Indian summer may have saved Pennsylvania's grape crop

October 24, 2008

University Park, Pa. — A warm Indian summer may have saved Pennsylvania's grape crop this year after hurricane season left vineyard owners questioning the fate of their harvests, according to a wine and grape expert with Penn State Cooperative Extension.
"The streak of October weather that was warm and dry really helped to get the late whites and reds fully mature," said Mark Chien, statewide viticulture extension educator based in Lancaster County. "For those wine-grape growers who had the patience and nerve to continue to let their fruit hang on the vines, that was the reward."

Grape growing in Pennsylvania is a chess game with the weather, but for 2008, Keystone State vineyards came out ahead, explained Chien. "The crops have benefited from smart harvesting strategies, a lack of frost up through October and few problems with birds and bees," he said.
Still, the 2008 Pennsylvania vintage saw some less-than-ideal conditions this year. Complications from hurricanes, hailstorms and overall weather patterns threatened the year's wine quality. "We had a dry August across much of the state, but hurricanes made the weather unreliable," recalled Chien.
Traditionally, years that are dry and warm make fine wines, while wet, cool years pose more difficulty, he noted. "Vineyards require well-drained soils and little rain, particularly during the last third of any vintage, which is the most critical time for wine," Chien said. "It is during this time that the vines focus on ripening the fruit and not on growing leaves, a process hindered by rain."
Rain also dilutes juice concentration within the grapes, he explained, and can lead to disease problems with the vines. Furthermore, late red varieties need a longer time on the vine, often until early November, creating prolonged concerns about rainfall.
Hailstorms in July and August damaged the fruit in some vineyards, but the effects should not pose too significant an issue, according to Chien. "The white grapes that mature first came off in fine condition," he said. "We should get some superb reds, especially the Bordeaux red varieties if people waited until after the rain in late September -- Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot and the hybrid Chambourcin."
Pennsylvania has a long history of agriculture, but viticulture and winemaking traditionally have not been viewed as a major sector of the state's agricultural activity. "Wine is one of the best value-added agricultural products in the world," explained Chien. "This value makes wine a suitable crop in areas where commodity crops cannot compensate for the value of the land to developers."
Chien points out that in 1992, Pennsylvania boasted only 42 wineries. Today the state has more than 130 wineries and an expanding number of vineyards. Most of the wineries are small, family-owned operations. "It is mostly career professionals who are starting vineyards either for retirement or as a serious wine hobby that may grow into a business," he said.
Pennsylvania's wine industry has experienced significant growth in the last 10 years. In 2005 the Pennsylvania Wine Association commissioned MKF, a research firm from California's Napa Valley, to do an economic-impact study on the state's wine industry. The study found that the industry yielded a $661 million economic impact on the state's economy and experienced a dramatic 24 percent jump in the number of licensed wineries between 2003 and 2006.
"Pennsylvania is now the fifth largest wine-grape producer in the nation, but even so, Pennsylvania wines account for only 2 percent of the state's wine consumption," Chien said. "This poses considerable opportunity for the industry to grow locally."
Although many consider northwestern Pennsylvania along Lake Erie as the state's predominant grape-growing region, most of the industry's growth is being seen in the southeastern part of the state. Vineyards sit on the eroded soils of hills stretching from Gettysburg to Allentown and into the Philadelphia metropolitan area. "Weather conditions are a challenge, which is why Lancaster, York and Adams counties are best suited for European varieties of fine-wine culture," said Chien, "Pennsylvania is a very vintage-defined wine region, and vineyards do well in these areas because they are generally warmer."
Vineyards and wineries also can generate additional revenues through tourism, but Pennsylvania has not capitalized on that concept the way other states have, according to Chien. "People just like to visit wineries," he said. "For example, Napa Valley is now the No. 1 tourist destination in California. Pennsylvania's eight wine trails are incredibly popular."
According to the MKF study, 877,000 visitors toured Pennsylvania wineries in 2005. "Pennsylvania's Office of Tourism, the Department of Agriculture and other key agencies should take advantage of this agro-tourism opportunity," Chien said. "We are falling behind other states that have done a lot more to promote their wines and support grape-growing research and education at their land-grant universities."

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Last Updated November 18, 2010