The Many Moods of Mother Nature

As I write this, Ernesto is pounding the
Mid-Atlantic region. I haven’t talked to any winemakers in Virginia,
where the best wine regions were supposed to get up to 6 inches of rain
today, but I suspect they may be relieved as the storm tracked a little
further east than expected. So now I wonder if it will spin out to sea
and head up to Long Island, which received several days of steady rain
last year just as many wineries were preparing to harvest their Merlot.
Let’s hope not.
For the past few weeks, we had little or no rain, warm but not real hot
days, and unusually cool nights. Not great pool weather for August, but
excellent conditions for growing wine grapes. The temperature variations
from the hot afternoon to the cool early morning are ideal for ripening
grapes and retaining acidity to give the wines structure and vibrancy.
But what Mother Nature gives, she can take away. Strong winds and rains
right at harvest time are never good; they are not necessarily
destructive, however, if the next few days return to the favorable
weather pattern. Then, as long as the grapes don’t swell up and burst,
they may recover quite nicely.
Since Ernesto seems to be less fearsome than forecast, he could even
turn out to be a blessing, if any grapes were stunted by the drought of
the past several weeks, these rains might stimulate the final ripening
process.
But this is my idle speculation. I tend to think of weather patterns in
terms of how they affect the wine harvest. Pretty pathetic, eh?
And of course we oenogeeks tend to think of California as immune from
the vagaries of weather. Not so, the weather is just different there.
The heavy rains come not right before harvest but when the vines are
dormant, much more favorable. But this year, California felt Nature’s
intense stare with a heat wave in July that pushed temperatures well
over 100 degrees F for 11 days in a row, with two of those days reaching
115 degrees – at least in the Dry Creek Valley, where I visited in
August. The heat was most intense in the late afternoon.
The effects of such intense heat? Sunburn, literally. The grapes, which
had not quite reached veraison, the point where they turn from green to
golden or black, are stunted from the heat and wither. But of course
this is an uneven process. As Andrew Forchini, grower at his family’s
winery on the east side of Dry Creek, explained, the sides of the vines
facing the afternoon sun were most affected by the heat. He showed us
vines that were shriveled and worthless on the west side, but still
holding gorgeous, full fruit on the other side. So the extent of the
sunburn depends on the orientation of the vine rows and the leaf canopy.
Growers can moderate the effects with irrigation, but only so much when
the heat is that intense.
In short, yields may be down a bit because of the heat, but quality
should not be affected. Forchini shrugged off the losses as he tasted
some of the healthy grapes that would go into his family’s Zinfandel
and Cabernet Sauvignon.
Other growers on the west side of Dry Creek told me they were not
greatly affected by the heat wave, because their vineyards are on
east-facing slopes and therefore shielded from the afternoon sun by
mountains to the west.
So there you have it – another reason not to buy into any broad
generalization about weather and its effect on a particular vintage.

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