NJ Wine Industry Sees a Challenging Year Buoyed by Stellar Harvest Conditions

The following is a press release from The Winemakers Co-Op.

Grape growers statewide this year battled bouts of rainfall and dodged several tropical storms to reach a satisfying conclusion to the season: several weeks of sunny, warm, and rain-free weather during the critical harvest period. A “redemption vintage, similar to 2013” as one grower put it, 2017 was far from picture perfect wire to wire, but the excellent weather at the end of the season resulted in most grape varieties showing good to excellent quality.

Chardonnay, the state’s most widely planted white variety, emerged from dormancy south to north during the first two weeks of April. This early bud break was likely due to record warmth in February and April. Both months had the warmest average temperature in recorded history for New Jersey. May was marked by below-average temperatures and stretches of cloud cover. This resulted in average to below average fruit set after flowering at some vineyards, reducing yields. More summerlike weather arrived from mid-June through August, with periods of sun interrupted by typical threats of downpours from New Jersey thunderstorms. The most remarkable weather event in July was an out-of-season nor’easter, which spread a swath of rainfall totaling up to 6 inches during the last weekend of the month. Although grape growers had to contend with the excess rainwater through the summer, the grapes benefitted from below average nighttime low temperatures late July through early September. Cool summer evenings resulted in high levels of natural acidity in the grapes, critical to the production of exceptional wine.

The end of summer saw high pressure in control over the mid-Atlantic states. This benefited New Jersey vineyards in two ways: keeping vineyards warm and dry, and steering a series of tropical threats away from the state. Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Jose, and Maria all had possible storm tracks over New Jersey, but the high pressure ridge sent Harvey and Irma to the south and west, and kept Jose and Maria out to sea. With the number of Atlantic Ocean named storms, hurricanes, and major hurricanes all being above average in 2017, New Jersey vineyards fared extremely well, essentially untouched by tropical impact.

At Working Dog Winery in Robbinsville, owner Mark Carduner reported the driest September since the vineyard was planted in 2001. Mid-summer rains increased mold and mildew pressure in the vineyard through much of July and early August, requiring extra attention to canopy management during the dog days of summer. After early-ripening varieties were harvested, the warmth in middle and late September kept the harvested vines growing. “Canopies still look good- green and lush. Once the vines were relieved of the crop, the plants kept photosynthesizing, loading carbohydrates for next year,” says Carduner. Carduner added that the most exciting part of this year’s harvest was the terrific color concentration and sugar accumulation in red grape varieties, such as Syrah and Cabernet Franc.

Further south, similar efforts to modify and manage the vineyard canopy resulted in positive results for Heritage Vineyards in Richwood. Winemaker Sean Comninos saw an average year for white wine grapes, but reds are “exceptional, perhaps our finest vintage.” At Heritage, aggressive leaf pulling during the vines’ flowering stage in May resulted in a smaller crop, but similar to Working Dog, better than usual color concentration in red grapes. “Anthocyanin levels are 15% higher in the rows that we leaf-pulled most heavily. Pulling leaves early in the growing season encourages the grape clusters to loosen up, and allow better air flow during wet and humid seasons such as this,” added Comninos.

Michael Beneduce of Beneduce Vineyards in Pittstown also thinks he has some “best ever” wines on the way this vintage. “Fruit is coming in concentrated across the board, with moderate sugar levels, excellent natural acidity and intense flavors and aromatics. Gewurztraminer and Pinot Noir were the best quality I’ve seen to date, and I expect we’ll be able to make elegant, balanced, aromatic wines from all varieties.”

Also in Hunterdon County, Unionville Vineyards in Ringoes signaled much of the same enthusiasm for aromatic wines. Moderate heat and cool, breezy nights, made for a long and slow ripening that saw nominal sugar levels with high natural acidity, the bread and butter of cool-climate winemaking” according to Associate Winemaker Conor Quilty. “Sporadic weak cluster set, as well as a more conscientious approach to crop yield in overbearing vines such as Pinot Noir, resulted in a lower yielding year with no sacrifice in quality. Whites such as Viognier and Chardonnay saw a graceful ripening with a solid backbone of acidity, while structure and flavor in reds such as Syrah and Cabernet Franc benefited from over two weeks of warm weather with no recorded precipitation before the pick. Overall, it was a solid vintage for us.”

The first releases of the 2017 vintage are many months away, but New Jersey wine enthusiasts can taste over 30 current bottles from these four wineries Sunday the 29th, at the Fall Portfolio Tasting presented by The Winemakers Co-Op. The Co-Op wineries focus on dry wines from exclusively New Jersey grown grapes, giving guests the chance to taste fine wines from local vines. The tasting will be held at Working Dog Winery, at 610 Windsor Perrineville Road in Robbinsville from 1:30 to 5:30pm. For more information, visit www.thewinemakersco-op.com/events.

For more information about The Winemakers Co-Op, the Fall Portfolio Tasting, the 2017 grape harvest, or photograph requests, contact executive director John Cifelli at John@thewinemakersco-op.com.