Monday, September 12, 2011

Harvest Report from Virginia

Well if you believe in signs from God, you have to think he doesn't much care for wineries and vineyards in Virginia this year.  After reading lots of weather reports and talking to a few winemakers, my impression of this vintage is that it was quite a challenge to make good wine.

Spring -- Between 40 and 80 days after bud break in the spring, a vine will begin to flower.  The temperature during this period needs to be within a fairly narrow band, between about 58 and 68 F (15-20 C).  If spring is wet and cold as it was in Virginia, many flowers won't get fertilized or will do so at uneven rates.  As the flowers give way to fruit, the crop will be smaller where fertilization failed, and within clusters, there will be big gaps, small berries and big berries.  These 'chickens and hens' will cause problems later becayse they will ripen at different rates.  When a picker is evaluating a bunch and sees some grapes ready to burst with ripeness, and others still green and hard, the correct path is difficult to determine.  A machine harvester is often a better choice in these cases, as it will shake off only the berries with loose (ripe) pedicels, leaving the hard ones.  Also, on the brighter side, these 'shattered' clusters allow more airflow and have fewer problems with mildew and rot.

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Summer -- This summer was hot and short.  Hot is okay, of course.  Vines need lots of sun and heat to produce great grapes.  The concern here is with heat spikes.  During a heat spike, a vine might shut down and stop photosynthesis.  Without photosynthesis, the grape will not accumulate sugars, and eventually will ripen without being sweet.  There are lots of ways to deal with heat spikes: cool water spritzing, shading with tarps of cheesecloth, big fans to keep air moving, but all are expensive.

Fall and Harvest -- Virginia had the effects of two hurricanes at the end of August and start of September.  In fact, some parts of the state had 10 days or more in a row of rain, with levels more than 4 inches above average.  Many growers brought in grapes in advance of the hurricane Irene, at sugar and ripeness levels below optimal.  Those who waited out Irene, but got caught picking in the 10 days of rain that started in September, picked grapes that were swollen with water and whose flavors will be dilute.  Some used the industrial equivalent of the Dyson Blade hand dryer to blow water off during harvest.  For varieties that ripen later in the month like Cabernet, mold and rot will be a major problem.  A berry that is split by rain swelling contains 40 times more 'organisms' than whole berries.  Whole clusters will form beards.

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Options are limited for this smount of soggyness in the vineyard.  There will surely be great pressure to rush the harvest in to limit the damage.  Then only rigorous sorting will prevent very funky wine.

This vintage is an excellent challenge to winemakers indeed and it will separate those trying to make great wine from those content to charge $20 per bottle of crap to tourists.  I suppose I am setting myself up for a future tasting report...shudder...but I am up to the task.

Meanwhile, the weather elsewhere in the wine world has been, um, sub-optimal.  Cold damp spring on the Sonoma Coast has lead to a record late fruit set complete with widespread shatter.  Hail has destroyed large parts of the Mosel and St. Emilion, and Australia continues with a multi-year drought.   

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