“These things are to be EXPECTED in cool climate viticulture. And if you don’t EXPECT them and anticipate them, then you shouldn’t be growing grapes here. Because it means you are ignoring what is statistically common.”
These were the words of Arlo Ringsmuth, an intelligent and passionate former-marine-turned-Finger Lakes grape grower who has worked the past four years at Sawmill Creek Vineyards, a superb, steep site on the east side of Seneca Lake. Arlo looks about the opposite of a marine now. He has a 4-inch long beard and lives basically off the grid, very much in touch with nature in his work and in his play. He had kindly stopped by my home to chat about viticulture and give this comparably “indoor” retailer his round-up of vintage 2015 in the Finger Lakes.
In short, Arlo sums up 2015 as a “good” vintage, but he doesn’t like the rain we got (at flowering in spring as well as in 5 inches in September), and due to lower yields, it is not a “great” vintage commercially for growers and wineries. He says it was one of the smoothest vintages in terms of spacing out the harvest and not being “stacked up” with having to pick many varieties all at the same time. Pinot Noir harvested in mid-September enjoyed dry conditions and came in before some big rains, so it may be a star for the year. And he says Cabernet Sauvignon ripened well on their farm.
VIEW FROM THE VINEYARD, ARLO’S EYES:
Coming off our second harsh winter in a row, 2015′s cold wintry weather seemed to drag on rather unkindly through April. But winter came to an abrupt end, turning instantly rather summer-like. We had a very warm May and the vines made up for lost time. Flowering or “bloom” normally takes place in late May and early June in the Finger Lakes. Unfortunately, this is when the skies opened up and rain fell on and off throughout June and into the first third of July. The heat of May was soon forgotten.
As much as we probably all wish grapes could be grown organically in the Finger Lakes, it’s a rather tall order in our region because of precipitation such as we encountered in late spring. As if our vines weren’t stressed enough by the 2014-15 cold spells (Arlo noticed that Gewürztraminer, Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling came off the winter with less buds), just as they began to produce the precious flowers that would become the year’s fruit, they were repeatedly inundated with showers and dreary, overcast weather. The rains can knock off the buds (reducing yield) or lodge the cap into the bunch, setting up conditions for botrytis infection down the line. The botrytis doesn’t show up until the grapes accumulate sugar in late summer. Or a poor “fruit set” can result in smaller berries or uneven ripening (another eventual cause of low yield). In other words, what happens in the previous winter and the spring is what largely determines the fruit yields and grapes’ health. The phrase “everything in moderation” can seem an elusive dream in a Finger Lakes vineyard.
To protect the valuable potential on the vines, it’s essential to keep to spray schedules and that can be difficult when it’s raining often. Moisture creates rot of various kinds and rot isn’t acceptable in high quality wine. In the Finger Lakes, growers find fungicide crucial in keeping rot at bay. However, you need dry days to spray and those were scarce in June. Arlo says their tractors worked back and forth whenever the skies held back their moisture, only to create another problem–soil compaction. Vines like nicely textured soil where they roots can take up nutrients and water, not being rolled over by heavy machinery.
Talking about sprays isn’t very sexy, is it? But at this point, it’s a cool-climate reality that greatly impacts the quality and economic outcome of the season, in partnership with loving care of balanced vines. We fight fungal disease in the Finger Lakes much more than in drier, warm climates, so organic viticulture has yet been unattainable. Instead, sorting tables are the last line of defense for wineries seeking to guard quality.
In a fickle turnaround, July was rather dry and we had less rain than usual, followed by a normal Finger Lakes August. What this means for most people is that it was a great time to jump in the lakes and go to water parks. Since the vines are firmly rooted under soil and rock, they must do without a refreshing drink, and like many established garden perennials, they muster through. Luckily, the heat was not extreme and ripening inched forward in the summer days.
Leaf pulling is another essential viticultural action in July and again after véraison (the period when red varieties turn from green to purple). Leaf pulling helps expose the fruit to the sun and increase air flow (vines like breezes that dry off any moisture). It also allows the sprays to penetrate more effectively where they are needed, allowing one to use less chemicals. Some local growers leaf pull sooner and better than others. They also do crop estimates based on established formulas, and after véraison, it is often a time to “drop fruit” or “crop thin.” This allows the vine to focus on ripening a reasonable amount of sweet fruit instead of tons of mediocre, diluted fruit. Again, in the Finger Lakes, this practice varies from grower to grower and I imagine to some, dropped fruit looks like dollar bills on the ground. But if you want a delicious, evenly ripened crop that is balanced with the right amount of canopy, it takes manpower, attention, dry work days and the right vineyard management philosophies.
How did the vintage end? After a mostly glorious, sunny September, thirty-six hours of notable rain occurred at the end of the month. Those who picked well-farmed Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and other varieties before the deluge took in an attractive crop of below normal to normal yields. Grape clusters are tightly packed with berries, so rain can cause splitting, oxidation and uptakes in water that dilute the juice.
October was quintessential Finger Lakes fall weather…some gorgeous, blue skies, some beautiful autumn colors and some frost. There was increasing botrytis as the month progressed. On October 18th, we had a prolonged overnight frost and actually a little snow in certain locations. After a freeze, vine leaves fall off within a few days and no further sugar accumulates. Depending on your location, the frost may have hit harder in some sites than in others. This is why having multiple vineyard sources has its advantages. Any fruit that remains on the vine after the frost will not get any riper, but acid levels will go down. Basically, the mid-October frost signaled the end of the vintage was imminent and no one would be harvesting into November.
Good viticultural practices in 2015 were key with the amount of precipitation we encountered at key moments in the growing season. In general, Arlo concludes it is all what growers do to in response to the weather that matters, such as keeping on their spray schedules to prevent sour rot and unwanted botrytis, pulling leaves to open the canopy, dropping fruit so that the crop can ripen. One reason growing techniques vary from grower to grower is sometimes there isn’t enough labor in the Finger Lakes to get on top of the problems. Are there enough people on-hand to get all the tasks done in a timely manner and approach the vintage in a preventative manner or are growers fighting fires and picking their battles based on what’s most urgent? Overall, it very much depends on which varieties you grew, and as usual, it’s early to tell, but it might even have been a superb vintage if you stayed vigilant.
Having visited a few French cellars over the years and asking vignerons their impressions of the vintage, I often hear the word “classic” as a descriptor. It sounds so much more appealing than saying “average,” “typical,” or “normal.” If you hail from a cool-climate like the Finger Lakes where a range of damaging weather events can occur throughout the growing season, like Arlos says, you should be used to soldiering through. The devil is in the details, they say, and that certainly applies every year in the Finger Lakes. Considering the high points and low points of 2015, it was up to the grower to determine the outcome in the vats and barrels this year. I think it’d be appropriate to call it a “classic” Finger Lakes year.
-Written by Dewi Rainey with thanks to Arlo Ringsmuth*
*Arlo begins a new project in 2016 by preparing a plot of his family’s land on east Seneca Lake to plant Riesling and Cabernet Franc. He aims to create a “working landscape” with beneficial vegetation and insects in which something is always in bloom. Look for premium Finger Lakes grapes from “In Bloom” in 2020 and beyond.
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