The drought isn’t making farmers happy, but it’s a different story for fans of Ohio wines.
Most Ohio grape growers are expecting a “small but exceptional” crop this fall.
And that is giving a growing number of Ohio wine lovers something to look forward to in the next few years.
“We are down 25 to 30 percent across the board in wine grapes this year,” said Donniella Winchell, executive director of the Ohio Wine Producers Association in Ashtabula County.
“But the quality of the grapes will be significantly better than last year when we had so much rain,” Winchell said.
Expect 2012 Ohio white wines, such as Riesling, Vidal and Chardonelle, to begin showing up next year, while many of the reds such as Merlot and Pinot Noir will become available in 2015, she said.
Record heat in March brought early buds to Ohio’s grapevines, and April frosts killed those buds in many locations, especially just south of Lake Erie.
Thirty percent of Ohio vineyards — many of those from Vermilion to Ashtabula — lost 100 percent of their American grape varieties, mostly Concord, Niagara and Catawba, Winchell said.
But many growers also cultivate grapes from Europe and hybrids such as those developed at the University of Minnesota to withstand cold climates.
Record heat this summer is helping grapevines recover from the frost damage and is creating perfect growing conditions for red wine grapes.
In addition, a swath of winegrowers across the central part of the state, south of Cleveland and north of Cincinnati, were spared from the April frosts that snapped grapes in those regions.
That’s the position that Andy Troutman, who owns the Winery at Wolf Creek in Norton and Troutman Vineyards in Wooster, has found himself in. The year is positioned to be the best ever for his vineyard.
“It’s been a pretty good year. But I’m a farmer, so I always have to say, ‘so far,’ ” Troutman said.
For a lot of growers in a belt across the middle of the state, the vineyards survived because it didn’t get cold enough. “A lot of vineyards along the lake and in southern Ohio had multiple nights of frost and frost damage. We were lucky enough to dodge that,” Troutman said.
Jeff Nelson, owner and vintner of Viking Vineyards in Brimfield Township, said he is expecting an excellent harvest, due largely to the fact that the buds on his vines were still tight when April frosts hit, sparing his crop.
Nelson grows Traminette and Vidal Blanc white varieties, which can handle cold temperatures, another reason he made it through April unscathed.
June and July’s heat haven’t been a problem.
“Grapes do not need nearly as much water as agricultural crops because they are deep-rooted. Basically, everything looks very good in my vineyard,” Nelson said. “It’s looking like it’s going to be an excellent harvest.”
The continued dryness might force Nelson to trim some grape clusters off his vines, so that fewer grapes are competing for what moisture is available. He does not have irrigation.
Dry weather, however, is rarely a problem for grapes.
“Grapes like rain in early spring to early summer. Come late summer and fall into harvest, you don’t want it to rain at all,” he explained.
The grapes will take up late moisture reducing their sugar level, something winemakers want to avoid. A strong sugar level means strong flavor, which will translate to a good vintage, Nelson explained.
Because it has been so dry, Troutman said the vines aren’t troubled with the typical fungus, rot or insects that come with excess rain.
Grapes already are starting to show color, nearly a month before they normally would, and little fruit will be left on the vines when picking begins later in the season. “Our pickers will be able to pick probably everything that’s out there. There won’t be the rot and there won’t be the under-ripe grapes,” he said.
The heat is a blessing for red wine grapes, which will be able to have as much time on the vine to mature as many California red wine grapes do, Troutman said.
“Our Cabernets and Pinots in the vineyard, we’ll be able to let hang longer. We should get maturing more on par with the West Coast,” he said. “In hot dry years, reds tend to stand out.”
Troutman said Ohio doesn’t typically have the kind of climate that produces great dry red wines, because the state doesn’t have a long enough hot growing season. “Nice, full-bodied red wines are not what Ohio is known for,” he said.
Ohio’s wine industry began in the early 1800s when Nicholas Longworth planted Catawba grapes along the Ohio River in Cincinnati. By the mid-1800s, Ohio led the nation in wine production, said Christy Eckstein, executive director of the Ohio Grape Industries Committee.
Prohibition and disease wiped out the industry in the 1920s, but it made a comeback in the 1960s along Lake Erie’s shores, Eckstein said.
A research program at Ohio State’s Agricultural Research and Development Center in Wooster helped resurrect the industry by identifying disease-resistant grape varieties.
Ohio has 166 registered wineries, up from 47 wineries in 1995 and 37 in 1985.
Beacon Journal food writer Lisa Abraham contributed to this report.