Vintage reflections: Hang your hat on 2015 Virginia white wines

Luca Paschina at Barboursville Vineyards predicts stellar results from 2015. The vineyard harvested its first crop of the ancient Italian grape fiano this season. Photo: Jack Looney Luca Paschina at Barboursville Vineyards predicts stellar results from 2015. The vineyard harvested its first crop of the ancient Italian grape fiano this season. Photo: Jack Looney

It’s that time of year again: The grapes have been harvested, and now they finish their ferments in the winery and await bottling. As winemakers taste these first wines of the year, they’ll start thinking about blending and bottling, and they might be surprised by some of the new pressing. How did 2015 work out for our local winemakers?

There are a few key times in the year that steer the way a vintage is headed: Winter temperatures, bud break, flowering, summer rains, weather at harvest and unexpected pests may affect it at any stage.

Over-winter deep freezes can kill vines and lower production for the next harvest. “Though we had some freezing temperatures in the ’14 to ’15 winter, the temperature lows were gradual and the vines had time to adjust, so we didn’t lose much,” says Ben Jordan, winemaker at Early Mountain Vineyards.

The next big moment is what winemakers call bud break. This is when buds push through the vine wood in preparation to grow leaves and grapes. If you’ve ever been in a vineyard and stretched out a long tendril covered with leaves, that growth came forth from a tiny bud that pushed out of the cane in the spring. Any bud damage, which is usually a result of spring frosts, threatens all that growth potential. Luckily, in 2015, all went well.

Flowering is the next nail-biter for winemakers. Each wine grape was once a tiny little flower, smaller than a Tic Tac, that needed to be pollinated. Heavy rain during flowering can knock flowers off the vine and decrease yields. This year, flowering went just fine and the vintage was off to a lovely beginning.

In early summer, we experienced more rainfall than usual, and it was a bit worrisome. But just as wine country headed toward red alert, things dried up in July and the end of the summer was a winemaker’s dream. Because the rains came in the early summer accompanied by cool temperatures, Jake Busching, winemaker at Michael Shaps Wineworks, says these conditions “allowed for fruit development and acid retention with very little threat of vineyard problems.”

The white wine harvest commenced, and “It was a great year for whites,” says Rachel Vrooman of Stinson Vineyards. Most winemakers are calling this a near-perfect white wine vintage, because the fruit quality is excellent, yields were on par and they could harvest based on when the grapes were ready, as opposed to picking around weather constraints. Those making sparkling wines report an excellent season as well.

Winemakers are especially excited about the 2015 viognier, which “yielded an amazing crop this year with nearly perfect maturity parameters,” says Busching. “Every winery in the state is going to have a viognier of note to sell next year, which is a fantastic nod to why this is our state grape.”

Any winery hanging its hat on the accessible Rhône varietal will have a high quality 2015 offering. “I’m particularly excited about the viognier we sourced from Mount Juliet,” says Kirsty Harmon of Blenheim Vineyards. “Viognier was a much better producer for us overall this year. Crop levels were finally back up to normal after having two very light vintages. Having not made a 2014 viognier due to low yields, I’m already looking forward to blending and bottling the 2015.” Also keep your eye out for viognier by Matthieu Finot at King Family Vineyards and Emily Pelton at Veritas.

In addition, you’ll want to seek out a few other special white wines. Early Mountain’s Block 9 pinot gris is tasting so ethereal that it is producing a separate bottling of it. “This was the best pinot gris vintage I’ve seen,” Jordan said.

Luca Paschina and the team at Barboursville Vineyards harvested their first vintage of fiano, an ancient Italian grape found near Naples and Rome, and with the excellent white grape harvest, it promises to be a stunning bottling. Paschina is also looking forward to the 2015 vermentino.

Early-ripening reds, such as merlot and malbec, fared nicely as well.

But just as vineyards were scheduled to produce an incredible overall vintage, Hurricane Joaquin passed by in the Atlantic, and freak storms dumped heavy rain on local vines in the midst of the red grape harvest. Luckily, Joaquin veered away from us and the weather, though dreadful, wasn’t catastrophic. At Barboursville, “to be prepared in case of a power outage, I rented a massive diesel generator, not so cheap either, which I guess scared the hurricane away,” Paschina says.

Some wineries harvested early to avoid the rains; others did a partial harvest before the rains and picked the rest of the fruit when things dried up later. The red vintage is still a good one, but had the rain stayed away, it would have been just about perfect. A few producers expressed disappointment with their cabernet sauvignon harvests—it either came in too early to be fully ripe, or after the rains, which translates to a less powerful wine. Northern Virginia didn’t experience the same rain as the Charlottesville area, so you’ll see some better luck with cabernet sauvignon from that region.

Which reds should you look for from 2015? Busching is enthusiastic about tannat. “The balance in this varietal is bordering on perfect and is going to be a standout wine for our region,” he says. Vrooman is happy with her merlot, cabernet franc and petit verdot. Paschina is looking forward to the 2015 Barboursville Octagon, which will blend merlot, cabernet franc and petit verdot.

But if there’s one take-away from this harvest, it’s to stock up on your 2015 viognier.

–Erin Scala

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