Virginia winemakers vs. vintage 2011

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The Old World uses barns for grape drying, so Michael Shaps (pictured) rented a barn from a tobacco farmer two hours away to get his 2011 vintage up to snuff. So pleased with the result, he plans to purchase the barn for use in vintages (good or bad) to come. (Photo by Ashley Twiggs) The Old World uses barns for grape drying, so Michael Shaps (pictured) rented a barn from a tobacco farmer two hours away to get his 2011 vintage up to snuff. So pleased with the result, he plans to purchase the barn for use in vintages (good or bad) to come. (Photo by Ashley Twiggs)

In a good vintage, the hardest job for winemakers is staying hands-off enough to let lovely fruit speak for itself. In a bad vintage, their hardest job is having all hands on deck to turn lousy fruit into delicious wine. Vintage 2011 was the worst wine weather that Virginia’s seen since 2003 (remember Isabel?). Irene hit close to white grape harvest and incited a rash of premature picking. Then it rained for the entirety of September (the month when red grapes ought to be sunbathing) and winemakers ended up with diluted, underripe, and in many cases, rotted fruit. They were such a grumpy bunch that I steered clear of any postmortem interviews.

Now that the skies have cleared and the 2011 wines have been barrelled or bottled, I asked how our skilled and clever winemakers worked their magic against the crappy hand dealt by Mother Nature.

For Jake Busching, manager of Mount Juliet’s 50 acres of vines and winemaker of soon-to-be Grace Estates Winery, most of his damage control took place in the vineyard.

“My goal was to react as quickly as possible towards the need to pick. The difference of 12 to 24 hours of hang time made or broke a pick this year,” Busching said. He sold 200 tons of grapes to 22 vineyards in 2011, but lost some sales because of disagreements over early-picking. He got his later-ripening grapes through the rains by removing excess leaves around the fruit for better air circulation and by dropping infected clusters over multiple passes.

The name of the game at Glen Manor Vineyards, where winemaker Jeff White just took the Governor’s Cup for his 2009 Hodder Hill Meritage, was sorting, both in the vineyard and in the winery. White let his grapes hang longer than most, but the risk he took (based on 19 years’ experience) paid off. “We left a lot of clusters at the vine because they had fallen apart, but what we picked had gained ripeness, sugars, and flavor development over those weeks,” he said. Their usual two sorting tables were manned differently this year, too, with more people on the first table picking off rotted berries before they got destemmed.

Michael Shaps, who makes his own wine in addition to overseeing 25 brands and 20,000 cases at his custom crushpad, Virginia Wineworks, thought outside the box. For 12 years, Shaps has been making a sweet, late-harvest Cabernet Franc by laying the grapes in trays and drying them with fans in order to reduce their moisture and concentrate their sugars (a technique the Italians call appassimento). “I realized that this would be the perfect year to do this with our dry wines, too. The grapes came in mature, but diluted, so the drying process would bring them back to where we want them,” he said.

Andy Reagan, winemaker at Jefferson Vineyards, lost about 40 percent of his usual fruit intake this year and will likely produce 2,000 fewer cases than his 7,500 annual average. Sounds dismal, but because 2010 was such a fantastic year (and because he felt like luck was running out after sitting pretty for seven vintages), he bought and processed an excess of red fruit last year, leaving him with options. “I may make some non-vintage Cabernet Franc, and will give the 2010 Meritage an extra year of oak-aging to make up for not making one in 2011,” Reagan said.

White’s been pleasantly surprised by the blending trials of his reds so far. “They’re not big, tannic, structured wines, but they have great color and real nice flavor. We’ll bottle earlier than normal and will suggest people drink them within the next few years. These wines will appeal to a different palate and different foods and will answer the voices out that think that reds have become too alcoholic,” he said.

Great wine may be made in the vineyard, but when that fails, thank goodness for the professionals who make it in the winery.

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