Fourth in a series on the 2013 vintage at three New England wineries
PORTSMOUTH, R.I. A check in with Greenvale Vineyards as late summer finally brings bright skies and dry weather to this vineyard on the banks of Rhode Island’s Sakonnet River. Winemaker Richard Carmichael (below) and I walked the property last week as he pointed out the damage done to the 2013 crop by heavy and persistent rains earlier in the season and mildews that accompanied the unusually humid weather.
“We’ve lost lots of our crop already.” Carmichael says, “mainly due to rains during the bloom stage at the beginning of June. “Half of our pinot gris is gone, about a quarter of the chardonnay and the reds.”
The cluster on a pinot gris vine above shows vividly the kind of damage Carmichael is talking about. Each berry begins life as a single flower. If hard rain, hail or some other unwelcome effect shatters the individual bloom, no grape can be expected to develop from it. Since flowering is a critical, one-time event each growing season, there’s no way for a vine to recoup its losses that year.
“The pinot gris suffered the most,” Carmichael says, ” because it was just flowering. The rain hit at just the right moment. Hard rain just blasts the flowers.”
Rain severe enough to disrupt flowering and fruitset hasn’t been Carmichael’s only headache this season. Periods of heavy precipitation were accompanied by persistent high humidity fostering outbreaks of powdery mildew, a fungus that is endemic in the northeastern U.S.. Grapes cannot be grown successfully in New England without controlling PM. It’s one reason organic viticulture here is more difficult than in drier regions, such as California.
“The mildews,” Carmichael says, “keep coming at you all season. You have to pay constant attention.”
The standard treatment for PM for more than 150 years now has been repeated applications of sulfur, which is a cheap and effective fungicide that does not accumulate in soils (unlike copper, which, as a component of the fungicide known as Bordeaux Mixture, can eventually collect in toxic amounts). Another plus: fungi do not develop a resistance to sulfur. Other options (known as demethylation inhibitors) are available, but resistance to these commercially-developed compounds is problematic. “You can’t use one thing for long,” says Carmichael.
Greenvale’s farming approach is conventional, so commercial applications that aren’t available to the organic grower are used here. “You have to be very conscious of getting the right spray,” the winemaker notes. Carmichael mentions concoctions with brand names Manzate, Revus Top, Vivando, and Quintec. Cultural techniques, such as opening canopies to light and air flow can help. Hybrid vines here, such as Cayuga and Vidal, seem to be less susceptible to infection.
One of the stranger phenomena here is to see perfectly healthy vines and near complete fruit set just feet away from stragglers.
Carmichael has his eye on September now. So far the setbacks at Greenvale will mean a loss of fruit, but a diminished harvest doesn’t imply lower quality wine. Fine weather through the next weeks leading up to harvest could do a lot to sweeten what started out on a sour note. “The damage won’t have any bearing on the quality of the surviving fruit. The issue is quantity. We just won’t have as many grapes as in a more normal year.”
“We’ve had decent chardonnay results so far and reds have done pretty well. What’s really hurting us is the pinot gris, but we won’t have the final word on the vintage until harvest.”
Is Carmichael indulging in an old-fashioned bout of Irish pessimism when he reminds me that “there’s plenty more that could go wrong”?
“You know, ” he adds, “We’ll soon be into hurricane season.”
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