From Vine to Wine

It’s been a wild weather year — record winter snowfall followed by record summer heat followed by record daily rainfall. 

Weather that’s been inconvenient for most us has been terrible for Maryland farmers who grow conventional crops like corn and soybeans. 

But for Maryland grape growers in all corners of the state, 2010 has been a very good year. 

“A good year is an understatement,” Rob Deford, president of Boordy Vineyards in Hydes, Maryland, told Bay Weekly. “I’ve been growing grapes since 1965, and this is the best year I’ve ever had. It’s off-the-charts good. Mother Nature dealt us a royal straight flush.”  

Snow’s Warm Blanket

Remember all that snow? Seasonal snowfall records were shattered. At BWI airport, the National Weather Service recorded 79.9 inches of snow — the most snow since recordkeeping began 118 years ago. 

The heavy white stuff gave a thick blanket of protection to Maryland vineyards.

Grape vines are prone to winter damage. In extreme cold, the vines can be easily desiccated. Trunks — the base of the vine — split and crack. 

“If the temperature gets too cold, it can kill the vine to the ground,” explained Dr. Joseph Fiola, University of Maryland Extension viticulture specialist. 

This year, snow began to pile up around the vines before the coldest temperatures hit and remained there for most of the season, creating an unusual continual winter groundcover for Maryland.

“Snow is a great insulator,” Fiola said. “The soil and lower part of vines never got to a temperature to cause significant damage.” 

It was, by grape-growing standards, a perfectly wonderful winter.

Safe Early Buds

To the relief of winter-weary Marylanders, spring arrived early. By late March, snow was a memory. 

“March and April temperatures were above normal,” Fiola recalled. “It went from cold and snow-covered to warm quicker than I’ve seen in more than 20 years.”

But the early warmth brought another threat to vineyards: late killer frosts.

As the ground heats up, winter-dormant vines wake up and push out new buds that eventually form leaves and clusters of grapes. These tender new buds are sitting ducks to cold air. Freezing temperatures can kill the new growth and wipe out the year’s crop.

In Southern Maryland vineyards, where weather extremes are moderated by the proximity to the Bay, bud break averaged only a week or so earlier than normal, so buds were relatively safe with no late freezes threatening their young lives.

But up north, where bud break came three weeks earlier than normal, grape growers held their breath.

“There were three freezes after bud break,” Boordy’s Deford said. “They came extremely close, but we escaped.”

Nourished by the plentiful ground water from all the melted snow, Maryland vines were running on a fast track.

Summer: Hot, Dry, Ideal

The early spring gave way to a blazing summer. Temperatures regularly reached into the mid to high 90s, rarely tempered by cooling rain. At summer’s peak in July, most of Maryland was drying out, with well-below-normal rainfall. By the first week of September, the U.S. Geological Survey found a third of the state in moderate to severe drought. 

While conventional crops withered under the unrelenting sun, grapevines — plants that thrive under stress — flourished in the sizzling heat and dry ground.

Even in this hot, dry summer, humidity threatened Maryland vineyards. 

“Our humid summers breed fungal diseases like powdery mildew, downy mildew and black rot,” explained John Behun, owner of Perigeaux Winery and Vineyards in St. Leonard.  

But summer’s abnormally high heat provided a measure of protection against the fungal diseases.

“Fungus becomes inactive at 92 to 93 degrees,” Behun said. “So even though we had high humidity, this year it wasn’t that much of a factor. The high temperatures were a blessing.”  

Fungal diseases aren’t the only problem fueled by high humidity. Summer thunderstorms bring pounding rain, hail and high winds that batter vines and their tender growing fruit.

This year, thunderstorms were few and far between, and vines thrived, healthy and heavy with bunches of ripening grapes.

Risk Down to the Wire

All that good fortune didn’t guarantee clear sailing ahead. Grapes are typically harvested in early fall, smack in the middle of hurricane season. The news from the National Weather Service the first week of August was not good: a 90 percent chance of an “above-normal hurricane season” was predicted. The forecast continued ominously:  “If the activity reaches the upper end of our predicted ranges, the season will be one of the more active on record.”

With the preceding six months setting a pattern of record-breaking weather, growers expected trouble.

Heavy rains that accompany late summer hurricanes and tropical storms are a regular concern to grape growers. If the near-ripe fruit is exposed to a lot of rain, water is wicked up through the roots into the clusters. The result is big, fat, juicy — and diluted grapes.

Quality is preferred over quantity in wine grapes. Following the dry, hot summer, the grapes were ripening well with good flavor, good color and nice characteristics. They were smaller than usual, but more concentrated — to the delight of winemakers. 

“We had brix levels — a measurement of sugar — of 24 to 26, which are optimum levels,” Behun said. “By contrast, during the 2008 rainy growing season, brix levels were only 20 to 22.” 

The pattern of good luck held. Little rain fell as the harvest approached, and fall weather continued to favor the grapes.

“It was very warm until September,” recalled viticulture specialist Fiola. “Then it cooled off, with daytime temperatures in the 70s and 80s, down to the 60s at night. This is prime ripening weather. The grapes produce sugar during the day, and cool nights allow the fruit to store sugar and convert it into flavor and aroma compounds. When it’s warm at night, sugars perspire and go away.”

Across the state, grapes responded to Mother Nature by ripening early. 

Up north at Boordy Vineyards, ripening was about three weeks ahead of normal.

“We were getting incredibly beautiful numbers on fruit earlier than usual,” Deford said.

In St. Leonard, Behun began harvesting Perigeaux’s vineyard two weeks earlier than normal. 

“We usually start harvesting our white grapes toward the end of August,” he said. “This year we were picking by the middle of the month.”

The weather continued to cooperate — until the last day of September brought another weather record breaker: BWI was doused with 6.02 inches of rain, crushing the previous one-day rainfall record of 1.60 inches set back in 1920.

“When to harvest is a critical decision,” said Deford of Boordy Vineyard. “We base it on flavor and years of experience, but it’s still a very tricky call to make. Every year, it’s the same angst.”

This year, the winemakers guessed right.

“We saw it coming,” Deford said. “And we picked the day before. So the 10 inches of rain we got didn’t hurt us. The few varieties left on the vine were slighted dehydrated, and the rains just hydrated them.” 

The early season harvest saved the 2010 crop. If the deluge had come two or three weeks earlier, Fiola said “we could have had a mess.”

In Southern Maryland, the grapes were also harvested in the nick of time. 

“We were pressing the picked grapes as flood waters rose outside,” said Richard Fuller of Port Leonard Winery in Leonardtown. “Two weeks earlier, the rains would have really damaged the harvest.”

At Running Hare Winery, owner Mike Scarborough said the fall harvest was a “tale of two cities. Grapes that were picked before the rain should make for a great vintage. The ones that were not picked before the rain are big, fat juicy grapes, making a different quality wine.”

Fine Vine to Fine Wine

The 2010 growing season produced an extraordinary crop of wine grapes. 

With the harvest all but complete, the grapes have been pressed and the juice is in the hands of the winemakers. 

The light whites, like Pinot Grigio, will be ready to bottle in six months or so. But it will be a couple of years until the reds are ready to drink. 

Boordy’s Deford said it will be worth the wait.

“Watch for the 2010 wines,” Deford advised. “They are going to be extraordinary.”

In Southern Maryland, Running Hare’s Scarborough agreed.

“At Running Hare, we’re going to have some great wines in the next couple of years,” Scarborough said. “That is, if I don’t screw it up.”