Growing conditions so far this summer have been optimum for upcoming grape harvests, and Loudoun’s winemakers are eagerly looking forward to much better yields in the fall after last year’s disastrous wet weather.
Last year was the wettest on record for many farms throughout the state, and yields were down 35 percent from 2017, according to the Virginia 2018 Commercial Grape Report, published by the Virginia Wine Board. The rains caused the worst harvests on record for many growers across the state, who reported 1,763 tons of grapes were lost that year.
This year has been a different story, thankfully. “We’ve had modest rainfall that seems to come through in pretty contained events and then fairly nice, dry conditions in between those rainfalls. Really there’s not much more we could ask for; grape growers are generally pretty happy when we’ve got dry, brown or dormant grasses,” said Tremain Hatch, agriculture research/extension associate for Virginia Tech’s Alson H. Smith Jr. Agricultural Research and Extension Center in Winchester. Hatch, who also makes wine with his family at Zephaniah Farm Vineyard near Leesburg, works with vineyards throughout the state.
This season, growers have invested a lot of labor in their vineyards – and it shows, Hatch said. “Across the state, growers have been incredibly diligent with canopy management, which is the field work to position shoots and thin extra foliage. … Back in June, things looked very sharp and they’ve continued to look very sharp.”
With the bulk of the harvest likely taking place mid-September to mid-October, he said it’s too early to tell whether reds will outpace whites in terms of production and quality.
“The varieties coming in now would be the early white varieties and then grapes that are destined for sparkling wine. From what I’ve seen and heard, it looks like those varieties look very good coming in. We’ll see what the weather does for the next eight weeks to see how the more midseason white varieties and the red varieties look” Hatch said. “Anything can happen (in the upcoming weeks), but at this point they look pretty good.”
At Zephaniah, where they’re growing 13 different blocks of grapes on the farm, they’ll be starting to harvest those early white varieties next week. “We’re excited, we’re going to be doing some sparkling wine again. We’re also going to be playing around with some fortified white wine, like a sweet, fortified Muscat Ottonel,” Hatch said.
Loudoun Nowchecked in with several other winery owners and winemakers who are happy with what they’re seeing in their vineyards and looking forward to working with this year’s vintages.
Doug Fabbioli, Co-Owner and Winemaker at Fabbioli Cellars
How does this year’s crop compare to 2018?
So far it looks better than last year. Last year was a nightmare. We had a lot of rain, and it was really challenging, it was hardest year I’ve ever had. … We would get flood after flood after flood of rain and it’s just really, really hard to recover from that.
Did you anything different this year after recovering from the storms?
The only thing I’ve done is basically removed grape vines. We don’t change the vines on a year-to-year basis, they’re there for a generation at least, you hope. But there are certain sections where they just didn’t come back last year because it was so wet throughout the year. So I’ve got sections where I’ve just decided I’m not going to plant there anymore and I’m going to be pulling out those vines.
Other than that, a lot of things are looking a lot healthier, a lot more balanced, and we’re able to keep up with the process of managing the vines, whereas last year we couldn’t keep up.
Are any varieties in the vineyard looking exceptionally promising?
Our Cabernet Franc is looking is very good. The Merlot and the Petit Manseng are all doing exceptional this year.
Stephen Mackey, Co-Owner and Winemaker at Notaviva Craft Fermentations
What’s your take on this year’s harvest versus last year’s harvest?
Last year we didn’t pick any reds, we just let them rot on the vine. they were so far gone from mold and mildew. There were obviously clusters that could have been salvaged, but they just weren’t above the quality bar so we just let them go. We harvested a little bit of whites but since the inception of this business, last year was the worst year ever.
One of the really unfortunate consequences of having a year as bad as last year is we’ve seen an 80 percent reduction in our white crop because it didn’t set any fruit. And that’s not specific to Notaviva; we were talking to our vineyard crew chief, who said there’s maybe 20 percent of a normal Viognier crop yield around the region.
The red fruit, though, is gorgeous. It’s been a long hot summer. Everyone’s got their fingers crossed that we’re going to be able to ride this wave the whole way through harvest. I think it could be one of our best ever red years.
Carl DiManno, Winemaker at 868 Estate Vineyards
How would you compare last year’s harvest with this year’s at 868 Estate?
Well, last year, with the exception of a little Chambourcin, we didn’t make a red wine. Our little bit of reds that were intact were made into rosé. So the reds were a complete washout. White yields were way down and we’re bottling those next week but there aren’t a lot of them.
This year, we’ll probably start harvest the week of the 26th, which is the earliest we’ve ever picked. We’re having a good year. We’re just a little further along than 2017 or 2016. I’ve heard from some other folks that it seems to be trending a week to 10 days earlier than previous years. We had a good spring, everything got established early and because summer was good and relatively dry, we didn’t have any stalls. Everything’s just progressing as we would expect.
Are any particular varietals looking especially good?
Compared to last year, all of them! The Sauvignon blanc is real nice, the chemistries look real good. It’s going to be a nicely balanced wine this year, maybe a little alcohol than we’re used to, maybe a little more sugar than we’ve had in the past. And I haven’t checked it yet, but boy, the Merlot looks pretty. It’s come back nicely, it’s got a nice crop on it—the color is beautiful. I’m really looking forward to getting that in and working with it.
Aimee Henkle, Co-owner at The Vineyards at Lost Creek
Compared to last year’s harvest, what’s this year looking like?
This year’s harvest has been great! It has been dry, which is great for vines. The heat helps ripening and the lack of rain causes the fruit to struggle and creates more concentrated flavors.
What varietals are doing best?
All of the varietals are doing great. It has been a low-pressure season so all of the fruit is ripening really well. Cabernet Sauvignon is the last to come in so there is still risk of additional rain or other factors that could impact that fruit but forecasts look great. Harvest is coming early this year so we begin to typically start with our Chardonnay the second week of September and the last to come in is the Cabernet Sauvignon during the third week of October.
Nate Walsh, Co-Owner and Winemaker at Walsh Family Wine
What is the status of the vineyards as a whole compared to this time last year?
We are very happy with the season thus far. Our sites have had lower than average rainfall, making disease pressure low and growth steady, even and not too vigorous. The vines seem balanced—overall, the weather surrounding bloom and flowering is very good this year, and, as such, yields are healthy.
What’s exciting you most about what you’re seeing in the vineyards right now?
The overall health of vines this year is very good and we have had almost no disease issues, which theoretically leads us toward the best position for ripening the fruit to the overall levels that we’re looking for in each variety. So, we’re getting excited for even ripening and balanced fruit.
August and September are very important, and in Virginia, those months can swing in a number of different directions with regard to rainfall and humidity. We still have a way to go, but currently, we’re in great shape.