Most of the grape harvest wraps up earlier this year due to rain, while harvesting ice wines is yet to come

Coming off a season of extremes — hot, sunny summer and wet, warm fall — harvesting of most Finger Lakes wine grapes wrapped up a bit earlier this year. Work bringing in the bulk of grapes that go into producing the region’s award-winning wines finished within the last week or so. That was one to two weeks earlier than normal.

“This year's harvest was interesting with early sunshine and lack of rain,” said Eric Frarey, managing partner at Heron Hill Winery, with its Ingle Vineyards overlooking Canandaigua Lake.

“At one point this season the amount of sunshine was a week or more ahead of last year and rainfall was 10 inches behind,” Frarey said. Then came the end of growing season, with a “very wet 8 inches of rain” pouring down in a few short weeks. This was good for earlier ripening varieties, more challenging for other kinds — to have them ripen fully and still avoid disease pressures of mold and mildew due to rain, Frarey said.

Over at Casa Larga vineyards in Perinton, winemaker Matt Cassavaugh mentioned the hustle to harvest.

“There is never a fall without rain,” said Cassavaugh. But with more wet than usual, it made for quick work.

“You don’t want to water down the grapes, and it’s not good for the health of grapes, not great for fruit quality” to harvest in the rain, he said. “It made for some long days and nights.”

Overall, this year's weather has produced one of the warmest growing seasons across the state, said Tim Martinson, vineyard specialist with Cornell University's cooperative extension program, in an interview for Wine & Vines. This year surpassed the average for seasonal growing degrees by the first week of September, he said. With the harvest running about a week ahead of the typical schedule, that means frost is less likely to occur before all the grapes are picked.

"That's good news for growers because it means they're less likely to run out of season to harvest," Martinson said.

The Finger Lakes region is a major player in New York’s multi-billion-dollar wine and grape industry. New York state produced 187,000 tons of grapes in 2017. The state ranks third in the nation, behind California and Washington state for grape production, according to the latest agriculture statistics. The Finger Lakes, with its more than 9,000 acres of vineyard producing nearly 55,000 tons of grapes, is famous for Riesling that thrives in the climate around the lakes. But it’s also ideal for growing some 60 different varieties that include Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc and several French-American and native varietals among others.

The Finger Lakes is also the hot spot — or better put, the cool spot — for specialties such as sparkling wines and ice wine.

Casa Larga’s Cassavaugh said the varieties for making champagne and other sparkling types of wine are harvested when they are less ripe. Grapes for table wines are usually harvested a little later. Cabernet Sauvignon, the variety for making the ever-popular red wine with a bold taste, is usually the last to be harvested.

But all is not over yet with the finish of fall harvest. Somewhere about mid-to-late December it will be time for the ice wine harvest. That’s when, at just the right moment after temperatures drop well below freezing, teams take to vineyards to quickly harvest tons of grapes that must stay frozen to produce the rich, honey-like wine made at Casa Larga, Heron Hill and other wineries in the region.

It is something to look forward to, and always exciting with fast picking and pressing.

“It often happens overnight,” Cassavaugh said.