Vintage | July 2010

“Vintage variation” probably best describes the challenge and joy of being both a Virginia winegrower and wine consumer. The year printed on the label reflects amount of sun, rain, heat, and clouds that directly impacted the style, character and quality of the wine in the bottle.

California has relatively consistent and predictable weather from year to year when compared to the Eastern United States. Hence, California’s dominance in the American wine market has diminished the importance of consumer attention to vintage differences. In regards to vintage variation, Virginia has more similarities to Europe than our West Coast. We can have cool wet years such as 2000 and 2003 that produced lighter, fresher, early drinking wines, or hot dry years such as 1998 and 2007 which gave us wines with loads of fruit, weight and alcohol. While these are extremes, each growing year has its mark on every bottle produced. As winegrowers, extremes make for an interesting life, but what we really prefer is a “typical” growing season, which actually does occasionally occur.

After many decades of modern era winegrowing in Virginia, we are starting to get comfortable with certain grape varieties, sites and growing techniques that are adapted to our climate. We have enough heat to ripen most varieties in most years. If the goal is to make expressive, terroir driven wines, the critical 30 days before harvest make of break the vintage. Winegrapes achieve their greatest potential if they ripen when the days are warm and the nights are cool. This sweet spot for the Piedmont harvest usually falls from September 20 to October 15. If the grapes ripen significantly earlier under hot conditions, they lack acidity, finesse, and aromatic complexity. Because of cold temperatures after mid-October, ripening usually slows to a snails pace and then stops.

Grape varieties can be early ripening (Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris), or late (Petit Manseng, Cabernet Sauvignon). Pinot Noir ripens too early in the Piedmont to make an expressive red wine. When it ripens under hot conditions, the wine is light, flabby and anemic. Conversely, Cabernet needs a south slope with well-drained, warm soils combined with low yields so the vine will put all its energy into fewer grapes. When Cabernet ripens slowly under cool October conditions, the wine shows classic herbal notes, crunchy red fruit, refreshing acidity and great length.

In Europe they have spent centuries fine-tuning the variety/site relationship. It comes to no surprise that they are concerned about global warming, as now there is a shift in this relationship. In Bordeaux they are now planting more of the late ripening Petit Verdot. Champagne growers are contacting real estate agents in England where the soils are similar, but the climate is cooler.

Rain is the big wild card issue for Virginia. We are one of the wettest viticultural regions on the planet. I used to be somewhat embarrassed by this fact when visiting my colleagues in dry, sunny California, as they see rain as a disastrous anomaly that has no place in a vineyard. This is why I now prefer to visit winegrowers in places like Burgundy and Bordeaux where rain is their dance partner every year. They make pretty good wine over there, even in the rainy years.

Excessive rain can have a negative impact, primarily during those important 30 days before harvest. Rain can compromise the grape skins and cause rot and even splitting. If vineyard soils become saturated, the vine roots will pump that water into the grapes and dilute the flavors, sugars, and acidity. This is why vineyards sited on steep slopes and well-drained soils consistently produce the best quality wines. This is also why soils, sites and the concept of terroir are so important to Europeans, but considered poppycock by many dry climate New World producers.

Some grape varieties can handle rain quite well. Varieties originating from the warm, and often rainy Southwest of France such as Petit Manseng, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot have the small berries and thick skins that resist rot and splitting. Ever wonder why you don’t see many Virginia Zinfandels or Grenaches? Their thin skins and tight clusters become a gooey mess if rain happens at the wrong time.

So we carefully plant our well-drained hill with thick skinned, rot resistant varieties that should ripen in early October. Life is good, except that this is Virginia, and as Mark Twain so eloquently put it: “Climate is what we expect, weather is what we get”. The greatest pleasure I get from growing wine grapes is the dance I do with the weather. She takes the lead and I follow, trying to anticipate and get an intuitive sense of where she is going. The longer we are partners, the easier and more seamless it becomes.

We might remove leaves from around the clusters in a cloudy wet year, but not in a hot dry one for fear or sun burning the grapes. We let the grass and weed grow rampant in a wet year to compete with the vine for moisture, but mow and weed in a dry one. If a cool quick front brings rain from the northwest we know that there is no hurry to pick as a dry wind will follow, but a tropical rain from the south can be a disaster.

I’m often asked if the reason that Virginia wines have been improving in quality has to do with the age of the vines. While older vines have potential to produce better wines, my reply is that it is the age (experience) of the winegrowers that is mostly responsible for the rise in quality. With each vintage we learn and apply that knowledge to the next.

In Virginia, we often celebrate hot, dry vintages such as 2007. These are easy vintages for the winegrower. The wines are fruit driven and have lots of body (alcohol) and are appealing on first sip. However, I prefer the more classic vintages such as 2008 and 2009. These are years that express terroir. They give the wines a sense of place with more refreshing, savory and mineral profiles. These vintages often reward aging and are best enjoyed where wine should be: on the dinner (or lunch) table. They are who we are.

Flavor, July 2010

Jim Law