The vineyards of eastern Long Island are enjoying the early days of climate change.
Written by Louis Walker
Community & Diversity Editor
A warming climate could mean better wines for vineyards on the eastern part of Long Island, if heavy rains don’t ruin the plants first.
“The grapes that once suited an area will likely no longer work and we’ll have to look to others better suited for the new climate,” Kate Millerbock, sales representative for Coeur Wine Company, said.
Long Island’s temperature is moderated by surrounding bodies of water – the Peconic Bay, the LI Sound and the Atlantic Ocean – making it one of the warmest wine regions in New York State. Warm, however, does not mean hot, it just means temperatures below freezing are not as common or long lasting. Now, as the climate shifts, there are more variables that go into a bottle of cabernet, but if they line up the end product can be better than ever.
“Overall, a warmer season would benefit the varieties that we grow in terms of promoting ripening,” Alice Wise, a viticulture researcher from Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County, said. “The erratic weather – more storms, heavier rain – could be problematic.”
Heavy rains synonymous with spring, help stimulate growth of the newly budding plants, but unpredictable rainfalls in the fall are a major concern.
“An increase in humidity and rainfall can lead to increased mold and disease pressure in the vineyard,” Whitney Beaman, program manager of Long Island Sustainable Winegrowing said. “Canopy management techniques, such as leaf pulling and shoot thinning, are effective at managing mold and disease pressure under humid conditions.”
Trimming excess leaves and leaving more of the grapes exposed to wind can help keep the fruit dry and mold free. “The health of a vineyard is largely due to how it is managed,” Gregory Jones, director of the Evenstad Center for Wine Education, said.
During the harvest months of August to October, clusters of grapes hang from leaf covered vines, but if there is too much rain, the leaves hold in moisture and can lead to mold on the vine and the grapes. Some varieties of grapes, such as pinot noir, are clustered very tightly. That can also keep moisture from evaporating, leaving winemakers with useless clusters in some cases.
“When it is time to harvest, you have a percentage that are beyond the threshold,” Richards Pisacano, head winemaker at Roanoke Vineyard, said. “You have to look at the cluster to pick out the [spoiled] grapes, and it can cost up to three times as much per acre to harvest.”
Before the grapes can be harvested, they must reach their desired ripeness, depending on the wine that will be made. A rosé wine can use less ripe grapes than red varieties such as cabernet sauvignon or merlot. For the grape to reach its peak ripeness during the summer, the heat must be met with plenty of water for the parched crop.
“In 2009, we harvested on a very cold day at the end of November. We needed to wait that long to fully ripen our Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc,” Scott Sandell, media director for Roanoke Vineyards, said. “The past few years we’ve been harvesting in mid-October, with higher sugar content and complete ripeness, and no parkas!”
“Warmer temperatures lead to riper fruit and increased sugar levels, which are converted to alcohol during fermentation” Beaman said. “Long Island is in a sweet spot, which allows us to benefit from warming temperatures for the foreseeable future without compromising wine quality.”
If, however, a sudden heat spell were to appear in the winter, as has been the case in recent years, grape vine can begin blooming too soon. The delicate buds would then have to survive the rest of winter and cooler spring days.
“In an ironic twist, there can be more cold damage in a warming world,” David Wolfe, professor of soil and plant ecology at Cornell University, said. “In 2012 and 2015 there was a major problem with unprecedented earliness. They [grape vines] were blooming weeks earlier”.
Some winemakers will hold off from trimming buds on the vines, a common practice, in an effort to have as many viable ones by summer.
As ocean temperatures continue to rise, the changing climate of Long Island wineries could overshadow the benefits and early ripening.
“I would say that what we’ve been seeing in terms of climate change has been a benefit to us,” Richard Olsen-Harbich, head winemaker for bedell cellars, said. “There are models that predict drastic changes over the next hundred years or so, I don’t think that’s something that I am going to have to deal with though.”
As time progresses, winemakers continue to monitor the changes they see, while enjoying their benefits right now.
“This is a huge topic of discussion in the wine world and there’s a lot written about it,” Millerbock said. “New world wine makers have been looking to the recent frosts in Burgundy and the controlled burns used to protect/save the vines/grapes.”
LISW holds several conferences and invites speakers to give winemakers advice on sustainability. Pruning techniques and grape varieties have been tested in different climates. Winemakers are saying the key to longevity is to keep learning.
“It’s great to know that there talking about this,” Gabrielle Loturco, an employee at the Roanoke Vineyards tasting room, said. “I knew a lot of people who deny climate change and it’s nice to know the wine industry is following the science.”
Preserving the wine industry is like preserving the identity of many places around the world and Eastern Long Island is no exception.
“It would be upsetting if the wineries couldn’t be here one day, there such a viable industry here, Denice Carbone, an LI resident for over 40 years, said. “[Wineries] play such a major part in the identity of Eastern LI.”