Columnist, Food

You and I may have happily put away our winter woolens, but local winemakers don’t share our sunny disposition about the early arrival of warm weather.

“Now is the time we wait, and fear,” said Claude DelFosse, of DelFosse Vineyards in Faber, Va., about 20 miles south of Charlottesville.

It was a pessimistic statement for someone whose 2007 Meritage red blend had recently been selected into the “Governor’s Case” of the 12 best wines in Virginia. He was referring to “budbreak,” when the first buds appear on the newly pruned vine shoots, signaling the start of the growing season. This happened around March 25 for DelFosse, about two weeks earlier than usual. New vine shoots are especially vulnerable to frost, and the frost season in the Piedmont region lasts until mid-May, so an early budbreak means vines are at risk for a longer period.

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“Freezing temperatures of about 28 degrees, especially with heavy dew, can nuke a vintage in the bud,” says Lucie Morton, a vineyard consultant to several wineries in the mid-Atlantic and California.

Frost protection in vineyards can be very elaborate, and very desperate. Windmills help move the air around, and in extreme cases wineries even hire helicopters to hover over the vineyards, circulating the air with their rotors. That’s one reason growers favor higher ground with steep slopes; The elevation provides “air drainage” in springtime as the cold air flows downhill, away from the vines. Next time you visit California wine country, notice how the windmills are always in flat vineyards.

Weather is forever on the minds of vintners from budbreak through harvest. Will there be enough rain to nourish the vines during the spring and summer, or too much, increasing the prospect of disease? A vineyard might survive frost season only to be decimated by a freak hail storm. A torridly hot summer might spur an early harvest, or tropical storms in September could dilute the grapes just as they ripen. All these factors affect the quality of a vintage, and vintners must know how to respond to these challenges and when they have no choice but to surrender to nature’s whims.

White grapes tend to bud earlier, so their risk is greater. Reds, especially cabernet sauvignon, break later; that means they may survive a late spring frost, but they also will ripen later and are more susceptible to fall rains, including tropical storms and hurricanes. In 2011, local harvests of white grapes began just before Hurricane Irene swept up the East Coast, and generally finished in the mild weather that followed. Reds were caught up in the September deluge that followed the arrival of Tropical Storm Lee.

There are other hazards as well. Cutworms and flea beetles worry Jeff White of Glen Manor Vineyards, winner of this year’s Governor’s Cup for his 2008 Hodder Hill red blend. “One concern is warm weather causing buds to swell and then cool weather keeping them from opening and advancing leaf and shoot growth,” making the buds vulnerable to the insects, he says.

The bugs’ effect at this early stage can be devastating. “One mini-munch of a bud is like a scissor cut in folded paper,” Morton says. “Lots of holes in leaves and teeny grape clusters.”

While this is the earliest budbreak in memory for many local vintners, it follows a pattern over the past decade, says Tony K. Wolf, professor of viticulture at Virginia Tech, who maintains an experimental vineyard near Winchester. “Our normal bud break for chardonnay has advanced from around April 21 in the early 1990s to around April 7, on average over the last five years,” Wolf says. “The longer season does not really benefit us. The downside is a longer period in which grapes are at risk of insects and fungi for which the growers must provide protection.”

Two years ago, this region experienced its earliest harvest ever, as the hot summer temperatures pushed grape sugar levels to ripeness in mid-August. Startled winemakers scrambled to pull the grapes before they turned to raisins. And last year was a scorcher — until it rained for 30 days during harvest. That’s why no winegrower will make a prediction, at least not an optimistic one, about this year’s vintage until the last grapes are in the winery.

For us consumers, vintage variation is part of what makes wine so fascinating. For vintners, it’s simply nerve-wracking.

“In early spring grape growers and their consultants take it one degree at a time, and in early fall we take it one day at a time,” Morton says.

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McIntyre blogs at Follow him on Twitter: @dmwine.