There are several things that occur in nature that can devastate a wine grape vineyard. There are various root-eating bugs and mites, hail that crushes the grapes, and various forms of disease that can riddle the plant. Even gophers are a periodic problem at Zin Valle. They seem to enjoy munching on grapevine roots and irrigation lines! One of the most feared and carefully monitored grape disasters, however, is a late freeze — and that’s just what vintners in the Texas High Plains and Hill Country were close to dealing with this year.
In mid-April, several nights pushed past freezing, causing everything from minor damage to major losses to the primary buds of the plant. While the latest freeze wasn’t as bad as one that rolled through the area in May 2013, it was enough to damage up to 80 percent of some vineyards’ grapevines in other parts of Texas.
There are three key opportunities for a bud to break (open) on a flowering vine and develop into a stem that produces grapes. The first and most important had already occurred in Texas before the freeze in late April. This first bud break eventually develops grape clusters that are optimal for producing wine. If something like hail or a late freeze comes through, vintners have to rely on a second bud break. While a second bud break that produces grapes is very possible, the quality drops significantly, as most of the vines energy was already used on the first bud break. The quantity of grapes in a second break is generally much less as well.
A third bud break is also possible, but this bud break typically just creates basic foliage that helps provide shade and protection for the vine to survive through the summer months, and there typically isn’t a grape cluster to be found.
Chris Brundrett of William Chris Vineyards in the Hill Country, estimated to Texas Monthly Magazine that if you took all the vineyards from across the state, the industry is possibly looking at a 50 percent loss this year. (A freeze wasn’t even close to hindering our vines here in El Paso).
Making winemakers across the state even more fearful is that they aren’t even out of the late freeze woods yet. Entering May, temperatures throughout the Hill Country have continued dropping into the 40s. All of this comes after a difficult 2013 grape-growing season overall for the state.
Texas Monthly reported that many wineries are turning to tricks to try to help protect their vines.
For instance, many wineries (in California too) have implemented a sprinkler system that protects the buds. It all may sound counter-intuitive, but generating ice on the buds before a hard freeze and continuing to sprinkle the buds with water throughout actually forms a protective barrier.
This kind of protection requires fairly extensive infrastructure, and a lot of water — something Texas doesn’t have a lot of. In California, Oregon and Washington, you will see giant fans that are utilized to keep frost from settling on the plants. All of this frost protection is expensive and costly to run.
Fortunately, in the El Paso area, and most of the Mesilla Valley Appellation, frost or freeze damage seldom occurs. In 2012, when we had several days of extended freeze, many plants were lost.
The vineyards in Alamogordo and even Las Cruces suffered devastating losses. Being a few miles south protected those of us in the Rio Grande Valley. Keep in mind that a replanted plant takes generally three to four years to begin to produce its first grapes usable for wine, so the prospect of freeze losses are a real financial worry for the vineyard or winery owner.
While these late freezes and other potential weather hazards can cause severe anxiety and stress among wine producers, it’s also widely known that it just comes with the territory and it’s all actually part of what makes each and every bottle of wine unique. Take the statement from Texas winery Messina Hof owner Paul Bonarrigo, when asked by his local paper, the Courier of Montgomery County, about his take on the late freeze — “Oh, well!”
I think in El Paso we have passed the mark for risk of freeze in 2014! The rest of Texas will be sourcing grapes from all over the country as a result of the late freeze this year.
Vic Poulos, owner Zin Valle Vineyards.