This year may be known locally for the Virginia earthquake, but local vintners will remember Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee, for they will have had the larger effect on the quality of the wines. And of course, the extent of the storms’ impact depends on where the vineyards are located.
On the Eastern Shore and Virginia’s Northern Neck, where Irene dropped most of her rain, several growers decided to pick their whites early to avoid the storm. In Northern and Central Virginia, Irene was more serene, while she missed the drought-affected areas of the southwest, according to Michael Shaps of Virginia Wineworks. Shaps has clients in all parts of the state and said in his 16 years of making wine in Virginia, “the madness leading up to the hurricane is always worse than the storm itself.” Wineworks processed 30 tons of fruit the weekend Irene hit, most of it from the eastern part of Virginia, several times working by generator power when the lights went out, Shaps said.
“Overall, the hurricane did little to the crop,” Shaps said. The stretch of good weather that followed the storm would also help dry out the grapes and reduce the risk of disease. Vineyards that experienced disease pressure earlier in the season would likely suffer Irene’s hangover worst, in the form of downey mildew, mold and rot, he predicted — another sign that improving vineyard practices are essential for increased quality in the Old Dominion.
Irene’s impact in Northern Virginia may actually be beneficial.
“At the risk of sounding like Bordelais PR spin, we had a much-needed inch of rain that refreshed our water-stressed vines,” Jim Law of Linden Vineyards wrote in an email last week. But Irene’s winds took a toll on the vine canopies, he said. Law had already harvested his seyval blanc and was planning to pick sauvignon blanc this week. “So far flavors and balance are excellent, but we don’t declare anything until the grapes are on the crush pad,” he added.
At Black Ankle Vineyards near Mt. Airy, Md., the storm “turned out to be a non-event,” co-owner Ed Boyce wrote in an email. “We had 2 1/2 inches of rain, more like a strong thunderstorm, followed by winds that dried everything out and then a string of dry, sunny days. It may even have helped, by slowing down sugar accumulation and helping to preserve acidity.”
But then the remnants of Tropical Storm Lee drifted north from the Gulf of Mexico, following a path along the Blue Ridge, with western Virginia forecast to receive 6 to 8 inches of rain this week.
These storms are a great example of the challenges facing local vintners at harvest time, which happens to coincide with hurricane season.Vineyards in the east tend to be on level ground, where the water can collect and be soaked up by the vines. Further west, vineyards on steep slopes of the Blue Ridge see the water run off, and their vines and grapes dried by the wind. That may be an advantage for some growers dealing with this week’s weather. This amount of rain is never good; how bad it is remains to be seen.
Foul weather is a hazard of winegrowing, of course. Just within the past two weeks, vineyards in Bordeaux in France and Germany’s Mosel region have been devastated by hail, with substantial crop losses and potential damage to remaining grapes. Winegrowers know their hard work during the season prepares them to weather anything that comes their way — but they also know that a year’s work can be damaged or destroyed by nature’s whims.