BETH YOUNG PHOTO
Libby Tarleton, an assistant viticulturist at Long Island Horticultural Research and Extension Center in Riverhead, puts netting over grape vines at the Sound Avenue farm Tuesday afternoon to protect the fruit from birds.
This time of year, the grapes hanging from vines from Calverton to Southold are usually small, hard and green, with only faint hints of their future as plump, sweet fruit.
But the hot, dry weather since June has led to an unusual phenomenon. VÃ raison, the point at which grapes plump up, fill with sugar and change color, has begun earlier than ever before.
Alice Wise, a viticulturist at Cornell Cooperative Extension’s research vineyard in Calverton, was the first grower here to report vÃ raison, which started in her marquette grapes last Friday. By Tuesday afternoon, the marquette had almost completely turned and she was beginning to see vÃ raison in pinot noir and pinot gris. She and her research assistants have been in the field all week placing nets over the grapes to avoid the inevitable rush of birds attracted to the ripening fruit.
“We are about two weeks ahead of normal. This is the earliest in the history of the wine industry,” she said Tuesday. “April through July have all been warmer than the long-term average. Rainfall has been well below normal. While we frequently have hot, dry conditions in summer, it is usually for not such an extended period of time.”
Sal Diliberto, owner of Diliberto Winery on Manor Lane in Jamesport, has already seen his chardonnay and sauvignon blanc grapes begin to turn.
“We’ve seen little touches. We’re putting the nets on this week. We normally put them on the second week in August,” he said. “Last year we picked the third week in September. This year, it may be the first week.”
VÃ raison hadn’t touched the grapes at Bedell Cellars in Cutchogue on Tuesday, but winemaker Richard Olsen-Harbich said he wasn’t surprised that it had already begun farther west, where the climate is not tempered as much by the sea breezes.
“We’re on a pretty good trend for being two weeks ahead,” he said. “We had the earliest bud break ever, about April 10 or 15. We normally don’t see bud break until the first of May. We do a sparkling wine, a blanc de blanc, that I wouldn’t be surprised to be harvesting by the end of August.”
Ron Goerler, owner of Jamesport Vineyards, said that the beginning of yellow bark growth on his canes, a precursor to vÃ raison, had begun. He usually expects the canes to change in early August.
“I’ve been doing this 29 years and I’ve never seen this before,” he said, adding that “the potential is huge” that this could be a vintage to remember.
“Potential” is the key word for where the crop goes from here. The heat of 1991 promised a stellar crop but it was hurt by Hurricane Bob, Mr. Goerler remembered, and the heat this year has already surpassed 2005, which had promised to be a very good year until nine days of rain at the end of August put a damper on the fruits’ finishing.
This year’s crop appears to be heavy, due in part to the lack of rain in June, when the vines’ flowers can be destroyed by rainstorms. “The crop is beautiful. It’s not a light crop,” said Mr. Goerler.
Now that the fruit is turning, it’s not just birds, heavy rain or hurricanes that set winemakers’ weather sense on high alert. Mr. Diliberto said Tuesday that he was hearing forecasts of heavy thunderstorms Wednesday that could bring hail to the North Fork.
“I’m knocking on wood. This could be a phenomenal vintage,” he said. “But hail could be devastating. You have to be able to finish with healthy fruit. Last year we had a terrible start but we had a very long fall. It made the fruit really nice. If we had just a fair fall, this would be a good year, comparable to if not better than 2007.”
Winemakers have seen a great variability in rain patterns this year, as heavy thunderstorms can drop two inches of rain in one area while leaving an area just a few miles away dry.
Grapes tend to thrive during extended dry periods, and most vineyard managers make sure to limit water because doing so forces the plants to put more growth energy into the fruit. But Ms. Wise pointed out a few yellowing leaves at the bottom of her canes on Tuesday and said they were signs that the plants were stressed due to lack of rain.
She said that even the vineyards she’d seen that don’t have irrigation were faring well with the hot, dry weather punctuated with short bursts of rain.
Hot weather probably means warmer sea temperatures, which can mean “a more dangerous hurricane season,” said Mr. Olsen-Harbich. “But part of the fascination and artistry of being a winemaker is that every year is different.”