Last year, the Mid-Atlantic region experienced near-perfect weather, spring through fall, for growing and harvesting grapes. Excellent grapes make for excellent wine, and winemakers are elated over the 2019 vintage.
In 2019, we had a wet spring followed by a hot summer and a flash drought in fall. That weather combination was very different from 2018, which brought record-breaking rain to the region for much of the year.
But what made the weather of 2019 particularly special for growing quality grapes and producing good wine? I investigated by interviewing winemaking teams at the Winery at Bull Run and the Williamsburg Winery to discuss the relationship between weather and wine.
From the Winery at Bull Run, I interviewed president Jon Hickox, vineyards operation manager Wayne Mills and winemaker Ashton Lough.
From the Williamsburg Winery, I interviewed Matthew Meyer, executive vice president and winemaker.
My interview is below. The answers from the Winery at Bull Run are labeled BR, and answers from the Williamsburg Winery are labeled WW.
Q: Was 2019 a particularly good vintage?
A: The Winery at Bull Run (BR): Spring rains followed by a hot and dry summer and a dry harvest season made for a great vintage. The warm, dry conditions we had this summer were much like the conditions of Bordeaux, France. — Wayne Mills
The Williamsburg Winery (WW): I think 2019 has potential to be the best vintage I have experienced in Virginia. I am confident other winemakers will echo the same sentiment. — Matthew Meyer
Q: What weather factors helped produce good wine in 2019?
A: BR: Ample rain in the early summer followed by hot and dry conditions through the rest of the growing season allowed the fruit to ripen perfectly. We could time the harvest of each variety of grape without rushing. This allowed for the acids and other aromatics in the fruit to develop fully. — Wayne Mills
WW: From the mid- to end of August to the beginning of October, we had little to no rain. For most part, the heat and humidity was more bearable than past years, with some cooler nights allowing for excellent berry development. — Matthew Meyer
Q: What were your biggest challenges with wine production in 2018?
A: BR: Rain, rain and more rain. 2018 was wet from flowering all the way through the harvest. Many of the red varietals in Virginia were not picked, as they never ripened sufficiently to make good wine. In addition, fungus development must be kept in check, which is almost impossible with 82 inches of rain falling during the year. It was a challenging year for the growers and the winemakers. — Jon Hickox
WW: 2018 was my most challenging vintage due to the excessive rainfall during harvest. With that said, I think people will be surprised at the quality of the white wines in the state. The petit verdot held up well. Though the case counts will be lower, I think the wines that were bottled from the 2018 vintage will be well-received. — Matthew Meyer
Q: Are different types of grapes, and wine, more susceptible to the weather? Or are they all impacted in a similar manner?
A: BR: Most of the European cultivars react the same to weather. Some are more susceptible to fungus than others, so too much rain is a big challenge growing wine grapes in Virginia. Wet conditions are not ideal. Merlot and cabernet franc are more susceptible to damage with late-season rain. — Ashton Lough
WW: All grapes are susceptible to weather. However, some varieties can weather the storm a little better than others. Petit verdot tends to hold up well in the Virginia climate, as does tannat and petit manseng. Varieties that have loose clusters and thin skins tend to do better with hot, humid and wet weather. — Matthew Meyer
Q: What is the most devastating type of weather for a vineyard?
A: BR: Flooding rain like we experienced in 2018 is probably the biggest challenge that we must deal with. Hail in any part of the growing season can be a disaster. Severe cold can destroy the developing fruit buds and kill canes and cause other damage. Frost in the spring, after bud break, is also a big problem. — Wayne Mills
WW: RAIN … and too much of it! — Matthew Meyer
Q: Do you have issues with stink bugs or other insects in the vineyards?
A: BR: So far, insects have not been a major problem. While the recent bumper crop of stink bugs can be concerning, as is the sight of Japanese beetles feasting on grape leaves — not grapes — in the vineyard, in many ways it’s just extra assistance for “canopy control” so that the fruit gets plenty of sunlight. Ladybugs are a welcome sight because they don’t feast on grapes but on other invasive insects, hence one of the reasons we plant rose bushes throughout the vineyard, encouraging them to stick around. Weather presents the greatest challenges to our 60 acres of vines. That’s farming for you! — Jon Hickox
WW: We do see stink bugs and other insects in the vineyard, but we have a very proactive vineyard crew that monitors and deals with them before they become a problem. — Matthew Meyer
Q: How do you rank your top three years for wine during the past decade?
A: BR: 2014 is No. 1, 2016 is No. 2, and 2019 is No. 3. — Ashton Lough
WW: 2019 is No. 1, 2017 is No. 2, and 2010 is No. 3. — Matthew Meyer
Q: What is your favorite wine for 2019? Or do you have multiple favorites?
A: BR: Our 2019 cabernet franc is looking like a really fine wine already, even before barrel aging. Also, our petit verdot is extraordinary, and our viognier is fabulous. — Ashton Lough
WW: We have multiple favorites. The 2019 vintage allowed many grapes to really ripen well with great fruit expression. I am particularly pleased with the petit verdot, tannat and merlot for the reds, and for the whites the albariño and chardonnay. — Matthew Meyer
Q: Where can we visit your winery and taste your wine?
A: BR: The Winery at Bull Run is the closest winery to Washington, D.C., located in Fairfax County only two miles off Interstate 66. The address is 15950 Lee Highway, Centreville, Va. We are open seven days a week, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., and offer wine tastings. Our unique Historical Tour & Tastings are by appointment only. — Jon Hickox
WW: The Williamsburg Winery is located at 5800 Wessex Hundred, Williamsburg, Va. Tasting room hours are Sunday to Friday, 12 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. and Saturday 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. through March 15. From March 16 to Oct. 31, hours are Sunday to Friday, 12 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. and Saturday 11 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. — Matthew Meyer
The interviews were conducted separately without sharing information or answers between the two wineries. Both wineries gave similar answers to the weather-related questions.
The Winery at Bull Run and the Williamsburg Winery also share something in common besides good wine. They’re both located near historical sites. The Winery at Bull Run is located adjacent to Manassas National Battlefield Park, and the Williamsburg Winery is located near Colonial Williamsburg.
So if you enjoy history and wine, a trip to the wineries will provide memorable experiences.
Note: Special thanks to Mark Frankel, tasting room supervisor at the Williamsburg Winery, for his discussion of weather and wine during my winery tour in October. That discussion was the inspiration for this article.