Raise a glass to 2019: Winemakers reflect on a great vintage

Luca Paschina, winemaker at Barboursville Vineyards, has high hopes for the 2019 vintage. "We will be celebrating this growing season for many years to come," he says. Photo: Amy and Jackson Smith Luca Paschina, winemaker at Barboursville Vineyards, has high hopes for the 2019 vintage. “We will be celebrating this growing season for many years to come,” he says. Photo: Amy and Jackson Smith

Like all agricultural endeavors, growing grapes is subject to the vicissitudes of weather. In Virginia, after a difficult 2018 harvest (because of rain, rain, and more rain), 2019 was good—some would say great—thanks to timely precipitation and stretches of warm, sunny weather.

“This vintage is a beautiful gift to the faithful farmer,” says Luca Paschina, the winemaker at Barboursville Vineyards. “We will be celebrating this growing season for many years to come, for giving us white wines of great intensity and fragrance and reds of unquestionably long age-worthiness.”

Part of this optimism flows from a sense of relief after 2018. Overcast and wet conditions can present serious challenges in both the vineyard and the winery. Lack of sunlight hinders the fruit’s growth and ripening, decreasing sugar content (it is this sugar that is fermented into alcohol), and producing grapes that lack flavor and can taste “green,” or undesirably vegetal. High moisture can also allow mold, mildew, and disease to take hold, leading to damaged fruit and diminished yields. In one of the sadder images of 2018, some winemakers simply left grapes to rot on the vine, because they had burst from too much water and, regardless, the ground was too soft to move harvesting machinery into place.

The next growing season could not have arrived fast enough. Chris Hill, who has been cultivating grapes in Virginia since 1981, says that better vintages share “the common thread of dry weather from mid-August through mid-October.” In his opinion, 2019 should be compared to great vintages such as 1998, 2002, 2007, 2010, and 2017. But Kirsty Harmon believes 2019 is the best vintage since 2008, when she started as winemaker at Blenheim Vineyards.

Joy Ting, research enologist for the Winemakers Research Exchange (and this writer’s wife), explains that, in addition to a dry season, an abundance of sunlight helped to ripen fruit much earlier than in previous years. “The white grapes came in quickly since daytime temperatures were high and sugar accumulated rapidly,” she says. “A little bit of rain and slightly lower temperatures allowed the red grapes to stay on the vine. This led to very good flavor and tannin development.”

Ting also puts forth a theory, shared by a number of winemakers, that the exceptionally wet conditions of 2018 led to higher groundwater levels in 2019, compensating for rainfall one to three inches below average last July through September. Winemakers Emily Pelton at Veritas Vineyard and Winery, and Michael Heny at Michael Shaps Wineworks, agree with Ting. “I was thankful for all of the rain that we had in 2018,” Heny says. “We had so much groundwater that the vines [in 2019] had everything they needed.”

But what about the 2019 wines? High quality, fully ripe fruit picked when the winemaker thought it had achieved optimal conditions (rather than because the next storm was coming), should lead to high quality, aromatic whites and full-bodied, age-worthy reds. It’s impossible at the moment to recommend specific bottles from the vintage—because, well, the wines are unfinished and unbottled—so I asked winemakers which 2019 wines held the greatest promise. “I feel that, in general, red wines more acutely express the quality of a vintage,” says Nathan Vrooman, winemaker at Ankida Ridge Vineyards. “The white wines coming from the region will be very good, but the red wines will really shine.”

Among those, cabernet franc appears to be rising to the top. Finot says the King Family cabernet franc “performed very well this year.” At Veritas, Pelton calls the 2019 crop “bright and vibrant and full of depth.” Paschina singles out Barboursville’s harvest from Goodlow Mountain, about a mile south of the winery, as perhaps its “most elegant wine of the vintage.” Similarly, Rachel Stinson Vrooman, the winemaker at Stinson Vineyards, points to her cabernet franc as “ripe and concentrated, but also maintaining some of the pretty florals and herbal aromas that I look for.” At Keswick Vineyards, winemaker Stephen Barnard believes the estate’s Block 2 cabernet franc to be “the best expression of terroir yet—savory, extracted, spicy.”

Other varieties to look for in 2019 include pinot noir from Ankida Ridge—one of the few area wineries growing the grape—and chardonnay from Loudoun County’s Wild Meadow vineyard. At Michael Shaps, Heny will use the chardonnay in a vineyard-specific wine; he anticipates the 2019 bottling to rival that of 2015, one of my own personal favorites. Also worth noting, according to Harmon, are albariño, a grape grown mostly in Spain and Portugal that’s still relatively rare in Virginia, and cabernet sauvignon, which the lingering dry heat of 2019 helped to achieve full ripeness and flavor.

With uniformly high hopes for the 2019 vintage, Pelton provides some perspective. “I think it is important for us not to lose sight of how fantastically wine tells the story of the year,” she says. “Great years tend to get all of the attention, but the fact that we get to capture all of the aspects of the fabric of a year—whether it was cool or windy or dry or wet—all speaks to the final product, and I find it thrilling to be a part of that story.”

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