Great Lakes wineries face changing circumstances
The Erie County Ag Research Corporation facility began as a small building in northeastern Pennsylvania near the shore of Lake Erie in 1948. Pennsylvania State University purchased it four years later .
Now, the Penn State Grape Research Center spans 43 acres and has a joint program with Cornell University’s Grape Research Laboratory in New York. In both labs, graduate students work alongside faculty to conduct research in plant pathology, entomology, and viticulture. Some of this research is focused on climate change and mitigating its potential negative impacts on vineyards in the region, including increased pest problems and altered winters.
But while it may seem like climate change research has only emerged as a priority in recent years, in practice the impact of climate on grapes is nothing new to many experts in the field.
Rather, the field has simply evolved.
“(Viticulture) probably hasn’t changed much, but vineyard management practices and cultivar choices continue to be refined through the use of developing technologies, climate models and new knowledge,” said said Cain Hickey, PhD, wine extension educator at Penn State.
Michael Campbell, director of the Penn State Research Center, focuses much of his efforts on the impact of pests on the ability of grapevine plants to thrive. Campbell calls climate change a “wild card” and says it is the driving factor that drives a change in both the behavior of pests and the type of diseases present in the region. Part of Campbell’s job is to predict or measure the behavior of these diseases and insects as the climate changes.
Warmer weather and new pests ranging from fungi to yellow jacket wasps are straining the ability of grape plants to survive in the region. Climate change has resulted in the presence of invasive species that have no natural predators to control their proliferation. As a result, winemakers must introduce pesticides to manage these insects. This creates an additional cost for winegrowers, which can become prohibitive over time.
In 2019, Rufus Isaacs of the Department of Entomology at Michigan State University conducted a study to identify strategies for trapping late season wasp infestations to reduce damage to grape clusters, as another possible solution to the problem in evolution of insects.
“As the climate changes, this will lead to changes in pest pressure and therefore the suitability of cultivars at a given site will change, as will optimal pest management practices. So, indirectly, we are always looking at the best ways to manage the vines as the climate and weather conditions change,” Hickey said.
Changes in the region’s climate have also shortened the period between frosts. Penn State recently published a paper showing that winters in Lake Erie are about 12 to 14 days shorter than they were in the 1970s.
Shorter winters end up damaging the vine because the warmer weather causes earlier growth, making the plant more susceptible to frost damage overall, Campbell said.
Currently, Michela Centinari, an associate professor of viticulture at Penn State, has a team of students in her lab working on climate change and its impact on air temperature. A doctoral student has received a grant from the United States Department of Agriculture to study how the increase in air temperature in late summer and fall could affect the survival of vines in temperatures colder in winter.
Centinari’s lab has also worked on research related to the use of cover crops under the vine as a management practice to mitigate the impacts of excessive rainfall, one of the symptoms of climate change in the region.
The wine industry is based on the production of grapes. Any threat to the vine also threatens the stability of the wine industry. Production volatility resulting from climate change is causing new problems for the industry, according to Kevin Martin, business management educator with the Lake Erie Regional Grape Program at Cornell Lake Erie Research and Extension Laboratory..
“[Growers plan] for higher yields just in case there is a severe frost that affects the harvest,” Martin said. “So you get bigger and bigger crops per acre in good years, and smaller and smaller crops in bad years, because frost damage can be more severe.”
This fluctuation in production can be problematic for the grape and wine industry, as drastic changes can be difficult to anticipate and lead to higher costs for producers.
In Ohio, grape research and extension efforts began at Ohio State University in the late 1960s. More than 50 years ago, when these efforts began, there were only about 25 wineries in the Buckeye State.
According to Todd Steiner, oenology program manager and outreach specialist at Ohio State, the initial research projects were aimed at establishing a new era for the grape and wine industry in Ohio.
“Researchers at Ohio State University have also been instrumental in introducing new French hybrid grape varieties and their corresponding viticultural potential to the Ohio wine industry today,” Steiner said in an email. . “Several of the varieties that were of interest and eventually grown in Ohio vineyards and made into wine included Foch, Chancellor, Dechaunac, Baco Noir, Vidal blanc, Vignoles, and Seyval Blanc during this time. carried out on these varieties in addition to the American/Labrusca varieties.
Over the years, OSU research has also focused on the importance and use of sulfur dioxide, malolactic fermentation and grape ripeness. Studies have provided insights into those areas that are still vital to the wine production process today, continuing to inform wine quality regardless of a given winery’s size or experience level. .
Today, Ohio State continues its grape research on the shores of Lake Erie. The Ohio State Field Station, established in 1985, recently partnered with the Ashtabula County Branch of Kent State University for a wine research grant from the Ohio Grape Industries Committee.
In addition to collaborating with Ohio State’s grape research efforts, Kent State Ashtabula offers degree and certificate programs directly related to wine production, including a variety of associate degrees in viticulture and oenology.
According to Lori Lalak Lee, Senior Special Assistant and Program Liaison for Kent State Viticulture and Enology, the two universities will begin two projects from this year’s harvest and focus on research priorities. in oenology defined by the OGIC. The research will be conducted in conjunction with Markko Vineyard in Conneaut, Ohio, also located near Lake Erie.
One of the projects will focus on infection levels and chemical management to determine if some of the vine rot can be tolerated without causing major chemical changes or a reduction in quality and taste. The other project will analyze handling methods for the stability of natural sparkling, or pét-nat, sparkling wine. This investigation will assess the effect of different levels of intervention at different levels of sweetness on the overall shelf life of wines.
Research programs are essential to sustain a thriving wine industry in the Great Lakes region.
“Our overall goal is to provide the industry with practical recommendations that can help industry members produce better quality wines,” Lee said.