Unless you’ve found some reason to spend the last month trapped in a dark room with no windows and no access to the outside world, you’re well aware that we are currently mired in one of the soggiest summers in recent memory. After receiving more than 10″ of rainfall since the beginning of June, Charlottesville and the surrounding counties are well above their annual average at this point in the year, and if the forecast is to be believed, there is no respite in the near future. Common sense would suggest that this bountiful rainfall is a boon for the local crops, and in certain agricultural circles, that is undoubtedly true. But, as a betting man, I would be way more likely to wager that viticulturists throughout Central Virginia are more apt to shake their fists at the sky and curse the heavens than welcome any more rain at this point in the growing season.
There are myriad issues that arise when a vineyard is overwatered and, depending on the point in the season that it occurs, the effect on the grapes and finished product is equally varied and plentiful. Too much rain early in the spring runs the risk of damaging the flower buds, which will drastically reduce the yield from the grape vines and severely limit the number of bottles produced in the winery. This rarely leads to a complete loss, as it doesn’t actually affect the quality of the fruit that does make it to harvest. Lots of rain during harvest and the grapes will swell with water; this dilutes the sugar concentration in the juice, leading to thin reds and watery whites. In 2011, vineyards in the area experienced massive downpours leading up to and during harvest and the vintage suffered in kind, ending up as one of the worst in recent memory.
Most local wineries endured a drastic decrease in production that year, with some wineries, like Jefferson Vineyards, ending up with about 40 percent less fruit intake than it would produce in a normal year. All was not lost, however, as winemakers were forced to get crafty and employ tricks that are not normally necessary, such as the use of fans to dry the excess water in the grapes before crushing, which is similar to the techniques used in Veneto to produce one of Italy’s most heralded wines: Amarone della Valpolicella. Still others opted to embrace the conditions and produce lighter, fruitier wines that were more akin to the wines of Beaujolais than your typical new world red. Wines made in this style weren’t much for aging, but proved to be a drinkable and pleasant diversion from what one would usually expect from a Virginia wine.
With harvest still well over a month away, the biggest risk that the rain currently poses to area vineyards is the potential for the waterlogged grapes to swell and the skins to burst. This creates a perfect environment for mold and mildew to take hold, which can ruin entire grape clusters and result in wines that carry a general mustiness even when the most egregious offenders are sorted and discarded. This factor already weighs heavily on the minds of vineyard managers throughout the region, as the climate in central Virginia always proves friendly to mold in mid-July into August, but the added humidity from all the rain this year can only compound the issue. The wineries I reached out to for comment on the current state of their vineyards were hesitant to say much in regards to water damage other than to acknowledge that at this point it was a concern.
Despite the extra work, and added risk, that goes into maintaining a waterlogged vineyard, it would be unfair to suggest that all is lost for 2013. If conditions mellow now and we are blessed with a warm and arid August and early September, the grapes will have time to dry on the vine, and could still turn out to be exceptional with the proper amount of “green harvesting,” a technique where overripe and rotten/moldy bunches of grapes are picked well ahead of harvest to allow all of the remaining nutrients in the soil to be distributed to the still hanging clusters, resulting in hardier, more developed fruit. Proponents argue this practice results in deeper, more complex wines with more complicated flavors and aromas. In reality, nature will probably grant us with something in between, a mixture of the hellish conditions of June and July and the idyllic conditions that lead winemakers to sacrifice livestock on an altar to the sun gods. Only time will tell what Mother Nature will do in the coming months, and it will be almost a full year from now before the first 2013s find themselves before the critics and discerning public, but the area’s winemakers have proven to be up to the task. After all, they wouldn’t choose to make wine in Virginia if they weren’t up for a little challenge, and the occasional curveball.
Andrew Cole is the manager and wine director at tavola.