Forty days and forty nights. That’s what it seemed like to area vintners when the rains wouldn’t stop in August and early September. Winemakers didn’t quite have to build an ark, even though the heavens poured, dripped or drizzled rain for about 30 out of 35 days. Still, that kind of downpour is Biblical when you’re talking wine grapes at harvest time.
The 2011 vintage will be one they talk about around here for decades to come. Already winemakers are whipping out the cliches. This year is “the one every decade” when everything goes wrong. It will “separate the men from the boys” and reveal those winemakers and vineyard managers who have really learned their craft. It will “test our terroir” and validate those growers with the best vineyard sites.
Here’s what happened: Hurricane Irene slammed the Eastern Shore and Virginia’s Northern Neck on Aug. 27 but left vineyards along the Piedmont ridge largely unscathed. A week later, the remnants of Tropical Storm Lee moved slowly through the region, bringing several days of steady rain. Even after Lee left, the rain didn’t stop.
The rains came just as white grapes were ready for harvest. So many of the region’s white wines from 2011 should be just fine. There may be lower yields because winemakers sorted out rotten grapes aggressively, and the flavors may not be as ripe and intense as in a sunny, dry vintage like 2010. But the region’s white wines should not be a disaster.
Reds are more problematic. Red grapes especially need sunny weather in the weeks before harvest to ripen the skins and seeds, and avoid any “green” vegetal flavors. Rain risks swelling the berries with water, reducing the skin-to-juice ratio and the concentration of the wine. Extended rain such as we had can cause berries to burst, leading to rot in the entire bunch (aided by birds and bugs attracted to the exposed juice). It can also cause the vine to shut down and cease photosynthesis, meaning the grapes will not continue to ripen no matter how long the sun shines in October.
This is the “men from the boys” argument. Growers who recognized their vines were spent by the rain (let’s call them vine whisperers) picked earlier than they would have liked, figuring they can correct some of the grapes’ deficiencies in the winery. Others left their fruit on the vine, hoping for warm, dry, sunny weather to dry the grapes and coax them toward full ripeness, even at the risk of rot and some funky flavors from damaged grapes. We won’t know for a couple years who was right.
How will winemakers try to “correct” their red wines? A first step is to “bleed” off the excess water put in the grapes by rain. This technique, called “saignee,” is typically used to concentrate the color of red wines by increasing the skins-to-juice ratio. The bled-off juice is often sold as rose, so expect to see a lot more local rose next summer. Winemakers may also delay pressing the juice off the skins, a technique called extended maceration, also to enhance color and tannin. Also, they can add sugar or acid to correct for under ripe grapes. Finally, they can legally blend in a small amount of wine from other vintages, such as the one from last year, when a dry, hot summer gave growers the opposite challenge of overripe grapes.
On a visit to Northern Virginia wine country last week, I noted several wineries with red grapes still on the vine. All those Norton vines at Chrysalis Vineyards in Middleburg looked healthy, and owner Jenni McCloud predicted she would be harvesting into early November if the weather holds. Vinifera varieties throughout the region looked much the worse for their September ordeal, with damaged, brown leaves and tired-looking vines.
Every year, fair weather or foul, the most important decision facing a winemaker is when to pick.