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Sugary grapes harvested this fall will make smoother, palatable wine at vineyards

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Those who enjoy sipping sweet-tasting wine to complement spaghetti dinners will be pleased by the grape harvest’s results in the north country this fall.

The grape harvest is down modestly compared with last year because of freezing temperatures in April coupled with hot weather this summer. But the grapes that baked in the sun all summer have higher sugar content and lower acid than normal. Those grapes will produce smoother and sweeter wine with a higher alcohol content than usual.

Winery owners will have to wait until next summer, after the wine is finished fermenting in barrels, to find out if it tastes as good as they forecast.

“It could be the best-tasting wine, period,” said Steven J. Conaway, owner of Thousand Islands Winery in Alexandria Bay. “It’s going to have a higher level of alcohol, more intense flavors and it’s going to be smoother because it doesn’t have the extensive acid levels.”

Because of the summer’s heat, Mr. Conaway said, grapes at the vineyard are considerably smaller this fall and were ripe about three weeks earlier than usual. That’s why they have a higher concentration of sugar, which is measured in brix. The sugar content of red-wine grapes harvested at the vineyard was measured at 20.2 brix Sept. 20; grapes harvested last year on the same vines had only 18.5 brix.

“The drought made the berry size smaller, so the quantity was less but quality has improved,” he said.

Most of the 10-acre vineyard’s losses, however, stemmed from hail damage during an unusual cold streak in April, Mr. Conaway said. Hail knocked off some of the vine clusters and led to reduced growth. The vineyard didn’t suffer any losses because of the late frost in April, though, which affected other grape growers in the region.

Harvest quantities for some of the main grape varieties, such as Marquette and Frontenac, were down notably, Mr. Conaway said, and the winery could notch up prices because of the limited supply.

“We’re going to try to hold the prices down and keep them manageable,” he said. “But our Marquette wine is going to go fast and could be out by July or August of next year.”

Otter Creek Winery in Philadelphia also lost about 20 percent of the grapes at its four-acre vineyard, said owner Kyle R. Hafemann.

But he attributed most of that loss to high summer temperatures, saying the land was unscathed by April’s cold weather. Unlike other vineyards, he said, unusually warm weather in late March didn’t trigger the vines to start budding.

“It was an anomaly, because I didn’t have a bud break until the first week of May,” he said. “My yield is down because of the dry weather in the summer, but there’s a flip side because we now have a sweeter quality.”

During an average season, he said, sugar levels measured in grapes usually peak in mid-October.

But this year sugar levels peaked the last week of August — about a month and a half earlier than last season.

Mr. Hafemann, who grows only La Crescent and Frontenac grape varieties, said he plans to make up for his losses by purchasing more grapes from vineyards in the Finger Lakes region. “I could run a little bit short,” he said.

Philip J. Randazzo, owner of Coyote Moon Vineyards in Clayton and president of the Thousand Islands-Seaway Wine Trail, said his winery lost about 75 percent of a two-acre crop of La Crescent grapes that began budding in the end of March, while its other seven acres were unharmed.

“The cold weather after the warmup was enough to kill the buds and we only got fruit on the secondary buds” that grow later, he said. “Our yield is definitely down because of the spring frost killing primary buds, and overall weight down because of the smaller berry size.”

But compared with last year, sugar levels for Marquette grapes at the vineyard have increased from 23 to 26.5 brix. The alcohol level in a bottle of wine, he predicted, could increase from 12 percent to 15 percent.

Made from cold-hardy grapes, Marquette wine has become a favorite since it was introduced in 2011, Mr. Randazzo said. High demand for the wine, combined with a lower supply produced this season, could result in a scarcity next summer. But the wine will still be sold for $24.95 a bottle.

“We’re probably going to run out of our Marquette from last season this spring, and we won’t have this year’s wine available until July,” he said. “So we’re going to be concerned about running out of it again in 2014.”

Marquette grapes cannot yet be purchased downstate, he said, because vineyards aren’t harvesting the variety yet.

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