Too Frigid For May: How Unionville Reacted to Destructive Frost

October 03, 2023

Too Frigid For May: How Unionville Reacted to Destructive Frost

By late April, I was feeling pretty confident that the growing season was off to a great start. The mild winter and a few days in the upper 80s the last week of the month had several varieties breaking bud early. In fact, I spent the last weekend of April pruning Pinot Noir that already had several leaves out at the ends of last year's shoots. Although it made pruning slower, tedious, and more expensive, being late on the pruning kept the buds we intended to retain dormant and closed past Mothers Day. This would prove to be a silver lining.

A late frost event on May 18th would be comical if it weren't so devastating. The forecast low for that fateful Wednesday evening was 35F with patchy frost expected. I went home early after deploying our frost fan on Amwell Ridge, and staging some heaters and barrels filled with pruned cuttings at the Top Block of Home Vineyard. If we were to see frost, I knew where it would form and which varieties would be most susceptible to damage. I set my alarm for 2am and went to bed early.

Hours later, a Wawa coffee helped clear the cobwebs from my mind as I arrived on the Ridge at 3am. Low temperatures are typically reached just before dawn, or even just after as the daytime heat radiates away from the surface of the earth. I don't recall what dropped more, my heart or my jaw when I found the thermometer next to the fan reading 29F three hours before dawn. This was not patchy frost, and it wasn't even widespread frost. It was a bona fide localized freeze event. The grass, the trellis wire, and yes, the young leaves on the vines glistened crystalline. I was too late, and it was too cold. I fired up the fan and made a beeline for Top Block, hoping a cold pocket might be isolated to the Ridge. I started the heaters and lit the cuttings in the barrels, but Top too sparkled with ice.

For the next couple of hours I fed the barrels with heaps of cuttings that the crew had staged for me the day prior. The Dynaglow heaters on wheels performed admirably, converting diesel into enough warmth to carve a couple hundred square feet of frost-free vines. I hoped a patch of Home Vineyard Chardonnay could be salvaged. Maybe we would get a barrel.

I've been in the fields in the dark before. I've watched twilight begin and the sky ripple with the colors of dawn over the hedgerows. This was the first time the glow brought gloom. Before the sun crested the horizon I could already see the fate of the field. The leaves were cupping; they were wilting. Frost and freeze is a gruesome malady for a plant if you think about it- the water inside the cells in the plant tissue freezes and expands, bursting the cells which then collapse. It's death by thousands of tiny ice explosions. As daylight spread over the fields the wilting worsened, and the leaves, bright green and reaching for the sun just a day prior, appeared waterlogged and dark. By the afternoon, they were brown and lifeless. Within days, they were falling off the vine as if it were October.
 Frosted Chardonnay
Large swaths of our vineyards in the Amwell Valley were completely decimated in those 4 hours on the morning of May 18th. When the first growth on a vine is destroyed, a new shoot will eventually grow in its place. This secondary usually will not bear fruit, and even if it does, there is no guarantee that it will ripen in time before Autumn arrives and ends the growing season. There will be no Home Vineyard Chardonnay in 2023, and our yields of Viognier, Syrah, Counoise, Cabernet Franc, and Pinot Noir from the Amwell Ridge were all slashed. Across these blocks, we spent the season farming foliage, not grapes.
The economic impact can't be understated. There isn't less work required for a block of vines that will not bear fruit. You won't end up paying to harvest the grapes, but you will pay for otherwise unnecessary rounds of tedious pruning once the new growth comes in. Otherwise the vines must be kept healthy and maintained in the hopes that the plant can build enough energy in storage to give a proper yield in the next season. The farming needs are different, but no less demanding. 

30 tons of grapes went missing from our vintage in those 4 hours. As a result, we scoured the state looking for grapes to purchase. Determined to avoid bringing in fruit from out of state, I was able to secure many interesting lots, including two varieties that Unionville has never or rarely worked with in the past. Look for first-ever releases of Gloucester County Gruner Veltliner and Sauvignon Blanc grown in Monmouth next Spring. We secured a one-year lease of a vineyard near Phillipsburg in Warren County, giving us access to several tons of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Riesling- three of the varieties most affected and lost to the freeze damage. All said and told, by keeping our ear to the ground and making calls around town, Unionville will maintain its typical 70 ton harvest strictly from in-state fruit. 

Farming will always bring clouds, and farmers must always find the silver lining. I believe deploying the frost fan limited the loss to the lowest elevations on Amwell Ridge. At the very top of the Ridge, One Chardonnay shoot survives the frostthe 4th year Rousanne, Marsanne, and Picpoul Blanc have given their first yields, ever. New plantings of Pinot Noir, Syrah, Cabernet Franc, and Viognier at Pheasant Hill thrived this season and will substantially increase our production next year, their fourth season. The Coventry Chardonnay block gave its best yield ever, ensuring that we will again make our increasingly popular unoaked expression of Chardonnay in 2023. As for those frosted fields, the large swaths of Rhone, Burgundy, and Riesling- they all survived. They enjoyed a year of full, lush canopies, and I am excited to see these vines back to work in 2024. Pictured here are two single shoots on one Chardonnay vine at the Top Block of Home Vineyard, survivors of the decimation. As the day ended, they served as a reminder: The sun rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises. So will the vineyard, and so will we.
-John Cifelli, GM

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