Wine: Record heat ripens grapes early

By Dave McIntyre
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, August 31, 2010; 3:56 PM

This has been a strange year for vintners, both here in the East and on the West Coast.

We remember a winter of record snows, but local winemakers recall a quick warm-up that brought summerlike temperatures in early April, leading the vines to bud earlier than usual. Record-setting heat through the summer kept the grapes ripening rapidly, sending sugar levels upward. The accelerated ripening created two worries: that grapes might ripen unevenly, leading to unbalanced wines, and that various grape varieties might ripen all at once instead of in succession over several weeks, putting extra pressure on winery capacities and personnel.

"We are seeing the earliest harvesting of grapes in Virginia in memory," said Tony Wolf, viticulturist at Virginia Tech and a consultant to many wineries in the Old Dominion.

At Virginia Wineworks, a custom-crush facility south of Charlottesville that plays home to several wineries, grapes started rolling in Aug. 9, while winemaker Michael Shaps was supervising the winery's expansion and renovation - work he'd thought would be finished before harvest.

"This week has been bedlam," Shaps said in an Aug. 12 e-mail. "Grapes are starting to arrive, contractors still milling around the winery, a couple of power outages, and all the while bottling. Yikes!"

At Glen Manor Vineyards south of Front Royal, Jeff White harvested his sauvignon blanc Aug. 21, three weeks ahead of average and the earliest picking date since he began harvesting in 1996. In a concession to the heat, "we started picking at 1 a.m., when the temps were around 65, and finished around 9 a.m., before the 90-degree heat set in," he said.

White, who has blogged eloquently twice a month about the 2010 growing season on, said the recent rains did not worry him; his vineyard's steep slopes, well-drained soils and cover crops help keep the water out of the grapes. But the early harvest still presented a problem: "The grapes ripened when birds were still here and hadn't left for their winter holiday," he said. "We netted five acres, but we're about to take it off because the birds have finally vanished."

During harvest, anything that can go wrong often does. At Black Ankle Vineyards near Mount Airy, owners Ed Boyce and Sarah O'Herron discovered that the electronics on their press had died just as their chardonnay, gruner veltliner and muscat were being picked. "We finally figured out how to disconnect the compressor hose, hook up our portable compressor, then inflate the press manually," Boyce said. As a result, the grapes remained on their skins a bit longer than intended.

Wolf compared the hot, dry season to that of 2007, which would not necessarily be bad for local red wines. The ripe and rich 2007 reds from Virginia and Maryland are drinking rather well right now.

Out west, the situation is strikingly different. The West Coast has experienced an unusually cold summer that is delaying harvest and raising fears in Northern California and Oregon that autumn rains will come while grapes are still on the vines.

"Summer finally arrived in Green Valley this past Sunday, Aug. 22, after seven chilling, foggy weeks," Joy Sterling of Iron Horse Vineyards said in an e-mail. Iron Horse, a leading producer of sparkling wine, is in one of California's cooler regions, the Green Valley section of Sonoma County. The excess fog created a potential for mildew, she said, leading to extra stress on the grapes and the grape growers. But a long, cool growing season can be great for chardonnay and pinot noir, provided the grapes ripen before the rains set in.

"Don't ask me about global warming in California just yet," said Rick Sayre, chief winemaker at Rodney Strong Vineyards in northern Sonoma County. Sayre started harvest two years ago on Aug. 14, and last year on Aug. 24. This year, he projects starting around Sept. 8.

While the hot season favors unusual ripeness in the East, the cool season might help keep California's normally rampant sugar levels - and consequent alcohol - in check. "Lower alcohol is the silver lining to a late, cool, foggy vintage," Sterling said. "It makes for better food wines."

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