Crushing it: Why this year’s harvest could put Virginia wine on the national map

Grapes ferment in large tanks throughout the production facility before being loaded into a press. Photo by Paul Whicheloe Grapes ferment in large tanks throughout the production facility before being loaded into a press. Photo by Paul Whicheloe

He pulls the golf cart onto the right side of the gravel path: “Let me show you some of this viognier.” Carrington King, vineyard manager at King Family Vineyards in Crozet, stops the driver of a Kawasaki golf cart heading in the opposite direction of the tasting room, toward the processing facility, loaded down with bright yellow crates called lugs, each filled with 25 pounds of grapes. The crates are marked with the name Roseland in black, the name of the farm and the name of a chardonnay/viognier/petit manseng blend the winery produces. King plucks a cluster of grapes and holds it up to the afternoon sunlight to show how these berries, part of a second harvest of viognier this season, are starting to raisin and dehydrate.

“See how it’s drying nicely, no rot? And that”—he points to a brown discoloration—“that’s a little sunburn, but it’s perfectly fine.”

He pops a few grapes in his mouth.

“Super, super sweet. A year like this you can do interesting projects like this.”

Steeped in history

Our region is part of the Monticello American Viticultural Area, the state’s oldest AVA, founded in 1984. It’s named for the estate of one of the biggest proponents of American winemaking, Thomas Jefferson, who dreamt his home would be surrounded by flourishing vineyards that could compete with the Old World style of winemaking. Jefferson enlisted the help of notable Italian winemaker Filipo Mazzei, who researched the local terroir and planted thousands of vines around Monticello and at farms nearby. Although the American Revolution cut down Jefferson’s dream, if he walked the Monticello Wine Trail today he might see something closely resembling his vision.

The Monticello AVA, which includes Charlottesville and the four surrounding counties of Albemarle, Greene, Nelson and Orange, is made up of 33 wineries and encompasses 800,000 acres in the area on the eastern slope of the Blue Ridge Mountains. About 30 varieties of grapes are grown here, with some of the most prominent being chardonnay, cabernet franc, merlot and our state grape, viognier.

Virginia winemaking saw a resurgence in 1976 with the founding of Barboursville Vineyards by Gianni Zonin, heir to a family wine enterprise in the Veneto region of Italy. In August, the Daily Meal, which gathers input from wine industry professionals and factors in awards and accolades from wine publications, named Barboursville No. 8 on its 101 Best Wineries in America list (Michael Shaps Wineworks came in at No. 57, Jefferson Vineyards at 94).

What makes it Virginia wine?

Vineyards and wineries in which 85 percent of the fruit comes from the Monticello AVA, with the remainder made up in local grapes from around the state, may enter the Monticello Wine Cup Awards each April.

Statewide regulations are a little less strict: 51 percent of the grapes have to come from Virginia land owned or leased by a winery for that wine to be considered a Virginia farm wine (the label will read American wine).

Some of the larger wineries operate under a different classification: 75 percent of their grapes must come from within the state. And the wines of any winery with 75 percent or more grapes grown in Virginia are labeled Virginia wines.

But Virginia is often overlooked when it comes to making the grade as a top wine region in America, with heavy-hitters like Napa and Sonoma, and New York’s Finger Lakes and Oregon’s Willamette Valley getting all the national headlines. In fact, some wineries in California produce as much wine as all of the wineries in Virginia together. Sadly, in early October, wildfires in Northern California killed 42 people and scorched 240,000 acres, destroying six wineries in the Napa and Sonoma regions.

Locally, we also battle Mother Nature: This fall’s lack of rain caused City Council and the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors to issue mandatory water restrictions earlier in the month—no watering your lawn, take brief showers—to help offset the lower water supply levels (the South Fork Rivanna Reservoir fell to 42 percent capacity in just two months).

But our hot, dry autumn is actually good news for grape growers and vineyard owners. A drier season with more mild temperatures means a longer growing season, which allows the fruit to fully ripen on the vine. That means they are picked at the perfect point of ripeness, when the balance of sugar and acid levels for each variety is at its peak.

This year could not only be a banner year for Virginia winemakers in terms of grape yield, quality of the fruit and thus quality of the wine produced, it could be the year that puts Virginia wine on the map, many say.

Hearty harvest

Emily Pelton couldn’t believe what she was tasting. It was the end of July, and the first sample of sauvignon blanc grapes had just come in from the field at Veritas Vineyard & Winery in Afton, where Pelton is head winemaker.

She expected the berries in a random sampling to be tart, like they usually are, but instead Pelton was hit with a punch of sweetness: “Oh, that’s nice!” she thought.

That was one of the first signs that this year would be “a vintage in our books,” she predicts, up there with her favorite vintages in 2009 and 2010.

Although the area also experienced a drought in 2010, that one caused a surge in sugar in the grapes and fast ripening, which led to a smaller yield, Pelton says. This year, she says they hauled in 382.2 tons of grapes between the 50 acres under vine at her family’s winery and another 50 on farms within 30 minutes’ drive, which will make about 26,000 cases of wine (there are 12 bottles in a case). An average year would yield 15,000 to 20,000 cases for the vineyard.

Emily Pelton, head winemaker at Veritas, helped her parents, Andrew and Patricia Hodson, start the winery in 1999. Photo by Paul Whicheloe

Several factors contributed to this year’s bountiful harvest, says Joy Ting, production manager and head enologist at Michael Shaps Wineworks. For one, there was an early bud break in the spring, which generally makes winemakers and growers nervous, because one cold snap could wipe out their crops. But the milder temperatures held, translating into a longer grape-growing season. Most wineries started picking their first white grape crops at least a week early—Pelton says they started picking August 10, almost two weeks ahead of schedule. King Family picked its first chardonnay grapes for its sparkling wine August 3—a full week earlier than it’s ever harvested. In addition, wineries were still harvesting their last red varieties at normal times (early to mid-October), and were even able to do second-round pickings of certain varieties, such as King’s viognier.

The small amount of rain (our area dodged residual effects from Hurricanes Irma and Maria) meant the threat of disease such as rot was lessened, and it also allowed grapes with more concentrated flavor because the vines could focus on their job—growing fruit.

“I feel like the cabernet franc this year is some of the best cabernet franc that I’ve seen since I’ve been in the industry, about five years,” Ting says. The sauvignon blancs, viognier and rosé don’t need to go through malolactic fermentation, which reduces acidity, and will be released in late summer 2018. Most of the reds like cabernet sauvignon, tannat and petit verdot will continue to age in barrels for another year after being pressed and undergoing malolactic fermentation. They will be available in late 2019. “But I would hesitate to say that, only because I really feel like across the board the fruit was very high quality. From the very early whites all the way through the reds…for Virginia, I feel like it was a really wonderful growing season for us.”

Down to a science

As Carrington King passes by blocks of grapes, he points out their labeling system of using cattle tags on each row: red for merlot, pink for cabernet franc, yellow for petit manseng. We stop near a block of viognier, where people are hand-picking the second harvest of the grape, which will likely be used for a small-batch orange viognier (a method of winemaking in which white grapes are fermented on the skins like a red wine, creating an amber hue and giving the wine “nice tannin”). King’s brother’s father-in-law is out in the field, as is King’s mother, Ellen, picking alongside year-round employees. The vineyard is a family endeavor—David and Ellen King started the vineyard in 1998, and the couple’s three sons now help operate the 327-acre farm and vineyard.

King says all the grapes are handpicked—“It’s hard to find them, you have to hunt way up high,” he says. Gathering berries for sampling (which begins about a week after veraison, when the red grapes go from green to red and the white grapes start softening) is not a very scientific process: Someone grabs a Ziploc bag and walks along a path with a row of vines on either side. While looking straight ahead, he’ll reach in and grab some berries off a cluster, sometimes off the top, sometimes off the bottom, and ping-pong between the two rows to ensure a sampling of berries that get both morning and afternoon sun. By not looking at the berries you pick you’re ensuring as random a sample as possible–our eyes are naturally trained to flesh out the best-looking berries.

“When we’re sampling and trying to get tons per acres we do berry weights and cluster weights. On average our berry weight was lower than most years,” King says. “Typically a winemaker would love to have smaller berries, especially in a red where the ratio of juice to skin favors better color, better tannin, better extraction, because your ratio of juice to skin is higher on the skin side. Now, in central Virginia we don’t know what to call average because it’s been so variable every year.”

Employees of King Family Vineyards handpicked a second harvest of viognier grapes last week. Photo by Paul Whicheloe
King Family winemaker Matthieu Finot and vineyard manager Carrington King sort freshly picked grapes by hand. Photo by Paul Whicheloe

Once the sample comes in the process does turn scientific. The berries are crushed and the juice is strained into a beaker, and a pH meter and a refractometer measure the pH level and percent of soluble solids—the sugar level of the juice. As the sugar accumulates in the grape, the pH level increases. When the grapes are first tested the pH might be 2.8 or 2.9, increasing to 5.3 or 6, as it gets more basic (7 on the pH scale is neutral). But acid is good for wine—if it’s not acidic enough the wine won’t taste balanced. Chardonnay used in sparkling wine, for instance, is picked at a lower pH level of 3 to give the wine an “acidic tingle and freshness,” King says.

“When it gets closer to harvest (three weeks after veraison) we might take samples every few days, to try to say what’s the progression of sugar accumulation and how quickly is the acid going down, to try to find the right balance point of when it’s the right time to pick that grape,” Ting says. “And that’s one of the nice things about not having rain coming. We get to dial that in a little more carefully. If it’s going to rain, we’ll usually pick it before the rain, if we feel like it’s close to ripe. This year we would take samples, and we would almost be able to predict ‘well okay, it looks like it’s gaining such and such sugar per day, so it looks like this weekend it should be right where we want it to get’ and it would be right about where we expected it to be.”

Michael Shaps, which has about 80 acres of vineyard under lease or management in eight counties in the state for its own wines, also does contract winemaking for clients who bring in grapes from their own vineyards, and Ting says grapes from all over the state saw similar consistency this year. Shaps was the original winemaker at King Family, and was succeeded by Matthieu Finot in 2007.

Finot, whose lab is housed in the “newish” production facility at King Family (it’s their fourth harvest in the new building), echoes other winemakers in their love of this year’s crop with good acid, which keeps freshness in the wine and helps it age well.

“I’m very excited with the chardonnay, and the cab franc will just be wonderful this year: good ripening, good color, good tannin extraction,” he says. “I think it’s going to be a key vintage for what we do. We had some rain at the beginning of September, just to give us harvest, then it went back to nice, sunny and dry. On a whole I’m very happy with it. Usually when you talk to the winemaker at this time they’re all depressed…here, it’s like yay!”

Experimental thinking

When asked what her favorite varieties this season are, Pelton lets out a little yelp and squirms in her seat. It’s like asking her to pick a favorite child. She concedes that her sauvignon blanc was “killer” this year—not that the viognier wasn’t—but the sauvignon blanc stands out for its intense aromatics. You can pick out distinct notes of grapefruit and passionfruit, specifically pink grapefruit.

“You can really start diving in there and saying, ‘Ooh, I can smell this!’” she says.

For reds, she names both cabernet franc and petit verdot, but finally settles on cab franc.

King also names their cabernet franc and petit verdot as the red varieties he’s most excited about this year: “The chemistry was amazing,” he says.

King Family hauled in 240 tons of grapes this season from its more than 30 acres, which translates to 12,000 cases. King says demand is going up every year, as is production and new plantings: In 2016 they made 2,200 cases of Crosé, which lasted in their tasting room until July. The year before, they produced 1,800 cases that sold out in September. Each year they’re selling out earlier: They will bottle 4,000 cases of the 2017 vintage of the cult favorite rosé, a staple at summer polo matches at the vineyard.

Although King Family mainly sticks to its stable of wines, it created its small batch series four or five years ago to allow Finot to experiment, and in a banner year like this there’s a little more room to play.

“What’s really fun for us is making these little tiny batches to make very select bottlings,” King says.

Newly released this year for King Family is a wine called Mountain Plains, which was the original name of the family’s property when a 22-year-old Thomas Jefferson, then an attorney, signed the deed. The “super meritage” is a blend of petit verdot, merlot and cabernet franc—two barrels of each.

Currently being processed in King Family’s production facility is a whole cluster petit verdot–pressed with stems and all–much the way they would have done in the Old World when grapes were crushed underfoot. The stems give the wine more tannins, Finot says, but that can be risky. He points to a similar experiment a few years ago with a dry petit manseng that is now being served in the tasting room. When he first tried it he thought it was very harsh and acidic, out of balance, and he considered dumping it. But he kept aging it in barrels, and after two years he ended up with a drinkable wine.

“Now it’s one of the wines I really love,” he says.

Berry good

Although the viognier grape, which has intense, complex aromas of stone fruit with tropical notes, was named our state’s signature grape in 2011 (its thick skin can stand up to Virginia’s heat and humidity), it comes in as No. 6 in grape production totals from a 2016 commercial grape report prepared for the Virginia Wine Board. Here are our state’s top five:

1. Cabernet franc (929 tons)

2. Chardonnay (760 tons)

3. Merlot (620 tons)

4. Cabernet sauvignon (533 tons)

5. Petit verdot (495 tons)

Blenheim Vineyards, which made roughly 4,500 cases in 2016 and will bottle 8,000 cases this year, has added the albariño grape, which generally flourishes in Spain, to its portfolio. Ting points to Bleinheim and Afton Mountain Vineyards as early champions of the grape variety, good for making a fresh white wine. Kirsty Harmon, winemaker and general manager at Blenheim, says both the albariño and sauvignon blanc did well this year, and she made a little wine out of pinot noir, which she hasn’t been able to attempt in years past.

“I’d say that it is potentially the best harvest at Blenheim since I’ve been winemaker for 10 years,” she says.

And Veritas’ Pelton is experimenting too, but less with grapes and more on winemaking styles and the growing process. In 2014 she helped found the now statewide Winemakers Research Exchange in which wineries in Virginia can submit experiments for blind taste tests. Last year the exchange had 10 different tastings; Pelton submitted four or five projects.

The future of local wines

Today there are more than 260 wineries statewide compared with 193 in 2010. In 2015, the wine and grape industry brought in $1.37 billion, and wine production nearly doubled in that time frame from 439,500 cases to 705,200, according to the Virginia Wine Board’s 2015 Economic Impact Study.

Today’s wineries, with careful site selection for plantings and fruit monitoring along with evolving winemaking, are a far cry from the early days 40 years ago, King says. He says he’s often asked who his competitors are. His answer: He doesn’t have any. He says all the winemakers, vineyard owners and grape growers are friendly with one another and eager to share insights to create the best wine and customer experience they can.

“It’s a very intimate thing to sell something that you’re going to imbibe—it’s not tennis shoes or a belt buckle. It’s going in your body,” King says. “If someone has a bad experience somewhere, they might write off Virginia wine.”

Two weeks ago Pelton traveled to Charleston, South Carolina, for a luncheon hosted by Garden & Gun magazine. Only Virginia wines, including Veritas and Early Mountain Vineyards, were served, and guests didn’t know what they were drinking until Pelton walked around to each table to chat with the luncheon’s attendees. Their feedback? They were surprised by the wine’s origins, but they loved it.

“I would just like to point out we have such pride in our Southern food culture,” Pelton says. “I’d like people to start having the same [feeling] about their local brewery, winery and cidery.”

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