This is a good time to catch up with winemakers about the 2016 vintage, a year marked by frost events early in the season, and rain near the red grape harvest. By now, ferments have finished and some wines are in barrel or bottle. Wineries have a good idea about how their 2016s are tasting.
“Each vintage in Virginia presents its own unique set of challenges and opportunities,” says Rachel Stinson Vrooman of Stinson Vineyards. “As growers and winemakers we love to hate this unpredictability, but it’s a key piece of Virginia wine’s identity—it keeps things interesting and makes us feel like we’re all in it together, for better or worse. The 2016 season was just as action-packed as we’ve come to expect. A hard frost in April meant lower yields on pretty much everything. Early budding varietals like chardonnay and merlot were hit especially hard.”
Joy Ting, production manager and enologist at Michael Shaps Wineworks, also reports early-frost damage. “Yields were down in some varieties due to spring frost and rain during bloom,” Ting says. “The chardonnays were particularly hard hit by frost early in the season, with 30 to 50 percent reduction in crop load in most of the vineyards that come through our winery. Some sites fared better than others. The quality was good, there was just a lot less of it.”
Matthieu Finot, winemaker at King Family Vineyards, is happy with his chardonnay. “Because of this weather,” in summer, he says, “we were able to harvest the white grapes when we wanted, and despite limited quantities due to frost damage, they have good balance with the freshness and the acid that I am looking for.”
So, for white wines, we can expect lower quantities than usual, with high quality and concentration due to low yields forced by frost.
Red grapes had a better early season, but inclement autumn weather pushed into a few harvests. “Much like last year’s Joaquin,” Vrooman says, “Hurricane Matthew forced our hand a bit when it came to ripening the reds. Rains hit at the very end of September and set off the inevitable mad rush to bring in fruit. While we would have preferred higher sugar levels on the reds, the wines have good concentration at this early stage—and most importantly do not taste underripe.”
Ting notes that during harvest, “intermittent rain posed challenges throughout, but especially when it was time to pick reds. Heavy rains threatened vineyards on the eastern side of the state a few times, while central Virginia and the Shenandoah Valley saw less heavy rain. When rain threatens, winemakers sometimes have to decide to either pick early or take the risk of letting grapes hang through the rain. Good vineyard management practices were key to producing healthy grapes that could hang through rain and dry out before picking.”
Which 2016 red wines show promise at this point?
“Petit verdot was the star for us this vintage,” says Vrooman. “It escaped most of the spring damage and the tiny berries ripened leisurely while maintaining good acid.”
Ting also points to petit verdot. “The wines that are most exciting in the winery right now are the petit verdots and tannats. These are showing concentrated fruit upfront with a lot of structure backing them up. With so much tannin they still need time to age in barrel, then in bottle, in order to show their full complexity. But, at this stage, they are promising,” Ting says.
Finot is pleased with his cabernet franc. “Overall, I think the cab franc performed the best. I’m very happy with the way it tastes.”
Finot is also enjoying one of King Family Vineyards’ flagship wines: the 2016 Meritage, a Bordeaux-style blend based on merlot, cabernet franc and petit verdot. “I was surprised how much structure the Meritage was showing.” After tasting the 2016 Meritage, he says he likes the way the grape varieties complement each other. “It shows how blending can help consistency in the variable weather we get here in Virginia.”
Erin Scala is the sommelier at Fleurie and Petit Pois. She holds the Diploma of Wines & Spirits, is a Certified Sake Specialist and writes about beverages on her blog, thinking-drinking.com.