On an overcast February afternoon, winemaker Bennett Price walked away from a barrel of wine he was readying to bottle and headed outside, to a fence near his DeBeque Canyon Winery where clusters of very dry grapes were shifting nervously in the breeze.
“These are Pinot Noir,” he said, reaching under the bird-proof netting drawn over the vines. “They were pretty good grapes, too, but they came on real early last spring, too early really to do anything with.”
On the third consecutive day of 60-degree plus highs, in what’s suddenly behaving as if it were the northern extension of the Colorado Banana Belt, one can be forgiven if the weather has you thinking more of mid-spring rather than mid-winter. While the sides of nearby mountains still wear thick blankets of snow, there hasn’t been any snow, or any moisture of any kind, in the lower valleys for several weeks.
Instead, here at 4,200 feet, plenty high enough for winter to return for another month or two, birds are building nests, golfers are swinging away and winter-dormant lawns are starting to green.
“I think we’re going to have an early bud break,” Price said. The unseasonal temperatures “warm up the soil too much and that stimulates the roots to start pushing.”
The temperatures, while warmer than normal – unless this is the new normal – still haven’t been consistently high enough to break the vines’ winter dormancy. It takes 50 degrees to see the return of spring, said state viticulturist Horst Caspari.
“And that’s on a 24-hour cycle, not just a quick jump up and then back to below freezing,” he said. “We’re still getting enough diurnal variation that nothing’s broken yet.”
Yet Bennet Price isn’t convinced after hearing a weather forecast calling for cooler temperatures followed by more warm days.
“We were up to 60-something yesterday and our low was 46 or something like that and today it’s back up there again,” he said. If the vines do respond to the warmth, “hopefully we won’t go back down to the low 20s or teens because you can start damaging the canes and trunks because the sap’s coming up.”
Tree-fruit growers are extremely wary of such mid-February warm spells because their trees are close enough to bud break that prolonged mild weather can bring early and unwanted development. Climate change hasn’t yet brought Western Colorado to where a heavy spring frost is out of the question.
Grapes, however, come on several weeks later than cherries, peaches and apples, which gives a bit of leeway and enough time for the weather to back to cold.
“But he’s right, the ground is being warmed up,” agreed grape grower Neil Guard at Avant Winery on East Orchard Mesa. “And look, it’s dry, there’s no snow at all. Which means if it stays warm, the vines are going to need water and we can’t get any irrigation water until April 1.”
Should the vines suffer freeze injuries, they then are susceptible to a bacterial infection called crown gall, which can eventually kill the vine.
Crown gall, caused by a bacterium that lives in the soil, also can result from mechanical injuries caused by normal vineyard maintenance such as pruning, grafting and training vines.
“I’m working in some vineyards and I have to go through and mark the vines with crown gall so they don’t prune that vine,” Price said. “You don’t want to prune that vine because if you prune it and then go to the next vine, you’re going to pass that bacterium to the next vine.”
He said the only way to treat crown gall is to pull and burn the vine and replant.
“It’s just another thing to think about if you’re planning on owning a vineyard,” Guard said, with a laugh.
– Photos, story by Dave Buchanan
2016 may go down as the year Nature caught up with the wine business.
Fires, freezes and bouts of hail were among the changes brought to the world’s wine industry and the people who work there.
Foremost, of course, was Chile, which suffered what Chilean President Michelle Bachelet called “the greatest forest disaster in our history.”
More than 135 wildfires burned an estimated 1 million acres (404,685 hectares) of land, nearly four times the size of New York City, including more than 100 vineyards in the wine-producing region of Maule in Chile’s Central Valley, that country’s top wine-producing region.
Chile is the world’s fifth-largest wine-producing country and in 2015 exported to the U.S. alone more than $1.9 million worth of wine, according to the USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service.
While forest fires are accepted part of Chile’s hot, dry summers, this year has been especially difficult, said NPR’s Phillip Reeves.
“These (fires) have taken on disastrous proportions, thanks to prolonged drought, strong winds and unusually hot weather,” Reeves said.
The wildfires destroyed towns, forests, plantations and vineyards and killed at least 11 people in Central and Southern Chile, several news reported.
Firefighters in Maule reported temperatures reaching over 100-degrees C (212 F), leaving homes without power after their cables melted. Three firefighters lost their lives while battling the flames.
Sergio Amigo Quevedo, winemaker at Cancha Alegre in the Maule region, lost six hectares of old vines to the fires.
“It’s hard to believe that vines you’ve taken care of with such love and sacrifice are lost along with part of the viticultural patrimony of Chile, because of a voracious fire caused by careless men,” he told Decanter.com.
Diego Morales of Bisogno Wines lost 25 hectares of 150-year-old País vines, having tried to fight the fire with his family.
Carlos Gálvez of Bisogno Wines said in an interview with The Washington Post, that unless his vines recover next season, he will lose half its wine production.The winery’s blog posted a video showing a hellish landscape of fire-destroyed vines.
“The fires destroyed our vines but not our dreams,” Gálvez said. “This is a low-income region, and many live off the vineyards. There are some who have lost everything.”
The fires are thought to have been started by arson.
There also were fires in South Africa, where up to 40 percent of the 300-year old Vergelen wine estate was destroyed; in California’s Lake County where an arson-caused fire razed 1,600 heroes (about 4,000 acres) including the Tuscan Village winery and community complex; and in France’s Languedoc-Rousillon more than 1,200 hectares were burned.
It was reported wild boars caught on fire and then ran, spreading the flames through the vineyards and forests.
The fires came only a few months after the Languedoc area received a deluge of hailstoms that damaged up to 60 percent of the 2016 grape crop, said Decanter Magazine.
Similarly, Chablis suffered two bouts of hail and an unseasonal frost reduced the forecast size of the harvest in Burgundy, Loire and Champagne.
Spring brings constant change to Colorado wine country.
We’ve already seen temperatures ranging from the 30s to the 80s, high winds, and daily weather ranging from scorching sun to rainy stretches reminiscent of winegrowing in the Northwest.
One thing we’ve dodged so far is temperatures below freezing affecting grape buds.
Orchardists haven’t been so lucky and several times this spring they’ve been rousted out of bed by the frost alarm going off.
Up to now winemakers count themselves lucky, and if things continue this way we may see a repeat of last year’s bountiful harvest, which was the largest so far seen and came at a time many winemakers’ reserves were running bony following several lean years.
One of the global impacts of climate change seen in fruit- and grape-growing regions from western Colorado to the Rhine and Burgundy is earlier bud breaks, which puts most stone fruits at a severe disadvantage because their young flowers are susceptible to late frosts.
Grapes break bud later than tree fruit, which normally puts grape buds still tightly wrapped and mostly unaffected during late frosts.
This year, however, the shoe dropped in some of the world’s most-famous wine regions, including Burgundy and elsewhere in Europe where a late frost on April 26-27 brought temperature below freezing.
A report issued by the Bourgogne Wine Board (BIVB) said the “extremely rare” frost affected vineyards across Burgundy.
Among the vineyards most affected were the higher vineyards in Chablis and the Grand Auxerrois, the north of the Côte de Beaune (Savigny, Chorey and down to Meursault, Pommard and Volnay) and the Côte de Nuits.
Early reports came too early to provide detailed analysis of the damage but this week its was reported nearly half (46percent) of the vineyards – covering 13,453 hectares (33,234 acres) – suffered damage to at least 30-percent of the young buds with 23 percent of the vineyards reporting losses of more than 70 percent.
The remaining 54% – 15,797 hectares– received less than 30% damage.
There also have been reports of equally severe frosts in the Loire and Languedoc regions of France and in the Abruzzo in Italy.
It’s not like Abruzzo, which borders the Adriatic Sea about midway along the east side of the Italian “boot” and perhaps more remembered for the 2009 L’Aquila earthquake, hasn’t suffered setbacks before.
But like many of the smaller wine regions in Italy, the last 40-50 years have seen a renaissance in Abruzzo, where winemaking dates back to the sixth century B.C.
Large cooperative wineries concentrated in the Chieti province produce vast amounts of wine, which then is sold in bulk to other Italian wine regions such as Tuscany, Piedmont and the Veneto for blending.
The region is famed for its Montepulciano D’Abruzzo, which in the late 20th and early 21st centuries became one of Italy’s most-exported wines.