Sweet Harvest for Missouri and Illinois Grape Growers

Missouri and Illinois winemakers are shaking on their vines this year. Because we have had several years of drought here in the Midwest, some grape growers have dropped up to 30 percent of their grapes off of the vines early this year. The reason that they do this is because if they leave too much on the vine, it will stress the plants too much. Excess fruit on the vine could also affect the flavor of the wine. A lot of wineries in the U.S. like to say that their wine comes from low yield vineyards because too much yield can reduce the intensity of flavor and reduce the quality. In Europe, law sets the maximum yields that a vineyard can have, but there are no such restrictions in this country. Harvesting the grapes at just the right moment is also crucial in the winemaking process. You have to get the grapes off of the vine when they are not under ripe or overripe. The peak of ripeness in cooler climates is a rare thing and may not happen every year, but when it does, that year’s wine will probably be particularly good. In warmer climates, like we have here in Missouri, ripening is assured, but the trick is to not let the grapes ripen overly fast.

The weather here in Missouri has been horrible this year, but the grapevines and the vintners love it. We are now in a weather period where we are having hot, dry days and cool nights and this allows sugar to build in the grapes and reduces the acidity. Area growers are saying that their Chambourcin looks extremely good this year and we are having perfect weather for a dry red. The vidals that are vigorous and able to stand the heat should be terrific this year.

Another thing that some of the growers are doing is drilling wells and installing drip irrigation; drip irrigation targets getting water to the roots without creating a moist microclimate under the vine canopy as overhead irrigation does. Drip irrigation is more expensive to install, but it doesn’t encourage fungi growth on the underside of the plant.

The Missouri Department of Agriculture estimates that Missouri produces about 700,000 gallons of wine per year. To put it in drinking terms, each gallon represents about five bottle of wine. Missouri’s 1,200 acres of grapes produced by 150 growers and some 57 wineries contributes some 35 to 40 million dollars to the area’s economy each year.

The bumper-quality crop this year is not without risks. It’s a tricky business to grow grapes in the fickle climate of the Midwest. Several dry, hot summers as well as freezing and thawing in the winter can put additional stress on the vines. Grape vines probably wouldn’t survive in Missouri if everything were left up to Mother Nature. That’s why it’s extra important for Missouri growers to pay attention to the most important aspects of growing grapes: yield, irrigation, ripeness, canopy, and microclimate.

Since we have had three dry years now, next year will be pivotal. Another dry year could spell trouble for a lot of the small farmers. But, this should be one of the best years in a long time, so let’s sit back and enjoy the harvest.

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