  "Our goal is to achieve a medium size vine throughout the vineyard. This is accomplished by using phylloxera resistant rootstock and matching the rootstock vigor to the soil type. Second, hilling up the graft union of the vine with about a foot of soil protects the graft union and basal buds from the cold. We uncover this soil mound every Spring." Even if the buds perish, the vines may survive due to the hilling of the graft union.  The winery also aims to keep the vines free of fungus disease throughout the growing season because a vine weakened by fungus disease would be more susceptible to winter injury. By starting with these techniques, the Frank family along with the hundred other wineries in the region have proved that vinifera can survive and excel in the Finger Lakes.

That's not to say the process isn't difficult; with each year bringing a new challenge. Describing the last two winers, Scott Osborn of Fox Run Vineyards noted:
This winter was a good winter for us principally because it got below freezing in early December and stayed below freezing until a few days ago. So we are looking at 25% bud damage which for us is normal and we prune to compensate for it. Last year it got cold than warmed up to above freezing for a few days in early January and then dropped to below 0 in 24 hours. That happened at least 4 times over the next two months. It turns out each time it gets above freezing and then gets cold again the vines loose some of their cold hardiness and becomes less tolerant to cold each time that happens. A vine can adjust when there is gradual cooling but when you have extreme drops in temps then we experience lots more damage.
The Finger Lakes microclimates assist in alleviating these cold weather casualties, particularly among the four longest lakes: Seneca, Cayuga, Canandaigua, and Keuka. Bruce Murray, owner of Boundary Breaks Vineyard, explained to me how the Finger Lakes are some of the deepest in America, with Seneca Lake dropping to over 700 feet. Thus the lakes never freeze and actually warm the prevailing NW winds. This helps to increase temperatures around the lakes by 2-3 degrees in which Murray says, "this slight increase allows grapes to ripen sufficiently during our short growing season". John Martini of Anthony Road Wine Company believes their proximity to Seneca Lake has provided some protection from frost (as well as hilling each fall). And both Frederick Frank and Scott Osborn noted that they plant more tender varieties in the mildest microclimates in the Finger Lakes, with Frank emphasizing the east side of Seneca Lake. Osborn continued that he then plants more cold hardy varieties like Riesling, Cabernet Franc, Lemberger, and Cabernet Sauvignon further away and at higher elevations.

The founders of Standing Stone Vineyards were the first modern day entrepreneurs to research specific vineyard sites in the Finger Lakes. According to current owner Martha Macinski,"... in the 1960s Charles Fournier and Guy DeVeaux (Gold Seal Vineyards) learned about Dr. Frank’s efforts to plant vinifera in the Finger Lakes, and saw for themselves the variation in microclimates throughout the region. For three years they collected data and made observations on 100 test sites throughout the Finger Lakes, primarily on Seneca, Cayuga and Keuka lakes. In 1969 they purchased what is now Standing Stone Vineyards from Mr. Bedient, for $1,000 per acre, which was a sign of how much they wanted it. That was a hefty sum for vineyard property in those days". Where did Fournier and DeVeaux select their property? The east side of Seneca Lake. 

Each winery has also establish specific steps for pruning, canopy coverage, and yields to assist the vines surviving the winter. Frederick Frank mentioned that their winery insures that crop levels are moderate and not excessive, which could weaken the vine and result in greater winter injury. Murray mentioned that Boundary Breaks manages crop size (the ideal yield is 3.5-4 tons per acre) by dropping grapes just before Véraison. However, he noted that dropping too soon will give the cluster too much vigor, increasing the berry size which dilutes the juice if the grape doesn't split in the summer. Osborn starts pruning in late December with the most winter hardy varieties first the leaving the least hardy to late March. And Macinski says that Standing Stone uses a Vertical Shoot positioning trellis system which they believe contributes to minimal winter damage since the trunks are shorter, thus less area to split.

As for the vinifera varieties grown in the Finger Lakes, Murray stressed the region's similarity to Alsace and Western Germany - thus Riesling is King, with smaller plantings of  Chardonnay, Gewurztraminer, and the Pinot grapes. Bordeaux is prevalent - notably through Cabernet Franc. But there are also increased plantings of unique varieties such as Gruner Veltliner, Lemberger, Dr. Frank's Rkatsiteli, and Standing Stone's Saperavi.There will be plenty of diversity for #WBC15 attendees.

In closing, I'll leave it to Frederick Frank to summarize viticulture in the Finger Lakes: "shoot for a healthy medium sized vine in a favorable site in the Finger Lakes with good air drainage and a sloped contour with drained soils and close to a deep lake. This will give us the best success in growing vinifera in the Finger Lakes".

Cheers to that and looking forward to the 2015 Wine Bloggers Conference. And thanks to Frederick Frank, Scott Osborn, John Martini, Bruce Murray, and Marti Macinski for taking time to correspond.

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