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Unusual 1999 Harvest Winds Down in New York

Eric Zelko
Posted: November 2, 1999

In one of the warmest, driest growing seasons on record, vintners in upstate New York and eastern Canada began the 1999 harvest a week to 10 days earlier than normal as grapes ripened ahead of schedule. But Hurricane Floyd set back Long Island wineries, many of which just wrapped up their harvest at the end of October.

This was an unusual year for these cooler-climate regions, where ripening usually occurs late in the season. New York's major grapegrowing appellations -- including the Finger Lakes, Long Island and the Hudson River region -- experienced a drought, with almost no rain from May through late August.

"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.

Over the hot summer, the grapes had achieved high sugar levels more commonly associated with hot climates. But it wasn't until after thundershowers in early September that the grapes began to develop mature flavors, said Tim Martinson, a viticultural specialist with Cornell University's Finger Lakes Grape Program.

Yields were lower and berry sizes 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.

October's warm days and cool nights proved ideal for late-season grapes such as Riesling, which showed intense aroma and flavor components and great varietal character. "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 the region's Pinot Noir, which ripened early and evenly. "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 harvest started about a week to 10 days earlier than normal. 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 these grapes "had already developed good flavors and fruit intensity due to the great summer conditions."

The year proved more problematic on Long Island, where many wineries ended up harvesting their red grape varieties a week or two later than did their counterparts in upstate New York. Heavy rains associated with Hurricane Floyd pummeled the region in September, interrupting the harvest for several days. Many vintners felt fortunate to have escaped without severe damage from flooding and high winds, as Floyd was downgraded to a tropical storm by the time it reached Long Island. But 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 concerned all of us," said Jason Damianos, winemaker at Duck Walk Vineyards on the South Fork. "It meant we had to choose harvesting days wisely."

Many winemakers delayed harvest to allow the grapes to reach flavor maturity and optimal ripeness. "We didn't begin picking Merlot until mid-October," said winemaker Kip Bedell of Bedell Cellars. "Cabernet Franc didn't come in until Oct. 27, and we were picking Cabernet Sauvignon through Halloween." But, he added, "The Merlot has great color, aroma and flavor concentration. I think our patience paid off."

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For more on the 1999 harvest around the world, see our complete coverage.

To learn about the past two vintages in the Eastern United States:

  • Jan. 31, 1999
    The 1998 Harvest Report

  • Dec. 31, 1997
    Harvest 1997

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