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Drought conditions putting pressure on NY grape vines

Walking among rows of green, picturesque vines, Tom Higgins of Heart & Hands Wine Company in Cayuga County pointed to a densely-packed cluster of pinot noir grapes. That density is typical for pinot noir, but this year, the cluster is even more crowded, which has implications for the last month or so of the growing season.

"When a cluster is nice and compact like this, rains in the latter part of the growing season are the curse of the winegrower," Higgins said. "It’s just not a good time to see rain."

Any showers this weekend should be okay, but in about 10 days, Higgins will be praying for dry skies.

Here’s why: rainfall in June was way less than in a typical year. That means the skins of the grapes didn’t stretch out and now, they’re not very "elastic." Add in the fact that the bunches are tighter than normal, and a quick drenching could swell the grapes and lead to splitting or bursting. 

Denser clusters are also more susceptible to fungi, because there isn't as much space for the wind and sun to make contact with the grape and whisk away water.

But the effects of New York state's drought is not all bad. Though the drought will reduce the harvest yield and lower the amount of wine Higgins can make, the flavor might be richer because of it -- if Higgins makes the right decisions with the vintage.

Credit Bret Jaspers / WSKG News
Tom Higgins owns Heart & Hands Wine Company with his wife Susan.

"Certainly the differences that mother nature provides us in the growing season, I think, challenges us as wine growers," Higgins said. "If we had vanilla wines all the time I think it would lose its fun."

Another bright side: fewer weeds.

Harvest time is yet undetermined, but in the past, Heart & Hands has started picking grapes in mid-September.