Loudoun Winemakers Wary of Fall’s Fickle Weather

The balmy start to fall may have prolonged the days of shorts and tank-tops, but it also had Loudoun’s winemakers on edge. The cool temperatures in August, followed by the hot September, made for some challenges this harvest season.

At Bluemont Vineyard, the first white grapes were ready for harvest on Sept. 11, about 10 days behind schedule. That left little time to turn around and begin the harvest for the red grapes, which is underway now.

“It’s really kind of become a bit of spreadsheet management harvest,” said Scott Spelbring, winemaker at Bluemont Vineyard. “We started harvesting white grapes later than normal. Typically, we tend to see a lot of whites come through and then a little bit of a lull where we can put those to bed and reset the processes for reds, but now they’re coming right on the heels of each other. So [the harvest is] slightly more condensed.”

Doug Fabbioli, winemaker and owner of Fabbioli Cellars, said the unseasonably warm conditions in the past couple of weeks—when temperatures were still regularly reaching into the 90s—had him worried about being able to keep up with the harvest and pick the ripened grapes at just the right time.

The challenge then becomes where to store all the grapes. But Fabbioli, who also chairs the Rural Economic Development Council, said thanks to the collaborative nature of Loudoun’s wineries, they can all help each other out.

“We want to fill the tanks up. If vineyards have a little extra, we want wineries to say ‘I’ll make room.’ We don’t want anything hitting the ground,” he said.

Local winemakers did luck out in dodging any major storm events. Spelbring and others in the industry expressed relief that all the hurricanes that have generated in the Atlantic Ocean in the past month stayed far away from Loudoun County.

“One storm like that and we would’ve had to throw everybody into the field,” to pick the grapes off the vines, Spelbring said.

And in the midst of the annual grape harvest, temperatures thankfully turned this week to more typical fall weather, with cool nights and mornings and dry daytime conditions. The cooler temps, on the heels of 90-degree days, have more than a few winemakers breathing a sigh of relief.

“The weather right now is gorgeous as far as ripening goes—warm days but not crazy [hot],” Fabbioli said on Monday, when the high was in the mid-70s. “We don’t want 90s. Cool nights really change the flavors.”

 

‘A California Harvest’

Kellie Hinkle, who serves as the agricultural development officer for Loudoun’s Department of Economic Development, said every year is a different story when it comes to weather and its effects on the grape harvest.

“It seems like the last couple of years we’ve been talking about hail and rain,” she said.

Rain during the harvest drops sugar levels in the grapes, and that water then gets absorbed into the grapes, she explained, yielding perhaps a different result than winemakers may have anticipated. But that’s far from a negative, they said.

“The sugars aren’t quite what we were hoping for, but it’s not everything,” Fabbioli said. “It’s about flavor and fruit maturity, and we’ve definitely hit that.”

This year’s end of summer/beginning of fall warmer, drier weather will prevent concerns about mildew seeping into the grapes, but the weather conditions may hasten the harvest with not as much juice in the grape.

“Being dry is incredibly helpful for us,” Spelbring explained. “It helps to concentrate a lot of flavors in the grapes. As long as it’s dry and sunny, [the grapes] are still producing sugars and flavors.”

Vineyard workers pick the bounty at Fabiolli Cellars north of Leesburg. The late-season heat has made for a challenging harvest, but it may ultimately mean tastier wine. [Douglas Graham/Loudoun Now]
            “[The wines] will be sweeter but not as much juice. Not as much juice means not as much wine,” Hinkle said. “It’ll be an amazing vintage with a limited supply. It might feel like more like a California harvest.”

Fabbioli predicts it will be a B+ year for Loudoun’s wines, a $36 million industry as far as its wine production is concerned. And it will be an especially good year for whites.

“It’s a little early to tell on the reds, but I do feel like everything we’ve brought in so far we’ve got it where we wanted it to be,” he said.

Spelbring thinks the public will enjoy the end results.

“It’s going to show the dynamics of what Virginia weather is,” he said. “What’s kind of nice and fun for me is every year is very reflective of what Mother Nature has given us. [The wines] are going to show completely different from last year.”

“Every year is different—that’s the thing we always have to recognize as growers and winemakers,” Fabbioli said. “You play it out as best as you can.”

“It’s agriculture,” Hinkle said. “You’re subject to the weather gods.”

krodriguez@loudounow.com

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