A warming climate signals new challenges for Long Island wine country

By Paige Clarke

Tiny green buds have already sprouted along the winding grape vines that weave through the vineyards on the North Shore of Long Island. It is the start of another prolonged growing season that will face an increasingly imminent threat to its produce – climate change. 

Vineyards across the region are feeling the effects of a changing climate that’s altering grape growth and production of the wines that make Long Island noteworthy. Vine phenology, or the time that buds take to break and bloom during growing season, is strongly driven by surrounding temperatures and amounts of rainfall. Slight changes can throw off their normal growing patterns. Extreme weather conditions like increased rainfall and intense heat have extended harvest seasons, causing grapes to sprout earlier in the year at a quicker rate that can cause over-ripening and rotting.

“Growing grapes for wine is really picky, with exact right conditions,” Jase Bernhardt, assistant professor of sustainability and atmospheric science at Hofstra University, said. “For vineyards, grape growing season is increasing with general warming for Long Island and the Northeast. It’s projected that we will see more extremes in individual rainstorms, with an increase in dry and wet spells that could have some important ramifications.”

Through research, Bernhardt found that one of the biggest metrics of this warming has been a result of increased urbanization, or the rapid buildup of areas in and around cities that has elevated warming temperatures with increased heat emissions.

“Increased moisture and urbanization are two physical reasons that lead to increased night temperatures,” Bernhardt said.

A 2016 study published in the Journal of Wine Economics shows that changes in growing and harvesting patterns are being seen worldwide, as hotter temperatures result in more water deficits changing grape growing culture.

“The biggest change we’ve seen is mostly in the spring,” Dr. Benjamin Cook, an associate research scientist at Columbia University, said. “Buds are breaking earlier and fruit is ripening faster. Grape vines develop, mature and ripen faster.” 

As the coming seasons bring hotter temperatures and greater rainstorms, initiatives to maintain vineyards are quite limited. 

“For the East End, the ocean is a moderating influence that buffers a lot of climate changes that we’re seeing,” Cook said. “But the challenge is different. Sea levels will continue rising over the 21st century – these higher levels equal more land inundated with bigger storm surges and flooding.” 

Saltwater intrusion into aquifers could render groundwater sources unusable for vineyard irrigation systems if it becomes too salinated, Cook said. 

Since Long Island’s normal climate receives moderate to heavy amounts of rainfall, increasing wet spells from climate change poses a new challenge for growers on how to dry things out. 

“You can always irrigate if the vineyard is dry, but if it’s too warm it’s challenging,” Cook said. 

Cook believes that taking advantage of the micro climates could mitigate these impacts. Finding the best location on a vineyard to grow a certain grape variety can be determined by these small regional climates – the difference in elevation of parts of a vineyard or amounts of sunshine can make all the difference in growing patterns.

In prime temperate climate conditions for the Northeast, grape varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay thrive. Yet with the recent shifts in temperatures and rainfall amounts, vineyards have been forced to reconsider how they manage their grapes and which wines they can produce. 

Rainfall has taken a toll on the production of medium-bodied styles of wine, particularly at Macari Vineyards. “We will not release any top red wines from last year, considering the lack of complexity given the wet weather,” Gabriella Macari, the education, distribution, and marketing manager of Macari Vineyards, said.

“In the future, we may have to consider alternative varieties that better manage moisture and disease, for rainfall increases vine disease pressure and can dilute the concentration of flavor within the grape berry. Many people do not realize the impact of weather on wine quality,” she said.

With added rainfall, vines are more susceptible to fungal diseases like mold and mildew. Weather also plays a significant role in wine quality, specifically for alcohol content. Wines with a lower alcohol content come from more temperate northeast climates, while renowned warm-bodied wines of the Napa Valley in California are higher in alcohol. As the local climate heats up, over time these wines could more closely resemble that of the West Coast and other warm regions in terms of flavor and proof.

“What you will see is higher alcohol and lower acidity over time – more sugar, more heat and sun,” Kareem Massoud, winemaker at Paumanok and Palmer Vineyards, said. “As the grape ripens, it gains more sugar and loses acidity in hotter climates, but in cooler climates you have lower sugar and higher acidity that makes for less alcohol content.”

Evidence of this increasing sugar content in cooler climates can be seen in certain locations along the island’s North Fork, including Roanoke Vineyards. 

“In 2009, we harvested our vineyard in late November,” Scott Sandell, media and creative  director at Roanoke, said. “It was freezing cold, everyone was in a parka, and I think it started to snow a couple times that day. The last few years we’ve harvested in mid-October, with much higher sugar content and complete ripeness.”

Earlier harvests could allow vineyards to begin planting new grape varieties in the near future, and could actually introduce more top-quality wines to the Long Island market.

“Earlier harvests can result in a lighter style wine,” Jessica Green, a sommelier on the North Fork who has worked with local vineyards for over a decade, said. “If the island continues to warm up, I can predict longer a growing season where thicker skinned grapes such as cabernet sauvignon will take more of a lead, as well as other full bodied wines.”

Despite the overhanging challenges that climate change poses globally, it could be a definitive benefit for vineyards feeling the effects of a warming climate. Yannick Benjamin, head sommelier at University Club in New York City, noted that some Long Island vineyards are producing world-class wines that were not possible 10 years ago, like pinot noir.

“If anyone’s benefited from these climate changes, it’s the Northeast,” Benjamin said. “The region is relatively cool and could handle more warmer days for quality and production, and could see some thicker skinned grapes typically grown in warmer climates with more sweetness and less acidity.”

Currently, there are 11 sustainability programs for environmentally-friendly winegrowing established across the globe, including the California Sustainable Winegrowing Program and Michigan Sustainable Wines. Long Island is home to the only program on the East Coast, called Long Island Sustainable Winegrowing. 

Authorization for sustainable winegrowing across Long Island is largely based on an honor system, in which vineyards are not checked on their management methods by outside certifiers but report their efforts themselves. Acting as a third-party certifier, the sustainable winegrowing program ensures that vineyards are practicing effective sustainability measures, like limiting cultivation by tractors and usage of nitrogen fertilizer.

“We must respond appropriately to climate change so that agriculture will have a future,” Rich Olsen-Harbich, president of Long Island Sustainable Winegrowing and winemaker at Bedell Cellars, said. “We must start paying attention to it and limiting things that can make it worse. It takes an entire group of people in business, agriculture, everywhere to make a difference.”

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