There may be one bright spot in this year's drought: better Nebraska and Iowa wines.
The dry weather and heat have made this year's grape crop smaller, so vintners in the Midlands have had less fruit to pick. The grapes also aren't as large.
But the harvest still holds the promise of standout wines because the drought has concentrated both the flavor and sugar in this year's fruit.
“I think what we will see this year is wines with more intensity and more complexity,” said Jim Ballard, the winemaker at James Arthur Vineyards, Nebraska's largest winery, which maintains 12,000 grape vines near Lincoln and works with more than 20 other Nebraska growers around the state. “ I'm really excited about what I've seen so far.”
He's not alone. Several winery owners in the Midlands report that wines produced from this summer's grapes, the earliest of which will be available this fall and winter, will be higher-quality and more flavorful.
Vaughn Hammond, a specialty crops extension educator with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension office, said grapes sometimes do better under stressful conditions.
“The plant is producing that much less,” he said. “It puts all its energy into fewer grapes. The berry quality is very good.”
Grapes are deeply rooted in the soil, so when they face drought conditions, Hammond said, their roots penetrate even farther until they find groundwater. That sustains the plant.
“The flavor and the essence of the berries end up much more intense,” he said. “As far as we can tell, this will be an exceptional wine year.”
Many Nebraska vineyards are done harvesting grapes at about the point they usually begin. The growing season starts in the spring. Harvest usually begins about Aug. 1 and can last until October.
James Arthur finished its harvest over the weekend.
Ballard said the vineyard determines harvest times for various grapes based on their brix, or sugar content. Grapes strong enough to grow in Nebraska include Edelweiss, LaCrosse, St. Croix and Vignoles, names that may be familiar to those who visit area wineries. Because Nebraska has such hard winters, it can be difficult for growers to get the brix high enough even in these varieties.
When the brix is too low, Ballard has to add sugar to the grapes to jump-start the fermentation process. This year he won't have to do that because hot, dry conditions have made the natural sugar content of the grapes so much higher.
In a normal year, said Josh Rockemann, James Arthur's vineyard manager, the brix of the LaCrosse grape, for instance, is around 18 or 19 at the highest. This year it came in at 22.
“That doesn't mean the wine will be sweet. It will ferment out,” Ballard said. “We will just be starting with more natural sugars than we have ever seen before.”
In Paxton, Neb., owner Pat Gamat said the 5 Trails Winery harvest is done, too, and he's also excited about the grapes. Between its own land and that of its contractors, 5 Trails has about 20 acres of vines.
“We saw just tremendous quality,” he said. “And though the yield per acre was down, it's going to be a very good year for wine.”
He said he's especially excited about the Brianna, a sweet white wine with tropical fruit flavors like pineapple, mango and kiwi, and the Frontenac, a grape used in varieties of reds and rosés.
Five Trails will release its first wines from this year's harvest around the holidays.
At James Arthur, sweet wines from this year's harvest will be available in November. A few more will come out around the holidays. The drier reds will come out starting in 2014 because they must be aged.
Iowa vintner Will Kimberley said he's yet to see a “normal” growing year since his winery opened a year and a half ago. With his wife, Ashlee Bahnson-Kimberley, he runs Calico Skies Vineyard and Winery at Inwood, in northwest Iowa. The Kimberleys have five acres of vines on site and buy grapes from farmers in Iowa and Illinois.
“That's the thing about the Midwest,” he said. “We get a curve ball every year.”
Kimberley said the big thing he's noticed this year is a clean crop.
“We had almost no disease or rot or fungus, because it's been so dry,” he said. Hammond, the extension officer, agreed. In Nebraska City, where he works, he saw similar pest-free conditions.
Calico Skies stopped spraying fungicide on its crop the second week of June, and one vineyard that it works with raised an organic crop this year.
“You can't have a better year to start doing that,” Kimberley said.
So will the regular consumer be able to tell the difference in this year's vintage? It depends, Ballard said.
“As a winemaker, we'll notice those differences,” he said. “The general consumer might not notice a huge difference. But in most cases, the wines will be better.”
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