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New York and Canada: Happy to Adapt to Hot Weather
By Eric Zelko
Vintners in upstate New York and eastern Canada experienced one of the warmest, driest growing seasons on record, bringing high hopes and an unusually early harvest for these cool-climate regions. But Hurricane Floyd set back Long Island vineyards, which until then had also benefited from the drought conditions.
"1999 was a great year all the way to harvest, with no winter damage, an early bud break and a very warm growing season," said Jean-Laurent Groux, winemaker at Ontario's Hillebrand Vineyards. The weather remained exceptional throughout the harvest in eastern Ontario and the Finger Lakes, where many wineries began picking in mid-September, a week to 10 days earlier than normal.
New York's major grapegrowing appellations -- including the Finger Lakes, Long Island and the Hudson River region -- had almost no rain from May through late August. Over the hot summer, the grapes achieved high sugar levels more commonly associated with hot climates. But it wasn't until Hurricane Floyd brought thundershowers in early September that the grapes began to develop truly mature flavors, said Tim Martinson, a viticulture specialist with Cornell University's Finger Lakes Grape Program.
In the Finger Lakes, yields were lower and berry size smaller than normal this year -- particularly for reds -- which should mean more intense color and flavor concentration. "Our Cabernet almost looked like blueberries," said Richard Figiel, owner of Seneca Lake's Silver Thread Vineyard. "1999 is the third fine growing season in a row in the Finger Lakes," he noted. "We're not used to this, but we're happy to adapt."
October's warm days and cool nights proved ideal for late-season grapes such as Riesling, which showed intense aroma and flavor. "1999 has the potential to be excellent," said Finger Lakes vintner Hermann J. Wiemer, who also reported that it was an especially good year for Pinot Noir. "Our Pinot Noir came in at only 2 tons per acre," he said, "with some of the most intense color and flavor I've ever seen."
In the Hudson Valley, the threat of rain in the second half of September accelerated the picking of early-ripening varieties such as Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, according to John Graziano, winemaker at Millbrook Winery. Fortunately, he said that these grapes "had already developed good flavors and fruit intensity due to the great summer conditions."
The year proved more problematic on Long Island. Heavy rains associated with Hurricane Floyd, which was downgraded to a tropical storm by the time it reached Long Island, pummeled the region in September.
"It was the driest year I've seen in 20 years of winemaking through early September," said Kip Bedell, of Bedell Cellars on the North Fork. "Everything looked way ahead of schedule, but then we got hit with several days of rain and cool weather after the hurricane, which really disrupted things." Rot became a problem at many vineyards, and some were forced to drop up to 15 percent of their fruit.
"The stints of rain between the beginning of September through the end of October . . . meant we had to choose harvesting days wisely," said Jason Damianos, winemaker at Duck Walk Vineyards on the South Fork.
Many winemakers delayed harvesting their red varieties -- Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc -- until the second half of October to allow the grapes to reach flavor maturity and optimal ripeness. But, said Bedell, "The Merlot has great color, aroma and flavor concentration. I think our patience paid off."