Weather bittersweet for wineries

The balance of summer drought and recent rain
may yield grapes Bacchus would be proud of.
Tuesday, August 16, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 12:56 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The drought that plagued the Midwest this summer has brought both good and bad fortune to mid-Missouri’s wine industry, said winemakers who are about two weeks away from their annual harvest.

Warm sunshine concentrates the sugar in the grapes, giving it a sweeter flavor, which is a good thing for the final product. But intense, dry weather can hamper grape growth, scorch the leaves and turn the grapes into raisins, growers said Monday.

For growers who have protected their crops during the drought with drip irrigation, this could be their best year ever.

“Drip irrigation saved us,” said Nick Kehle, vineyard manager at Les Bourgeois Vineyards in Rocheport. “We’re going to have one of our biggest years as far as tonnage.”

Vineyards that must depend on natural rainfall are the hardest hit in times of drought, said chief winemaker Cory Bomgaars of Les Bourgeois, where some of the vineyard’s 30 acres of grapes are equipped with the irrigation systems. The systems, which use tubes and pipes to deliver water to the plants’ root systems, can cost up to $1,500 per acre, he said.

In the delicate art of winemaking, balance is key. Too much water, which was wine vineyards’ challenge last summer, can also be bad for the grapes. “If you can control the moisture, you can make more intense flavor,” Bomgaars said.

“Last year, we had an unusual year,” said Jim Anderson, program coordinator for the Missouri Grape and Wine Program. The rainfall and cooler weather caused some diseases and “ripening challenges” in the grapes.

The heat and low rainfall have already helped the flavor of the grape crop, Bomgaars said. “We have the potential for really nice fruit and quality wines, particularly Chardonel and Vignoles.” Chardonel is a cross between the Chardonnay grape and the Seyvol grapes.

It’s too early to tell what the impact of the weekend’s downpours will be.

If it stays rainy for the next week, there will be mold issues out there, Bomgaars said. “But if it dries up, we’ll have a perfect vintage.”

The forecast calls for clear skies through the rest of the week, but more rain is forecast for the weekend, according to the National Weather Service.

“We’re glad to see rain,” Anderson said. “We’d like to see it limited.”

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