A good vintage for Virginia grapes

The 2007 vintage may well be remembered as among Virginia’s best, says Tony Wolf, Virginia Tech’s Viticulture Extension specialist.

“Our dry years in Virginia typically result in our best overall vintages, and fruit quality reports from around the state have been very positive,” Wolf said in a recent year-ending report. “The absence of tropical storms contributed to clean, concentrated fruit. With an unusually quiet Atlantic at this writing, I’m beginning to think that even the later ripening reds might escape rains from tropical depressions this year.”

But there is no doubt that drought affected much of the Virginia grape crop during 2007, says Wolf.

“Vineyards with deeply rooted vines and those with irrigation that could be judiciously applied during the season fared better than those vineyards without irrigation,” he said. “Fruit chemistry and ultimately wine quality can be adversely affected by drought stress, particularly after the commencement of berry ripening (veraison).

“Wines can exhibit elevated pH, unfavorably high alcohol and a tendency to show rapid aging or oxidation. Savvy winemakers anticipated the effects of dry conditions on fruit chemistry and altered their harvest decisions accordingly.”

It’s difficult to define a climatologically “average” season in Virginia, and 2007 illustrated the variability offered up by Mother Nature.

While the Easter Weekend and ensuing cold spell delayed the start of the season, the heat and the dry conditions of summer advanced “veraison,” he said. Harvest commenced from seven to 14 days ahead of average for many varieties and locations, particularly with the early-maturing varieties such as Viognier and Chardonnay.

“We had an above-average number of reports of hail damage to vineyards in 2007,” said Wolf. “Pest pressure seemed to be average. Japanese beetles were persistent and abundant in some vineyards, but I would categorize the incidence in our Winchester vineyard as below-average.”

He said there are two pervasive problems in many of Virginia’s vineyards that will require a sustained effort to remedy:

• An increasing number of apparently diseased vines where the disease can be viral, fungal or other pathogens. Part of the problem, particularly with older plantings, relates to poor nursery stock.

“This cause will likely continue to exist until we have a robust, clean stock program nationally available,” he said. “But even clean vines can be infected in the field by some of our indigenous pathogens. As vineyards age, the incidence of diseased vines often increases.”

These infections can be slowed in some cases, but removal and replanting of affected vines may be needed in many cases to regain or elevate the overall quality of a vineyard block.

• The other chronic problem, particularly with older vineyards, is nutritional deficiencies, said Wolf. “Due in part to the dry weather, we saw a number of vineyards that had nitrogen deficiency symptoms.”

Like some diseases, the nutritional problems are often chronic. The dry weather this year exacerbated symptoms, but many older vineyards are under-fertilized.

“Attention to soil pH, soil nutrient balance and soil organic matter is needed in many cases,” said Wolf. “Use the fall and winter to order vine replacements and to make amends with your vineyard nutrient program.”

Wolf is involved with a number of state and regional workshops to educate potential and existing grape producers about vineyard operations.

Is now a good time to consider commercial vineyards as a viable ag enterprise? Wolf says yes, if you can satisfy several conditions.

“Viticulturally, you need to fully evaluate your vineyard site to ensure that it’s conducive to consistent and profitable grape production,” he says. “And like any business, you need to amass sufficient capital to launch the enterprise successfully — a vineyard is a very expensive investment.

“You need to educate yourself about the process of vineyard establishment and operation; it’s too costly to afford to make mistakes.”

Finally, the grapes won’t sell themselves.

“A potential grower must evaluate local markets for wine grapes and explore the option of winery establishment,” says Wolf. “A winery might offer a greater return on the vineyard investment, but substantially raises the stakes in terms of management and capital costs.”

Interest in the Virginia wine industry has never been greater, says Wolf. It produces more than 285,000 cases of wine, and the industry continues to expand with more than 100 licensed farm wineries estimated in 2006.

Current interest in expansion of vineyard acreage has resulted in an increased demand for research and extension to assist with the growth of new farmland by both experienced and novice grape growers.

If you would like more information, visit Wolf’s website at: http://faculty.vaes.vt.edu/vitis.

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