Will This Year be an Exceptional Vintage for PA Wines?

As of early August, the forecast for Pennsylvania’s 2020 wine grape harvest is incredibly sunny. Literally. It’s been a hot, dry summer across the state, which means there are a lot of happy winemakers out there hoping the weather holds.

When you’re talking about what makes a “good” year versus a “bad” year for wine, the last two vintages provide helpful illustrations.

“2019 was a textbook good vintage,” recalls Cain Hickey, Penn State‘s new statewide Viticulture Extension Educator. “It was very dry and sunny. 2018 was a textbook bad vintage. From mid-August through late September, the sun was a myth. That causes a whole swath of issues for vines.”

Those issues include mold and mildew, a failure to ripen, and carbon deprivation going into the dormant season. It also means that the winemaker often has to rush to harvest before his crop rots on the vine. In 2018, a high percentage of the state’s red wine grapes ended up being made into rosé because they weren’t able to ripen properly.

Meanwhile, in good years, those winemakers can watch and wait for exactly the right time to pluck, targeting specific acid and sugar levels. In short, they can exercise control over the wine style before the grapes even leave the vineyard, as opposed to trying to correct flaws during the winemaking process.

“In a good year, [you get] wines that are full of varietal character,” says Hickey. “So if it’s Cabernet Franc, it’s full of whatever Cabernet Franc gives. If it’s Cabernet Sauvignon, it’s fruity with good tannins, good mouthfeel, and good structure.”

While weather and growing conditions can vary widely across the state, the story of 2020 has been fairly consistent so far. The first chapter includes a scary May freeze.

“We had a late killing frost, so we lost a lot of our primary buds,” recalls Sharon Klay of Christian W. Klay Winery in southwestern PA. “Fortunately most of what we have — French-American hybrids — have tertiary buds. The primary bud gets killed and the secondary bud will still be fruitful [the tertiary bud doesn’t bear fruit]. What we do have is looking really good.”

“We had a frost on May 8,” echoes Jake Gruver from Armstrong Valley Vineyard & Winery north of Harrisburg. “We had some earlier shoots that had come out and it killed them all. We’re probably going to get about 80 percent of [the yield] we normally get. But because the weather has been so good, it could even end up being a normal year.”

Almost all of the winemakers we talked to credited the warm, dry weather with helping them make up the lost ground that was caused by that late freeze.

“We started off a little bit late this year,” explains Zach Waltz of Waltz Vineyards & Winery. “We’re about two weeks behind compared to last year in terms of ripening, but with these 100 degree days, it’s really speeding that up. We’re probably going to catch right back up to where we were last year — and last year was excellent in terms of the entire growing season — IF the rain holds off. That’s going to be the big factor here.”

Of course there can be a bit too much of a good thing with dry conditions. All the experts we spoke with are hoping for an occasional August shower.

“If there’s no water, the vines will start to shut down,” explains Hickey. “All of a sudden, this vine is trying to ripen the fruit, which is parasitic on the vine. It’s a perennial plant — it wants to survive next year, and the fruit is demanding all these resources. I want maybe an inch or two of rain throughout the month, scattered in half-inch increments; we don’t want deluge storms.”

“I wouldn’t mind some rain just to give the plants a drink,” adds Gruver. “And then for it to dry up and stay mild. The heat is good, but when it goes to 96 like yesterday, that’s also not good.”

Rain might be the main worry, but it’s not the only one.

“At this rate, it’s going to be an excellent vintage with the possibility of Spotted Lanternflies destroying it,” says Waltz. “It’s really scary. This is the first year that we’ve had numbers [of Lanternflies] high enough to actually cause devastation. We’re trying to be as proactive as we can with our spray program, buying new equipment, and [enrolling in] a trial with Penn State. It doesn’t matter how good your fruit is, they could come in and completely destroy it.”

Meanwhile, further west, the menace comes on feathered wings.

“The grapes look really nice,” says Gruver. “We’ll start going through veraison — they’ll turn purple, get their sugars, and get their color. Then we have to worry about birds. We use bird netting because we’re along the Susquehanna River and the birds start migrating, especially in October. We have some varieties we don’t pick until late October — Cabernet Sauvignon and Chambourcin — [the birds] find them and enjoy themselves if they’re allowed to.”

Despite these challenges, winemakers from across the state are feeling incredibly optimistic about this year’s harvest. If things stay the way they are, then 2020 could be a banner year for Pennsylvania wines, producing standout vintages of everything from bright, acidic whites to the more challenging barrel-ready reds.

“These are the kind of conditions that I really think are gonna get the Cabernet Sauvignon and the Merlot to the ripeness we need,” enthuses Waltz. “You can’t say that every year.”