State of the harvest: Checking in with Virginia winemakers as they haul in 2012’s crop

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Mount Juliet manager Jake Busching will soon open his tasting room and winery, Grace Estates. Photo: John Robinson Mount Juliet manager Jake Busching will soon open his tasting room and winery, Grace Estates. Photo: John Robinson

Last year’s bitch of a vintage, sullied by that four-letter ‘r’ word, left hardworking Virginia winemakers bruised, battered, and bitter. They deserved a break. From all predictions, 2012 was shaping up to be a dependable and promising vintage. Even after an early bud break, most vines escaped the spring frosts unscathed and then were treated to hot sun from there on out. The grapes even weathered a June 29 hail and wind storm we all now know is called a derecho. The mercury clung to triple-digits until veraison (see Winespeak 101), when a stretch of cooler nights kept the grapes’ sugar levels (and therefore potential alcohol levels) from rising too high and acidity from dropping too low. Insects weren’t even as bad as we thought they’d be following a mild winter. Whites were ready early and no hurricanes interrupted or hastened their harvest. All things considered, our winemakers were sitting pretty.

Then we flipped the calendar’s page to September and, cue the irony, it started to rain. Writing this three days into the month, there’s a deluge outside my window with a good chance of rain the next four days. Winemakers are having a serious case of déjà vu.

But not all is gloom and doom. Most of the whites around our area were harvested mid-August before a single raindrop fell. “By and large, all of the fruit came in looking excellent. It made sorting a nice, enjoyable experience,” said Blenheim Vineyards’ assistant winemaker, Greg Hirson. Now they’re clearing the decks to focus on the reds.

Afton Mountain Vineyards harvested its Pinot Noir for its sparkling Tête du Cuvée on July 28—three weeks earlier than last year. A post on the winery’s Facebook page sharing this news sparked chatter among incredulous winemakers all over the world. “I received an e-mail from a Master Sommelier in Burgundy asking to confirm our actual date of harvest,” said owner Elizabeth Smith. She and her husband Tony, along with their small team, labored all Labor Day weekend picking and processing Merlot and Sangiovese. Smith says that the still-hanging Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot looks great and after dumping the entirety of their Cabernet Sauvignon 2011 down the drain (“It just didn’t make good wine after our great previous couple years, so down the tubes it went,” she said), they’re ready for a good year with their big reds.

Of the 170 to 180 tons of fruit that Mount Juliet manager Jake Busching will harvest this year, 130 will go to 10 Monticello AVA wineries and 40 to 50 to Grace Estates’ production (launching April 2013). Busching says that while crop load is down due to springtime flowering issues and a generally dry season, the quality of the fermentations is much better than last year’s. His Chardonnay (which he began picking on August 17—10 days earlier than in 2011), Viognier, Malbec, and Vidal are all in with Merlot and Petit Verdot nipping at their heels.

For Stephen Barnard at Keswick Vineyards, harvest started a week earlier than last year. Chardonnay came in on August 18, followed by Viognier (two weeks earlier than last year), then Verdejo (that grassy little number originally from Spain with which Barnard’s had great success). Syrah, the peppery Rhône Valley red, hit the sorting tables on August 31. The rest of Keswick’s reds will get another week or two, depending on, yep, the weather.

Paul Summers, a grower with five acres near Whitehall, sells three tons of grapes to Gabriele Rausse, another three to four tons to Mountfair Vineyards, and uses the rest in his own label, Knight’s Gambit. He describes every year as a “crapshoot,” but is thankful that the sun’s been peeking out long enough between downpours to dry things out (sour rot and mildews among the dangers of wet clusters).

Learning from last year, Michael Shaps, who managed to turn his watery 2011 red grapes sweet by drying them into raisins in an old tobacco barn two hours away, has invested in a barn for Virginia Wineworks’ parking lot. Vidal and Traminette are already shriveling away inside and with room for at least 12 tons of grapes, they’re prepared if September’s another washout.
Only time and the doppler will tell, so until then, it’s finger-crossing, wood-knocking, and anti-rain dancing all the way.

WINESPEAK 101
Veraison (n.): The period in a grape’s development that marks the onset of ripening and its change in color.

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