Drought Beneficial For Vineyards Across the State

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ROCHEPORT - A severe drought has left many local farmers in a desperate situation. Hot temperatures and a dry climate are threatening certain crops, causing farmers to look up to the sky in search for any sign of moisture. But vineyards are in a unique position. Not only do grape growers enjoy the dry weather, but the lack of rain may make this year's harvest better than ever. 

According to Andrew Allen, professor and founder of the University of Missouri's Institute for Continental Climate Viticulture and Enology, grapes thrive in dry weather. And when you think about it, popular grape growing locations, like California, have dry and hot climates. Once the grape vines are established, they have a very high drought tolerance. On average, vine roots grow 18 to 30 feet below the ground, reaching down and across for water supply. 

"A little bit of drought stress at this point actually enhances wine grape quality so we like a little bit of drought stress," Allen said.

Furthermore, extremely moist weather can cause problems for grapes. Under heavy rain, wine grapes can easily contract certain diseases. Allen says dry weather is a grape grower's greatest defense against a laundry list of diseases vines are susceptible to, including certain bacteria, fungi and yeast. It can be more expensive to spray chemicals during rainfall, than using water and electricity to irrigate during a dry season. 

Not only is the dry weather helping local vineyards now, the mild winter also pushed production ahead of schedule.

"The reason it's happening is we had a really warm, hot spring this year and so what we're looking at is everything came out early," said Les Bourgeois vineyard manager Larry Lopez. "Bud break happened so early it's going to push it up about a month or so."

Bud break is the time when vines open up and commence growth. This usually happens in mid-April, but this year buds burst in mid-March at Les Bourgeois in Rocheport. The harvest is supposed to happen in late August, but Les Bourgeois and other vineyards across the state will harvest about a month early this year.

According to Allen this is extremely unusual. In his experience in Missouri, this is the first time he's seen a harvest a month ahead of schedule. 

And this is impressive for the Midwest. Unlike some other locations where premium wine grapes grow, the Midwest has a continental climate, in which weather is a huge variable. The dry weather has been helping this year, but Allen says that could always change. 

"The situation that we have right now is optimum for wine grapes but that can change in a heartbeat," Allen said. "We can have a big rain system roll through here and dump several inches of rain in a matter of hours.

But if temperatures remain steady, Allen predicts this year could produce one of Missouri's best harvests. 

"When we have dry summers like this one has been so far we end up with very good vintages which means we have some very excellent wine quality and right now we are very much on track for that," Allen said.