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Grape growers face challenges after repeated frosts

By Dave Buchanan

For many grape growers around the Grand Valley, it’s too late to save this year’s crop.

Hit by repeated frosts, from last October to as late as this past week, many growers and winemakers now are thinking of the future, planning what needs doing to have something to harvest next year.

There still will be grapes to pick and wines to bottle this fall, particularly in the east end of the valley.

That’s where the steady wind, what Norm Christianson of Canyon Wind Cellars once called “the million dollar breeze” and caused him to put his winery at the mouth of the canyon, helped moderate temperatures during the worst of the cold.

Other growers weren’t so fortunate and you’ll notice some interesting changes at vineyards this summer.

Nancy Janes and John Behr at Whitewater Hill Vineyards already have taken a chainsaw to some of their cold-killed vines and now wait to see what comes up from the roots.

Colorado’s cold weather actually provides an ameliorating benefit to grape growers.

Because of the cold, Colorado doesn’t have the pests or diseases common to the more-temperate climate of California’s wine country and the grape-growing regions of Washington and Oregon.

No phylloxera, the root-sucking louse that decimated vineyards in the U.S. and Europe, and no glassy winged sharpshooter to spread Pierce’s disease, which blocks the circulation system of both grape vines and peach trees.

That’s why those areas raise European grapes (vitis vinifera) grafted onto the root of native American grapes, particularly vitis riparia and vitis labrusca.

The latter don’t make the great wines but they are naturally resistant to phylloxera and other diseases and as long as the vines above the graft is alive, you’ll get cabernet sauvignon, merlot, pinot noir and the other better-known European varieties.

But if the vine dies or is cut back to below the graft, that shoot coming up might produce a Norton or Hickman’s or some other native American grape.

Colorado, without those disease and pest scourges, raises own-rooted grapes, which means when you cut it back, the shoots and suckers still produce cabernet sauvignon or merlot or cabernet franc or whatever it was.

“Most of Colorado is own-rooted, which is good because we have so much winter damage,” said Janes, while talking about her pruning methods for the summer. “We see a little winter damage every year. It’s not unusual to have to retrain 5-10 percent of our vines, especially where we are (on 32 Road), on the fringes of where you can grow grapes.”

She and Behr normally carefully prune their vines to optimize fruit production, but this year it’s going to “wild and woolly” at Whitewater Hill, Janes said.

While some of the vines in the lowest part of the vineyard were killed, most of them survived. There won’t be much if any fruit, but at least the cordons that carry the fruit survived.

“We were really delighted up here at the winery to see the cordons are going to make it,” Janes said. “It will be mostly foliage, but we won’t have to go through it with the chainsaw.”

Lots of foliage, actually, since the vine’s energy will go to growth and leaves instead of fruit.

“These are guerrilla vines,” said Janes with a laugh. “With no fruit to hold back the energy, they can grow six to eight inches in a day. It’s scary to watch them.”

There may be some grape production, she said, but it won’t be worth picking.

“We’ll get little bit of production because there are a few buds still alive,” she said. “But mostly we’re going to just leave it a woolly mess because 99 percent (of the buds) are dead.”

She said the vines will push shoots this summer and that leafy growth will allow the vines to build reserves to get through the fall and winter.

“We’re going to leave it jungle and then cut it out next winter,” she said.

Winemakers across the valley are reassuring us there still will be plenty of wine this summer, particularly red wines which normally aren’t released for a year or two after harvest.

Some of the valley’s white wines – the rieslings, gewurtztraminers and chardonnay, among others – may be affected, but most winemakers have vineyards and sources in the North Fork Valley, which produces most of the state’s white grapes and wasn’t hit by the cold weather.


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