Of Grape Concern: Hudson Valley Winegrowers Adapt to Climate Change | Chronogram Magazine

A bottle of wine is a snapshot of a place and time. Indicative of its environment, the nuances of a wine's terroir are determined by a range of details, from the soil where its grapevines are rooted to the vineyard's overall topography. Regional weather patterns play a key role as well, and as extreme weather events become more common around the world, they affect how wine is being produced.

Here in the Hudson Valley, the data on local climate trends gathered by the New York Department of Environmental Conservation, Cornell University, Scenic Hudson, and other trusted experts all show that regional weather patterns have been incrementally growing warmer, on par with global trends—and at times, faster than global averages.

Of course, this affects regional agriculture across the board, and the Hudson Valley has experienced a spectrum of extreme weather events in the past decade alone, from hurricanes to droughts, blizzards to tornadoes. But because terroir can determine a wine's personality in depth of richness or a delicate sweetness, it can also indicate a harsh environment due to extreme weather that may have happened in a particular year.

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In 2022, Fjord Vineyards in Milton lost more than half of its grapes to animals starved of normal food sources due to drought.

For instance, in 2020 wildfires swept through the West Coast and burned so broadly that it created hazy skies as far-reaching as New York. Some fires were caused by human activity, others by lightning strikes, but all were intensified by long-term droughts and caused famed California wine regions like Napa and Sonoma to struggle with "smoke taint." This occurs when smoke changes the chemical makeup of grape skins, giving wine uncharacteristic campfire aromas or ashy, medicinal flavors.

"The aroma compounds of smoke can adhere themselves to sugar molecules in grape skins, making them unable to be washed off, and winemakers have very few ways in which to mitigate this issue," explains Russell Moss, general manager at Milea Estate Vineyard in Staatsburg. Moss was a consultant for vineyards and wineries across the country and world before moving to New York in 2018 to teach viticulture for Cornell University and consult with Milea; he now oversees the winery's direction. "Smoke taint was so widespread in wines from these regions that many retailers and restaurants have refused to carry the 2020 vintage and have elected to stock up on the 2019 and 2021 vintages instead."

Dealing with Drought

Although wildfires have historically been less of a threat for New York winemakers than in California, the local data still suggests that intense and dry heat will be ongoing problems for Northeast wineries. "The biggest threat to viticulture in New York, according to current climate models, is the risk of short-term droughts," Ross explains. "The models that I've seen show that we basically won't have any change in mean annual rainfall, however, the amount of discrete rain events will decrease. That means when we get rain, we will get a lot of rain, and that there'll be longer periods of time between rain events, causing short-term droughts."

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Milea Estate at sunset.

While a short-term summer drought can be anticipated, in 2022 New York State saw historic drought levels starting in May, according to the National Integrated Drought Information System. Data showed the drought growing to a "severe" categorization (level D2 based on a scale of D0-D4) between August through October—harvest season in the Hudson Valley. The impacts of this sort of long-term event can be dire, widespread, and long-lasting.

"Short-term droughts can cause skin-splitting that leads to sour-rot—when the fruit turns to vinegar on the vine—or it can lead to drought stress of the plant, which negatively impacts grape yield and quality," Moss says. "However, when you compare this to the climate models of the West Coast, in which they'll see severe long-term droughts and more frequent and severe wildfires, the long-term risk of grape growing on the East Coast is favorable."

When dealing with drought, growers are faced with the challenge the oppressive heat brings—not just to crops, but to the vineyard's entire ecosystem. During 2022's drought, the wild-growing berries and plants that many wildlife depend on for food had shriveled or dried out, and the food scarcity sent animals toward vineyards and farms in droves.

"Last year's drought was a very sad situation because there were fewer available food sources in the wild, so the wildlife pressure was more than we've ever seen," says Matthew Spaccarelli, who co-owns Fjord Winery in Milton, with partner Casey Erdmann. "In some of our growing blocks we lost more than 50 percent of our crops during the last two weeks of the growing season because of the wildlife—deer, raccoon, skunks. The number of birds on our netting every morning was insane. When there's no food in the woods, hungry animals find their way in."

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Milea Estate owner Barry Milea and Russell Moss inspecting the 2022 Sang’s Vineyard Cabernet Franc at Milea Estate.

This impacted Fjord's yield from four-and-a-half tons per acre in 2021, to one-and-a-half in 2022. "We're more focused on making premium wine than having the largest crops, but the last two years brought their own challenges," Spaccarelli explains. "In 2021, hurricanes Henri and Ida brought 14 inches of rain, saturating the ground during the first few weeks of harvest; when that much rain falls at once, water just sits in the soil. Then in 2022 we had eight weeks without rain in the middle of the summer. So you have to shift constantly. Our challenge is to be as proactive as we can for the dry events, putting irrigation everywhere in case we need it, but also planting cover crops across the vineyard to soak up moisture and to prevent erosion."

Aiming High

Adaptation is the name of the game in any agricultural situation, which means that Northeast growers are now looking at what grapes will thrive in the anticipated warmer temperatures. New York is known as a cold-climate grape growing region, and the grapes grown here over generations have developed a cold-hardiness to survive frosts. "The data shows a general warming trend leading to longer summers, and although longer ripening seasons can be good for cold-climate grape growers, shifts in overall temperatures can affect the dormancy periods and overall cold-hardiness of grapes," says Justin Jackson, the sustainability program manager at the New York Grape and Wine Foundation. "To survive colder temperatures, grapes acclimate to the cold; if they're unable to acclimate, they risk disease and death when temperatures drop."

One solution is to grow hybrid grapes, a crossing of two or more species. While the wine industry as a whole has mixed feelings about the use of hybrids, they do tend to be cold-hardy and disease-resistant. Not to be feared as a Franken-grape, they can still be produced organically, biodynamically, or as part of typical growing culture, and thrive in the region.

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Courtesy of New York Wine & Grape Foundation

Another option many cold-climate growers are choosing is to start crops at higher altitudes or shift plantings to areas of their vineyards that see less sun. In Washington State, for example, winemakers have historically sought lower elevations to encourage ripening, but now that ongoing warmer weather has pushed harvest season back to August—when it's typically September into October—they're seeking higher sites where colder nights can help grapes retain their natural acidity.

"If these weather patterns continue—as the data suggests it will—we may see either an increase in hybrids or the phasing out of cold-hardy grapes, impacting the types of wines being produced in the region," Jackson explains. "Our region is similar to the Alsace region of France, where ice wine is popular. This is when you harvest wine grapes while still frozen, because it gives them a sugary flavor for producing sweet wines. As the summers grow longer, ice wine might be produced less because the freeze isn't coming at its usual time, and waiting for a frost that doesn't come causes fruit to rot on the vine. For some growers, it might not be worth the risk of losing grapes, so they may harvest before the frost and still end up making something like Riesling. But on the other hand, we're seeing grapes thrive in New York that didn't historically do well here, like cabernet sauvignon; it's been cropping up more frequently in New York and ripening better than it has in the past."

It's not a matter of whether the weather will get back to normal or resume patterns we grew accustomed to in decades prior. Rather, for winegrowers, it's an acceptance of change as a constant and a call to fluidity—the sun will rise, the sun will set, what happens in between can only be predicted to an extent. It's one more reminder that the way it's always been, may not be the way it's going to be; an ongoing lesson this decade has been actively teaching us.

What Can Growers Do?

The adage "prepare for the worst, hope for the best" is common among agriculturalists of all stripes, but to be a cold-climate grape grower is to be an innovative steward of the land, and just as the environment shifts and adapts, so must winemakers, and so must wine consumers. 

Sustainability is key; by taking on sustainable growing, harvesting, and operational practices, growers can better ensure their vineyard's longevity and prosperity. "There's no one-step-fits-all approach to sustainability; tertiary measures must be taken into account, depending on what works for a particular vineyard," Jackson says. "Cover crops are good for some, in other places it could weaken the vine."

He recommends growers take advantage of the VineBalance workbook, a free resource produced by the New York Wine and Grape Foundation that allows for self-scoring of one's vineyard and winemaking practices. The book contains nine sections varying from vineyard practices, to water management, to how employees are treated. After self-scoring and making any necessary changes, winemakers can request an auditor to review and certify the winery as sustainable, which allows use of a trustmark on bottles to market their wine as certified-sustainable.

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Milea's GM Russell Moss prunes a vine in winter.

"The trustmark makes it easier for consumers to know that a grower is doing their best to conserve the environment, pay employees living wages, and use best practices," Jackson explains. "When consumers are aware, they begin asking for sustainably grown wine, which means restaurant and store distributors see more demand, which encourages growers to meet consumer demand for sustainable wine."

There are already a significant amount of New York growers doing right by their land, even though New York is, to put it simply, a rough place to grow grapes. "We want these wineries to be a lasting legacy of the Milea family in the Hudson Valley, so they must serve multiple generations," Ross adds. "We're deeply committed to our land and use best practices to grow grapes sustainably with minimal impact on the surrounding ecosystem. Sustainability is a critical part of the Milea ethos. We have a guiding quote: 'Great wine requires devotion—to the land, family, friends; the community, and progress.' These wineries are not just here for the current generation."

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