Growing good wine in Virginia’s unlikely clime

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Gabriele Rausse spoke to the group gathered at Staunton's RR Smith Center for the Thomas Jefferson Wine Event. Photo: Ashley Twiggs. Gabriele Rausse spoke to the group gathered at Staunton's RR Smith Center for the Thomas Jefferson Wine Event. Photo: Ashley Twiggs.

Ever since Virginia’s first settlers planted wine vineyards in the Tidewater, the challenges of growing good grapes here have been apparent. The varieties we know, like Chardonnay, pinot noir, and cabernet sauvignon, all belong to the European species vitis vinifera, which tends to favor a dry Mediterranean climate. Those vines didn’t take kindly to Virginia’s colder winters, muggy, pest-filled summers, or tropical storms that have the potential to dump rain on crops just at harvest time, when growers pray for hot dry weather to avoid burst fruit and diluted juice.

But despite the fact that last week’s rain put a damper on some growers’ spirits (see page 47), winemaking in Virginia is thriving. So what’s changed?

“We have more tools in our management toolbox,” said Dr. Tony Wolf, professor of viticulture at Virginia Tech. With pesticides and fungicides, growers can pamper a crop out of the fragile vinifera varieties that consumers know and seek out. And worrying as the implications may be, Wolf said one tough climate factor—killing cold in winter—is no longer the problem it used to be in Virginia.

Still, the battle against fungus during muggy summers is constant, and the weather is fickle at key moments in the growing process, so the process of adapting is ever-evolving.

Wolf has spent years exploring little-known vinifera varieties as well as New World natives that are well-suited to the Commonwealth. Take petit manseng, a white wine grape that prior to the ’90s was rarely grown outside southwest France.

“It’s what we call one of the wet weather or durable grape varieties,” Wolf said. With small berries that hang in loose clusters, it resists rot well. Wolf studied the variety in various settings in Virginia for the better part of a decade, and said it’s now taking off here.

Some winemakers are steering away from wimpy vinifera altogether. The grape species aestivalis is native to the eastern U.S., “so it evolved with a lot of the pathogens,” said Wolf, and is much better suited to fighting them and surviving in our climate. A number of vineyards are growing an aestivalis cultivar called Norton, he said—and making good wine with it.

Legendary local winemaker Gabriele Rausse is quick to defend central Virginia’s terroir. The Italian native, now director of gardens and grounds at Monticello, likes to point out that the year he came to Charlottesville from Vicenza in northern Italy’s vineyard-rich Veneto region, the two cities got precisely the same amount of rainfall.

Which isn’t to say there aren’t challenges. But Rausse comes at them from the mindset of an artisan, craftsman, and philosopher. Success in winemaking requires creativity, he said, and the ability to roll with the punches.

In August 1989, he said, several days of rain threatened to ruin one of his pinot harvests. Rather than wringing his hands and hoping for a dry spell, “I remember walking to the vineyard and saying, ‘Bring all these grapes in,’” he said. He separated juice and skins right away, and ended up with a good white wine—a method often employed in northeast Italy when growers are forced into early harvesting.

Having free reign to follow instinct is critical, especially when nature is threatening to gain the upper hand, he said. Sometimes big growing operations lose sight of that, because there’s pressure to make a certain yield. “And then you have a lousy pinot noir,” he said. “You have to give the freedom to the winemaker to do what he needs to do.”

Both men—the scientist and the grower-
craftsman—agree that a Virginia vineyard is, in part, a gamble. “We kid each other sometimes about what is the average season, and there is none,” Wolf said. “We have good years and bad years,” just like any wine region, it’s true—just more so here. “A lot of it has to do with luck.”

 

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