How this summer’s heat is impacting southern Arizona’s wine country

Published: Aug. 9, 2023 at 6:05 PM MST
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TUCSON, Ariz. (13 News) - There is no denying how this year’s heat is taking a toll on just about everything.

According to experts, this extreme heat is causing major stress on different agricultural crops throughout the state.

This is true for vineyards in southern Arizona.

Vineyards in Sonoita are praying and hoping for cooler temperatures in the coming weeks. The hope is the cooler temps will help the grapes on the vines and encourage tourists to visit Arizona’s wine country.

Megan Stranik is a winemaker and co-owner of AZ Hops and Vines, a family-operated winery in Sonoita. Stranik along with her sister does just about everything on their vineyard from naturing the grape crops, hand-harvesting the grapes, and bottling up the final product for wine lovers to enjoy.

“The vines are definitely struggling a little bit with the heat,” Stranik tells 13 News.

Stranik said this scorching summer is like nothing they have ever seen. She said the recent monsoon moisture and the higher elevation is helping their crops.

“We have them on drip irrigation and luckily we are at 5,000 feet in elevation,” Stranik said. “We are a little cooler than Tucson,”

Since much of Arizona is seeing higher temperatures this summer, Stranik said many people are choosing to stay home instead of traveling. However, since Sonita is typically cooler than Tucson and Phoenix, she encourages people to still plan their wine-tasting adventures.

Stranik is expecting an earlier harvest because of above-average temperatures.

She said the grapes are ripening more quickly because it’s been so hot. When grapes ripen too fast the acid the fruit produces because of the heat could cause a bitter taste.

“As it’s so hot the sugar will go up in the wine which means the alcohol will go up in the wine,” Stranik said. “We want to make sure that the alcohol isn’t too high and the acidity in the wine is too low.”

Stranik says this week, their first round of grapes will be ready. On Friday, August 11th, the team will start harvesting chardonnay two weeks earlier than last year.

Randy Norton, an Extension Agronomist with the University of Arizona, says the southern part of the state has suffered significant heat stress.

Norton said out of the past 30 days, only four were not characterized by what they consider “level-two heat stress days.”

According to Norton, “heat stress days,” are determined by how warm the crops’ leafs temperatures are.

“Level-one heat stress days” is when the temps on the crops rise above 82.4 degrees. Norton said this level won’t have a significant impact on crops.

“Level-two heat stress days” means those temperatures are above 86 degrees.

During “level-two heat stress days,” Norton said the temperature on the plant is elevated to the point where issues with reproduction, formation of fruit, and poor pollen formation can take place.

“It’s driven in part by daytime temperatures,” Norton tells 13 News. “What is correlated better with level 2 heat stress is nighttime temperatures. We see issues when the nighttime temperatures stay above 80-86 degrees. That’s when the plant has a real difficult time cooling itself.”

Colton Noble with Charron Vineyard and Winery in Vail said they have been seeing this stress on their crops.

“A good portion of our plants are showing some forms of heat stress,” Noble said.

This is why Noble is hoping for cooler temps and wetter weather to help reprieve the crops.

“It’s has been really, really hot,” Noble said. “It’s been difficult keeping enough water on the grapes for them to thrive, and we definitely saw diminished fruit quality in a couple of our blocks at harvest last weekend.”

It’s not just high temperatures. Winemakers in southern Arizona are also keeping an eye on potential wildfires.

Lori Reynolds with Sonoita Vineyards says although her crops are doing okay. A wildfire in early March destroyed five acres of their crops.

“Even if you are mowing outside, you can hit a rock and spark a wildfire,” Reynolds said. “You just need to be really careful when you are outside in Arizona. Especially because it’s always windy down here, so one little spark, it’s going to be a blaze.”

Every Saturday, Sonoita Vineyards offers live music and winetasting.

On Saturday, August 12, AZ Hops and Vines will have its “Bad Decisions Night.” Stranik said this will be the perfect opportunity for wine lovers to discover what Sonoita has to offer.

Both owners encourage tourists to visit now versus waiting for the cooler months to help keep business flowing.

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