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Hot, dry season brings LI winemakers early harvest

Winemaker Peter Pugliese, left, inspects the progress of

Winemaker Peter Pugliese, left, inspects the progress of his merlot grapes at Pugliese Vineyards in Cutchogue. (Aug. 17, 2010) Photo Credit: Michael E. Ach

Peter Pugliese roams the sun-drenched rows of his family's Cutchogue vineyard with the subdued excitement of a man who knows good fortune can be fleeting.

It's mid-August, and if the hot, dry season holds he will begin harvesting grapes by month's end - the first time a harvest has ever begun in August in the vineyard's 30-year history.

For a winemaker like Pugliese, the weather is a godsend, concentrating flavors and potentially raising sugar levels to record highs, creating "more enhanced, full-bodied wines," particularly in reds.

But his predictions come with a caveat: "If the weather continues this way," Pugliese hastens to add.

Across Long Island wine country, a warm, early spring and a hot, sunny summer are shaving weeks off the time it takes local grapes to reach peak ripeness. Long Island's 59 wine producers say grapes are ripening so early that they've had to set up netting atop the vines to discourage grape-gorging birds a month ahead of schedule.

Harvest schedules are being moved up by two weeks to a month.

And predictions are already being made about what a great vintage 2010 will be for the $150-million-a-year regional wine industry. Most wineries produce upward of 10,000 cases of wine a year and employ an average dozen workers. The new wines won't be available until 2011 at the earliest.

But regional wine makers, a superstitious bunch, are wary of making grand public statements about the expected high quality of this year's vintage. Many secretly worry about predictions of hurricanes and rain storms - events that have plagued previous banner harvests.

"My father says, 'You can't take it to the bank until it's in the tank,' " said Kareem Massoud, winemaker for Paumanok Vineyards in Aquebogue, referring to the uncertainties between now and the conclusion of the harvest season when the wine is fermenting in tanks.

Like Pugliese, Paumanok is preparing to harvest grapes for its sparkling wines at the end of August - a first for the Massoud family. "These are ideal conditions for ripening grapes," Massoud said. "

This year's bud-break, when the first leaves begin to unfurl, began in mid-April, the earliest ever. It's normally in early to mid-May. "It's off the charts," owner Charles Massoud said.

While Sunday's rains provided a cooling reprieve, scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration say this year's January to July were the hottest on record.

For grape growers, that means less maintenance like spraying for the fungus that can destroy a crop, but more irrigation. Vineyards with irrigation may have spent more on diesel and electric keeping vines watered.

Pugliese says this year's crop has required more watering than previous ones.

Pugliese says the harvest time for the vineyard's prime merlot grapes, normally the third week of October, could begin in the third week of September.

Marco Borghese, co-owner of Castello di Borghese in Cutchogue, searched desperately for a surface to knock when he described the ideal conditions of this year's crop. "It's a little premature to talk about and I don't have any wood near me," he says. "You never know until it's in the tank."

Borghese remembers that in 2005, "We had a similar year and then it rained for 10 days straight in the beginning of October." Much of his crop was ruined.

David Mudd, 89, a pioneer in the region, and a grape-growing legend, knows better than to predict the quality of the grapes or the wine, even though crops that his son, Steven Mudd, manages are two weeks ahead of any previous harvest.

"You open your mouth and you get a sleet storm," David Mudd says. "The only time we make a statement about how we're doing is first of December, when all the grapes are in the bin."

 

 

Gauging the heat's impact

 

Alice Wise, a viticulturalist at the Cornell Cooperative Extension in Riverhead, is the region's expert on growing wine grapes.

How unusual is all the heat?

Starting in April when we had budbreak, temperatures have been above average all summer. Usually one or two months might be higher than average but it is unusual for the entire season to be so warm.

What does this mean for the grapes, and the quality of the wine?

This puts the industry in a great position as we move into the period of intense ripening. It probably means that harvest will be on the early side. In terms of quality, everyone is very optimistic as both the grapevine canopy and crop look good. As long as the weather does not swing to the other extreme (cool, wet), we should have a stellar harvest.

Are warmer growing seasons here to stay?

I am not in the business of predicting climate or commenting on weather trends. Otherwise, it is hard to say. The 2009 season was much cooler than average, while this season was much warmer.

Are there specific new problems with warmer, drier weather, or is this all good?

Wine grapes thrive in warm, dry weather. Vines do need some water, however. Many vineyards have irrigated judiciously this summer. There are still a number of dry-farmed vineyard blocks. With young plantings, vineyard managers have had to arrange to get water on the vines a few times. Older plantings with more established root systems seem to be weathering the drought fairly well.

What are the chances a good hard late rain could dash all hopes for a great vintage?

Rainfall is not the problem in and of itself, even heavy rain. The big concern is a substantial storm late in the ripening period, close to harvest. Long Island is very lucky in that we have a core of excellent vineyard managers (who) understand the need for high level management.

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