This summer was cooler and wetter than average (if anything is average anymore). We saw near freezing temperatures into late May, again for 4 days in mid-June and around 40F (5C) in mid-July. Overall, heat accumulation was 643 growing degree days (base 50F; 357 growing degree days, base 10C). This was below the average of 750-800 GDD (50F). However, at the end of the summer we installed a series of soil temperature sensors and an air temperature sensor in the vineyard (more on that later). What we have found is that the thermometer that we have relied on since moving into the cabin in 1999, typically reads 2-4 degrees fahrenheit (1-2 degrees C) lower than the actual air temperature out in the open. Other thermometers that we have put back there tend to agree with that one, so it is likely that the thermometer is fairly accurate, but due to its location behind the house, it reads too cold when compared to the actual air temperature out in the fields. This is important for determining if grapes will ripen here. If the actual air temperature in the vineyard is 2-3 degrees higher on average, then our growing degree days for the season increase by 250-400. Now, instead of averaging 750-800 GDD (base 50F), that number is closer to 1000-1100 (555-610 GDD, base 10C). Baltica, which we are growing, requires about 1100 (610) growing degree days minimum to ripen to workable wine levels. With the addition of black weed block under the rows, that value can likely be increased somewhat. Since we added the new sensors this fall, we will need to track temperatures next summer to see what the actual numbers turn out to be. A few other varieties we have or hope to get (Zarya Severa, Dalniewostoznyd, ES M-1-27) require a little more heat than that, but may still be useful for rose-style wines.
Regardless, this was a cooler than normal summer and it showed in the ripening of several cultivars. As has been the case recently, Wild Treasure blackberries ripened fully before the first frost. However, Marion blackberries struggled to ripen as fully as they have in previous years. None of our other blackberry varieties ripened this summer. Currants were also affected by the cool summer. Only two varieties of black currants managed to produce a full crop: Minaj Smyirou and Blackdown. These two cultivars actually ripened fully in early September, showing that they are two good candidates for the farm. On the other hand, neither is reliably hardy below around -28F (-34C), so there is usually dieback unless they are completely covered in snow. Ben Lomond ripened almost fully by the end of September, while Titania and Risager needed more time. Our White Currant 1301 from Sweden didn't disappoint either. It was dead ripe in late August, just about typical for that variety. Our other whites, Primus and White Imperial mostly, didn't ripen fully this year. The red currants were still too tart at the end of September to harvest, but we did pick some Wilder and Red Lakes for wine. Gooseberries were a little delayed, but we were so busy with other things, that we missed most of them when they were ripe and the critters got them.
Serviceberries and honeyberries were a little late this year. In fact, with the help of a newly purchased refractometer, we determined that our honeyberries weren't ripe until late September, a full 6 weeks later than those in the lowlands around Fairbanks. From past experience, we think this is pretty typical for the farm, though. They ripen much more slowly. That can be a good thing, as it allows better flavors to develop and yields better wine. Still, we only found 13 brix in our Blue Belles - the highest of any honeyberry on the farm. Granted, they are in part shade. We plan to move them next summer to a more sunny location.
The raspberries had mixed responses to the cool summer. Our Cascade Gold yellow raspberries (which ripened very poorly last year) did fantastic this year, yielding 12 pounds from a relatively small plot. Our Cascade Delight red raspberries were a little later in ripening. We didn't pick very many - but not because they weren't ripe. We were just too busy with other things.
As far as tree fruit goes, the cherries were very late and the Parkland apples were picked the night before the first frost. Both still were respectable. Most of our other trees are still not to bearing age yet.
As for the vineyard, this was a busy year. We managed to clear another 2 acres with a dozer, so we can expand the vineyard and put in some rows of honeyberries. This year we planted a few dozen new vines. Most of these varieties we have trialed in the past, but they had to reside in pots. Now we have about 75 vines planted in the ground, with about 60 varieties represented there and in pots. We'll be adding several dozen more vines next year. That will bring the vineyard to about 1/4 acre. None are tall enough yet to require trellising and most die back substantially in the fall/winter, so there may not be much of a need until we can breed our own grape varieties. We still have two V. amurensis seedlings we sprouted five years ago. Both are recovering from spending four years in pots and should really start growing in a year or two. While many in warmer regions complain about V. amurensis for their tendency to bud out prematurely, these two generally wait until the last frost threat is gone before waking up here. One surprise this year was the adaptability of MN 78 (an old numbered variety bred by the University of Minnesota). It was used by Elmer Swenson to create his cold-hardy hybrid varieties. While his varieties don't do that well here (we have some 5-year-old Sabrevois that are very slowly settling in), MN 78 grew surprisingly well and more importantly hardened off 4-9 inches of cane - and this was all from cuttings we received last spring. That is better than pretty much anything else growing here on the farm, with the exception of Zilga. Speaking of Zilga (a Latvian grape), it was confused by the cold in June and July and didn't grow all that much. However, what did grow hardened off quite well. It is also hardy to near -40F/C, so we have high hopes for it. We have also been watching our Amur-1 and Amur-2 (the two amurensis seedlings mentioned above) vines, as well as C-16 (a vinifera/riparia/amurensis cross from Canada). The latter did very well at hardening off new growth in the fall of 2017 - a gradual cooling that year, but not so well this year. This year we hit the low 60s (F; 15C) the first few days of October. That is extremely unusual. Then the weather turned cold within a few days and we hit a low of 12F on October 8th. There was much damage to C-16, but apparently very little to Zilga or the amurensis seedlings (the latter of which had been fully dormant since late September).
In late October we went to visit family in California and got to visit the Vitis germ plasm at UC Davis outside of Sacramento. We brought back some V. amurensis seeds and are excited to see what comes of them. Currently we are planning a few grapevine orders to reacquire some varieties that we lost before getting them into the ground. We are also looking at some potted vines we brought in for the winter. They are not really liking the warm house and lack of sun. It will be good to get them outside come May.
We have a number of other fruits that we are trialing, but have not fruited yet, like arena, goji berries, mulberries and kiwi.
It was early November when we installed the soil temperature probes. We set them at 5, 10, 20, and 40 cm depth. So far, none have dropped below freezing (it has been a relatively mild fall). We will be watching how the soil responds to the air temperature and snow cover. What prompted this study was the burial of a thermometer in the vineyard early this last summer, when we attempted to duplicate a study conducted in Finland. We thought our thermometer was broken in mid-August when it read in the high 50s (Fahrenheit) at about 15 cm. Yes, the soil can get that warm even in Alaska. It is not clear what happens during the winter. Most years when we have overwintered pots in trenches, it appears that the ground freezes down quite deeply. However, last winter (2017-2018) it did not freeze at all. We wonder what impact that has on the survivability and earliness of bud break on our different varieties.
With all this talk of fruit, you are probably wondering what we plan to do with it. Why, make wine, of course! We made 50 gallons of mostly fruit wine last winter and are about to bottle the remaining 35 or so gallons soon. There is more fruit in the freezer upstairs waiting to be made into wine. We are going to compare our Cascade Gold yellow raspberry wine to some Honeyqueen yellow raspberry wine we made last winter (fruit harvested at a local farm). The Honeyqueen wine turned out spectacular, so our Cascade Gold will have some stiff competition. The two raspberries have different flavor profiles when eaten fresh and we hope that translates into differences in the wines.
Big changes are in store for 2019 aside from the farm. We are breaking away from the 8-6 day job we've had for a number of years to pursue ventures that will hopefully give us more flexibility to manage the farm and accumulate the funds needed to build a winery over the next five years.
Here's to the New Year!