2011 Virginia Grape Harvest a Challenge

By Posted on Sep 30 2011 | By

Cool, Rainy Weather Forces Wineries to Scramble 

Within the wine industry, one is reluctant to speak of a poor harvest. The world of wine is centered on the romantic image of undulating rows of vines hanging heavy with ripe fruit, ready for transformation into gold and ruby nectar.

But this year in the Old Dominion it will be a challenge to elicit praise from proprietors and winemakers as to the quality of their grapes. Virginia’s climate will have its way from time to time and acceptance of a poor vintage is a worthy trait among the state’s vintners.

“At the end of August we had good fruit hanging in the vineyard.  We were excited with its potential.  But in September, much of the crop failed to mature given the cool, wet weather.  This is my thirty-second vintage and you need to accept that Virginia’s climate will not produce an ideal harvest every year.  One needs to respect each vintage for what it is,” explains Jim Law, owner and winemaker at Linden Vineyards.

In fact, such a lament is periodically heard in most wine growing regions, including France, the home of world-class wines.  Even California’s harvest is two to three weeks behind schedule this year due to a cool and rainy early season.  Growing wine grapes is farming and farming entails risks.

The delicate Eurasian grapes that produce over 80% of Virginia’s wines need relatively dry weather in the final weeks prior to harvest; a touch of drought is ideal.  Such conditions increase sugar levels with a corresponding decline in acidity.  A balanced grape harvest leads to balanced wine.

In Charlottesville, vineyards were exposed to 12 inches of rain in a nine day period in September with episodes of hail damage also occurring.  First Hurricane Irene dumped heavy rains followed by the slow moving tropical storm Lee.  “Legally you must cease spraying for a period of time prior to harvest.  This year the weather left the fruit exposed to fungi leading to sour rot and Botrytis.  We lost much of our Viognier and other varieties were also hard hit,” said Stephen Barnard, winemaker at Keswick Vineyards.

What’s a winemaker to do?
Experienced vineyard mangers try to anticipate the vagaries of weather by employing strategies such as aggressive leaf pulling to expose the fruit to more sunlight and encourage ripening.  “We’ve closely managed our Chardonnay crop this year.  And while this is not a great vintage that fruit is hanging nicely.  Now we need some dry, sunny days to successfully bring it into the cellar,” says Chris Pearmund, owner of three Fauquier County wineries. 

Given the potential of poor harvests, experienced wineries react to such conditions in a variety of ways.  An obvious tact is to simply not produce as much wine in a poor vintage year.  Other approaches involve making more Rosé wines in lieu of full- bodied reds or blending different wines to build depth and complexity.

“This is a year to focus on ‘pretty wines’.  Such wines are lower in alcohol, more delicate, with a bit more acidity and mineral notes and not as long aging,” explains Law.  “I anticipate years like this and hoard some of my full-bodied reds.  My 2006 and 2007 Hardscrabble reds are pouring nicely.  I will release them next year,” he says.

Another important strategy is to aggressively drop underripe or rotten fruit in the vineyard, enhancing the potential for the grapes that are harvested.  While this reduces overall production, it enables quality wine to be made in off vintages.

Most Virginia wineries only use only Virginia grown fruit but state law does allow up to twenty-five percent of out-of-state grapes to be blended into their wines.  In difficult vintages, this provides an opportunity for winemakers to craft wines that are fuller-bodied while still reflecting the state’s terroir.

A good portion of the state’s red grape crop is still in the vineyard.  If the weather cooperates, good quality fruit can still be reaped.  “We are using every technique in the book to produce good wines this year.  It’s challenging,” says Pearmund.

 Published in the September 30, 2011 edition of the Fauquier Times-Democrat.

Philip Carter Winery Vineyards



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