The Wine Nerd: Rain Dancing

By Jim Hollingshead

It’s easy to complain about the heat in August and September.  These last two months of summer can wear Virginians down, especially during a long streak of cloudless sunshine.  While it may look pretty from inside our air conditioned homes, we tend to pray for clouds and rain once we venture outside.  Instead of this natural thirst for cooling rain, however, we should take comfort when the sun won’t hide; it’s a great time to be a grape!

Grapevines are a different kind of crop.  You don’t want to feed them, water them, or nurture them in the usual way.  They require a bit more tough love.  When a vine receives all of the water, nutrients, and gentle sunshine that it asks for, it produces weak, bland, and boring grapes.  If, however, the vine must fight for survival, dig its taproot deep to find water, and struggle to compete for the necessary nutrition, it will produce a much more powerful grape, bursting with sugars, acids, and the potential to make a truly beautiful wine.

Think of California- what makes it such an easy place to grow great wine?  It is because it is so hard on the vines.  Hot, dry days in dusty volcanic soil force the vines to fight for what water they can get, and cool nights keep the heat of the day from cooking away all of the acidity in the grapes.  The hotter the climate, such as Paso Robles, the heavier, darker, and more powerful the wine.

California may be built for bold and powerful wine, but what about Virginia?  Here, the weather patterns are less predictable.  How much rain, when it arrives, and how quickly it dries vary greatly from year to year.  Think of 2010: a hot, mostly dry summer.  While the spring had lots of rain(a good time for the vines to be watered), the summer and early fall were dry and sunny, with record heat.  The wine was dark, rich, bold, and some of the best that has ever been produced within our gorgeous state!  If you didn’t make good wine that year, you were in the wrong profession.

Fast forward to 2011, and we see a similar story that veers of towards a different ending.  While the summer began full of heat and sunshine, the end of August saw the arrival of Hurricane Irene, and the slew of storms that she pushed inland.  On the heels of Irene, the remains of another tropical storm landed on our coast as well.  It seemed to rain nearly non-stop from the beginning of September until the end of October.

While a smart winegrower can time his harvest to pick the grapes when they are driest, the unrelenting rain left most of the state with no option but to bring in the harvest still waterlogged.  The grapes were swollen up with the extra water, and the juice was diluted.  In some cases, the grapes had simply burst on the vine before they could be picked.  Many harvests were lost, and those red wines that were made are known for being lighter and a bit more watery than desired.

Many winemakers found ways around this setback.  Some, like Marterella (which is sadly no longer in operation), made Rosé for the first time.  Others, like Narmada, blended some of their darker grapes into their lighter varietals to lend them some extra strength.  A few wineries were fortunate enough to see most of the storms pass them by.  By and large, however, it was a rough year to be making wine.

So the next time you start to complain about the heat at this time of year, take a moment to think about the vines.  Sit down in the shade with a glass of a cool Virginia white, and appreciate how nature is making the bottle you’ll be having in a couple of years.

But, if it begins to rain a lot in September, then start praying for those winemakers.