October 2, 2012

2012 Drought Brings Sweeter Apples and Wine Grapes Amidst Lower Crop Yields , Profs say

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New York State is the country’s second-largest apple-producing state and third-largest wine producer, turning out an average of 29.5 million bushels of apples and 40 million gallons of wine annually. Summer 2012 brought with it one of the worst droughts in recent history. In late July, 92.1 percent of New York was classified as “abnormally dry” by the U.S. Drought Monitor and 33.25 percent was classified as “drought-moderate”. The drought had an impact on New York State’s agriculture, but according to Cornell professors the resulting apple and wine grape crops are not what one would expect.

Droughts and Apples

Apples have had a tough year, between this summer’s drought and some damaging frosts early in the growing season. But according to Prof. Susan Brown, associate chair of the horticulture department, it’s going to be a great year for apple quality. That’s because, as it turns out, fruit trees respond well to some dryness. Brown said that the lack of water helps concentrate the cellular contents that give apples their flavor.

“If there’s a big period of rain, things taste kind of watery,” she said.

Apple trees absorb large amounts of rain and when there is too much rain, the water will end up in the cells of the apples, diluting the acids and sugars that give them their flavor. But when there isn’t much rainfall, the concentration of flavors within each apple is higher, making them taste better and sweeter. Apples of all varieties will be sweeter this year, from Macintosh to Honeycrisp.

Although the drought may enhance some of the apple’s flavor, it still brings agricultural problems. This year’s drought was so severe that it required apple growers to create irrigation systems to bring water to the crops.

“You can handle a certain amount of drought, but what you don’t want is to be at the point where it stresses the plant,” Brown said.

While a lack of water does improve the flavor of a fruit, too little water will prevent growth of the fruit itself and the plant as a whole will be unhealthy. Much like Cornell students, fruit-bearing plants benefit from a little bit of stress, but break down under too much.

Additionally, with higher temperatures came new obstacles for apple growers.

“We’re seeing problems that we haven’t seen before, such as sunburn of apples,” Brown said.

The higher temperatures have caused apple diseases that formerly existed only in the south to appear in northern orchards as well. Brown recommended that those interested in picking apples this year get out early.

“If you normally pick apples in late October you might want to consider doing it in early October,” she said.

Some orchards may have smaller yields this year depending on how well they fared the frost, the drought and any diseases.  As for next year, there should be a bumper crop of apples.

“When you have a small crop, the tree will set more fruit buds [the next year] because it’s kind of on vacation this year. And so next year, it’s going to come out in glory with more apples,” Brown said. She anticipates having to thin out the apples next year to avoid damage to the trees.

Effects on Wine Grapes

Similar to apples, wine grapes taste better because of the lack of water, according to Cornell horticulturists.

“The quality of the grapes this year is fantastic. The drought has not been that much of an issue because we got some rain when we needed it,” said Prof. Justine Vanden Heuvel, horticulture, who specializes in viticulture. “When there’s a drought, it tends to hold back the vegetative growth of the vine so that the clusters are better exposed to the sun and that results in improved flavors and aromas.”

The drought also ensures a high concentration of flavors within each grape, she said. According to Heuvel, the deviation from normal New York weather conditions is an opportunity for viticulturists to make wines like Rieslings that are a little different from their normal style of wines.

“Usually our Rieslings [in the Finger Lakes] are known for what many winemakers would call ‘minerality,’ as well as their acidity. So people who are interested in making that style, which is what we normally make, have harvested already. People who are interested in making a different style than normal, with lower acidity, have the possibility of letting their fruit hang out a little bit longer this year so that the acids will go down.”

Wines from this year’s grapes will not start appearing on the market until next year, so wine growers have not yet reached a final consensus on the quality of wine that will come out of the drought. Much of it depends on the actual fermenting process. White wines will begin appearing on the market next year and red wines the year after.

The Impact of Crop Yields

Overall crop yields this year will be smaller. Grape vines and apple trees didn’t have the water to be able to produce large amounts of fruit, but the amount of rain was right to give a great quality product without harming the health of the plant. That said, the difference in yields should not greatly affect prices.

Despite the challenging weather this summer, New York State apples and wine are looking to have a good year, so be sure to get out to local orchards in the next couple weeks and local wineries in the next couple years to get a taste of New York agriculture and 2012’s fantastic crops.

Original Author: Kathleen Bitter