Pinot Noir grapes still hanging at Freedom Run Winery in Lockport, NY

By Bryan Calandrelli, Niagara Region Editor

For Jonathan Oakes, winemaker at Leonard Oakes Estate Winery and Schulze Vineyards and Winery, the 2011 growing season can be summed up in one word: wild.

“It’s been one of the wildest rides I’ve seen in a long time,” he said.

Thanks to Mother Nature, of course. It started with a cool and excessively wet late spring followed by an intensely hot and dry July. The good news for Oakes is that all that heat enabled the vines to catch up to where they needed to be mid-way through the season…just about the time for his family’s vineyard to get hit by a hail storm. Luckily, it was early enough in the season — before sugars were accumulating in the grapes — so the damage was minimal.

Late September rains forced some growers, including Oakes to bring in the whites all at once to avoid the disease pressure associated with the conditions.

Lenn_2011Septharvest_02“We got pushed into this tight window where most of the whites were ripe at the same time,” Oakes said.

Arrowhead Spring Vineyards owner Duncan Ross foresees a successful harvest of his chardonnay (currently at 23.5 brix) this week and if things stay dry as forecasted, he is considering pulling merlot in as soon as Sunday.

Randy Biehl, owner of Eveningside Vineyards, started his estate harvest on September 24 by pulling chardonnay. I was one of many volunteers who showed up to pitch in and can vouch for the ripeness and overall health of the fruit we brought in.

Closer to the Lake Ontario, Schulze Vineyards will begin harvesting their Siegfried Riesling grapes this week, and grower Martin Schulze is pleased with how all of his grapes are looking at this point in the season.

“We’ve still got a ways to go for the reds but the stems are ripe and the grapes have a lot of flavor,” says Schulze.

We can’t discuss the growing season in Niagara without mentioning pinot noir and the progress of the largest plantings — Leland’s Vineyard and Freedom Run Winery’s — pretty much tell the story of the challenges and benefits of 2011.

I’ve written about Leland’s Vineyard in the past and once again their challenge this season was not only in working with the weather but still raising the fruiting zone and re-trellising. The varying soil types in this large vineyard haven’t made things easy on owner Leland Mote and manager Don Demaison, as the difference in vigor from one end to the vineyard is obvious.

Lenn_2011Septharvest_03 With some botrytis pressure and the all-too-realistic fear that the upcoming weather would only worsen the situation, the decision to pull pinot on September 20 came a week earlier than anticipated. I personally pulled some fruit for my own wine and was pleased with the flavors and overall health of the grapes. Other local buyers of pinot noir from the vineyard include Eveningside Vineyards, Arrowhead Spring Vineyards and Gust Of Sun Winery.

Down the road, the pinot noir grapes in the vineyards of Freedom Run Winery are still hanging and will be harvested October 5. The somewhat-extreme leaf pulling strategy the winery employs seems to pay off in years like this. Other than some raisining, the pinot grapes along with most of the other varieties are in good shape. Expect sugar levels to be close to the range the winery saw in 2010 ranging from 22.5 to 24 brix.

There seems to be a consensus that this year will be average to above-average in terms of quality for what is currently coming in — that is whites and pinot noir for now. Other than this last week of wet weather, Niagara had pretty much avoided the other instances of prolonged excessive rains that affected regions further downstate.

But given that we may still have another month to go in the season though any speculation on overall quality would be presumptive.