“I like to tell people that it rained twice—once for 30 days and once for 45 days,” says Rappahannock Cellars winemaker Theo Smith.
Virginia’s record-breaking rain in 2018—topping 60 inches in some regions—dealt a major blow to the state’s grape growers and winemakers. For some, an entire season’s worth of crops were destroyed. Others managed to scrape by with white wines and early-picked red grapes. For everyone, 2018 served as a lesson in how to survive when Mother Nature doesn’t cooperate.
‘The Worst Year’
“This is the worst year I have ever seen in 33 years,” says Dr. Tony Wolf, a Winchester-based Virginia Tech professor and the state’s official viticulturist.
Loretta Briede, owner of newcomer Briede Family Vineyards, also in Winchester, lost her entire red crop of organic arandell grapes. Wilderness Run Vineyards’ Old World wine crop in Sperryville was decimated. About 40 percent of 868 Estate Vineyard’s reds, grown in Purcellville, were destroyed. It’s the same story everywhere.
Because the rain started in June, vine flowering prevented pollination, and therefore reduced crops overall. With the continued lack of sun and prolonged, widespread deluge during harvest in September, red grapes didn’t properly ripen, making it harder to fight pathogens like downy mildew. Vineyard managers just couldn’t spray fast enough.
Hybrid grapes like chambourcin and chardonel fared better than vinifera (Old World) grapes like merlot and cabernet sauvignon. But much of it came down to basic farming: spraying for disease and pests, dropping crop to make the most of the limited sunlight and harvesting as close as possible to optimal fruit.
“Really there weren’t any magic tricks,” says Joy Ting, of the Virginia Wine Research Exchange. “People who could stay on top of things in the vineyard still had a decent crop. Anywhere you missed something, you paid for it.”
Area winery professionals responded by focusing on making whites from grapes harvested early in the season, and producing plenty of sparkling wine and rosé. But there will be no 2018 red wines from many Northern Virginia wineries with traditions of producing outstanding bottles. This comes at a time when the state’s reputation for complex vintages is on the rise. It can’t rest on decades of accolades, like the wineries of fire-damaged Northern California.
When Briede, of Briede Family Vineyards, couldn’t find any grapes to buy in-state—Virginia doesn’t produce enough fruit in a normal year to support the growing industry, much less an anomalous one—she petitioned the state to purchase Cabernet Franc from Lodi, California (though the winery didn’t end up needing more than the alloted percentage). The Virginia Department of Agriculture received three times the number of requests in 2018 to source additional grapes from out of state as it did in 2017, beyond the 25 percent allowed under the farm wineries law.
“We are small and grow limited varieties, and being organic in weather conditions like we had were almost impossible for us,” Briede says, noting they still harvested their cayuga white (25 cases) and will release a house sparkling wine in 2019, aging since last year.
‘Year of Rosé’
The harvest at Maggie Malick Wine Caves in Purcellville was cut in half from the year before, from 110 to 56 tons of fruit. As a grower-winemaker duo, Mark and Maggie Malick have the advantage of a large and diverse growing plan and the ability to choose the best fruit they could pull in and still fulfill less than half of the orders that other state winemakers had placed earlier in the year for their grapes.
But the expenses—pricey barrels already ordered and now sitting empty with risk of drying out; increased manpower for spraying pesticides all night; slowing fungus creep and warding off insects; additional chemical costs—were compounded with having less grapes to sell and to press.
“2018 will be the year of rosé,” says Mark Malick. His wife won’t bottle the vineyard’s award-winning Albarino, but they will be able to sell their cabernet franc, tannat, merlot and petit verdot—and two pink wines, a dry and off-dry.
One of the state’s best winemakers, Jim Law of Linden Vineyards, also won’t produce any reds from the 2018 vintage. “Fortunately, we had a string of great vintages [from 2015-2017] where quality and quantity were good, so we have a lot of inventory in the cellar to smooth out 2018.” Find blended whites and a rosé from 2018 instead.
Rappahannock Cellars has the luxury of sourcing grapes from 12 vineyard plots in four different growing regions within the state, but even larger wineries faced challenges. Merlot took a particularly big hit, dropping from 7.5 tons in 2017 to .75 tons in 2018.
“You can’t just pooh-pooh the vintage,” says Smith, of Rappahannock Cellars, who elected to increase the winery’s sparkling and rosé output from 2018 grapes. “It forces you to think outside the box.”
Tarara Winery winemaker Jordan Harris will skip single-vineyard wines this year and instead release only one red blend, Boneyard Red (down from a half-dozen reds in a normal year), and double rosé production from 500 to 1,000 cases, plus some sparklers, including the fizzy pétillant naturel style which has grown in popularity with local winemakers and the drinking public in the last few years.
‘Little Bit of Grit’
At Wilderness Run Vineyards in Spotsylvania, founder and viticulturist Harry Pagan lost all of his estate vinifera after recording a biblical 76 inches of rain.
Luckily he had other plantings, picking early 70 percent of his hybrids for a fizzy vinho verde vidal, as well as other light whites and two styles of rosé. Because 2017 was such a strong year, says Pagan, “this year didn’t hurt as bad because we had that buffer.”
“This industry, especially in Virginia, requires a little bit of grit. We have climate in Virginia, it’s not like California. You have to take the good with the bad,” says Pagan.
Luckily, the 2017 harvest was a monster thanks to unusually warm temperatures and occasional dry spells which helped yield bumper crops. Having extra juice was a savior for many small and mid-sized wineries without access to multiple vineyard plots.
Wolf and his team of Virginia Tech experts and researchers are already working on lessons learned from the 2018 season, and will continue to host clinics and meetings across the state to prepare for 2019.
“Going forward, as an industry, we need to look carefully at what we want to grow,” adds Wolf, who will explore different grapes for Virginia planting.
The industry will also help ease consumers into the 2018 vintage. Loudoun Wineries Association is hosting a rosé weekend April 27-28, with multiple tasting rooms across the county pouring new releases.
Drinkers may also get access to reserve wines early and see lower prices for 2018 releases due to consumer concerns about the year. Tarara’s Jordan says many of these wines could be a steal.
For winemakers, each vintage tells a story. In 2018, the story was simply do the best with what you have in the tank—and hope for a drier 2019.
Rainy Day Experiment
Theo Smith of Rappahannock Cellars produced 6,000 gallons of 2018 rosé using three different styles of winemaking, and some fruit-forward reds designed to be drunk young, aka right now.
- A sparkling rosé made via méthode champenoise, where secondary fermentation occurs in the bottle.
- A charmat method of sparkling, where the secondary fermentation takes place in stainless steel tanks.
- Applying a bâtonnage technique for red wines, the winemaker introduces the lees, or used yeast, back into the wine once it settles. Stirring clean chardonnay lees from stainless tanks into barrels soften the herbaceous characteristics common with fruit picked early.
Bottles That Weathered the Storm
Rappahannock Cellars Sauvignon Blanc 2018
This wine—made from grapes harvested late last August in Linden, about 10 minutes from the winery’s main property—displays citrus, marzipan and bright, white stone fruit, as well as more traditional cut-grass notes. Botted in January, it will be released later this month. // $30
Tarara Winery Pét-Nat 2018
This fun, fruity and fizzy wine, a blend of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and merlot, was still geysering out of the bottle in January, so winemaker Jordan Harris may disgorge it to let it settle slightly before releasing it in early spring. // $25
868 Estate Vineyards Rosé 2018
Crisp and dry, and made from merlot, cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon and nebbiolo grapes, this rosé shows notes of strawberries, apricots and citrus. It will be released in early April. // $26
This article was originally published in our March issue. Get upcoming issues sent to your mailbox by subscribing here.