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Vintage 2003: Tough Time for Eastern United States

Fingers Lakes, Long Island and Virginia faced rain and cold

James Molesworth
Posted: December 10, 2003

  Vintage 2003:  
  United States  

While Europe's wine regions dealt with blistering heat and dry conditions in 2003, the eastern United States -- including New York's Finger Lakes, Long Island and Virginia -- had an entirely different experience.

In the Finger Lakes, one of America's best sources for Riesling, growers had to contend with a particularly frigid winter, followed by cool and wet conditions through most of the spring and summer.

"The weather has been frustrating at best," said John Martini, owner of Anthony Road Wine Co., along Seneca Lake. Martini noted that he had to treat his vineyards with fungicides 19 times -- as opposed to a more normal six or seven times -- in order to fend off diseases caused by moisture.

Periods of heat and sunshine during the fall helped the grapes, but most growers noted that yields were down significantly because of the damaging winter cold, the cool growing season and the aggressive crop-thinning measures that were needed to ensure full ripening of the grapes. Harvest was completed in the first week of November.

For Riesling: "Past experience with similar years suggests that the wines will develop more slowly, but age nicely," said Dave Peterson, general manager of Swedish Hill Winery, along Cayuga Lake.

Because the Finger Lakes remains a patchwork of varieties (vinifera, hybrids and native American grapes), it is difficult to make a blanket assessment of the vintage. Growers reported that Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay, Lemberger and Vignoles managed to ripen sufficiently, while grapes such as Gewürztraminer and Merlot were more variable.

"It was a challenging year for all of us," said Scott Osborn, owner of Fox Run Vineyards, along Seneca Lake. But in the end, he said, "Riesling was spectacular, and Chardonnay and Lemberger were some of the best we have ever seen."

On Long Island, the weather was much the same. Budbreak was delayed by the cold, wet spring, and a rainier-than-usual summer delayed ripening, so harvest started later than normal. However, September provided a break from the rain, which lasted until late October when a hard frost effectively ended any additional hang time for the grapes.

"We were blessed by a dry, sunny fall that allowed us to hang our fruit out to ripen slowly," said Larry Perrine, executive winemaker for Channing Daughters Winery, on the South Fork.

Charles Massoud, owner of Paumanok Vineyards on the North Fork, credited more modern viticulture techniques with helping to save what fruit they could. He compared 2003 to another cool vintage of the past: "1992 produced an abundant crop of average quality. This year we started a very aggressive thinning of the crop. The net effect is that we ended up with a crop that is about 60 percent of a normal year."

With everything picked except the grapes that are being left on the vine for late-harvest dessert wines, several growers reported that Chardonnay and other white varieties performed very well. Red varieties were more variable, though some growers reported excellent results, particularly with Cabernet Franc.

"We believe it will likely be the best vintage yet for our Cabernet Franc and show why this is the best-suited variety for the region," said Christiane Baker Schneider, co-owner of the North Fork's Schneider Vineyards.

In Virginia, growers had an especially difficult season, as Hurricane Isabel delivered an additional blow to their vines after the season's initially tough conditions. Wineries were hard pressed to achieve top quality with the region's key grapes, which include Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay and Viognier.

"In my 23 years of growing grapes in Virginia, 2003 has been the most difficult," said Jim Law, owner of Linden Vineyards, in the Blue Ridge Mountains. "To be honest, I am worried that many other winegrowers will be bottling wine that could have a negative impact on the reputation of our industry."

Jim Vascik, owner of Valhalla Vineyards in Roanoke, chose to declassify his entire red-wine production, and will produce only whites in 2003. "Twelve inches of rain in May and 11 in June tore the heart out of flowering and reduced potential yields by 75 percent or more," he said.

Other top Virginia wineries agreed with Law and Vascik's frank assessments of the vintage. Andrew Hodson, owner of Veritas Winery in Afton, in the Blue Ridge foothills, said, "Weather conditions during the growing season were among the worst of the last two decades."

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