Two thousand hateteen is a year that will not be remembered fondly in Virginia. This was a challenging growing season and harvest for Virginia wine grape growers. Average annual rainfall is usually around 40 inches, but in 2018 most of the state saw about 60 inches of precipitation. Frequent and heavy rain fell during the growing season and continued through harvest. To their credit, persistent growers worked hard and brought in clean fruit, which made nice wines.
Here some observations I made during this season on what worked and what did not work in a challenging year.
Diligent spray programs (particularly in August and September): Frequent rainfall provided plenty of infection periods for downy mildew and botrytis, in a year with high grape berry moth pressure. Growers that utilized weather forecasts and kept a tight spray program had a fighting chance this year. Growers that relaxed in the weeks before harvest faced compromised fruit quality and defoliated vines.
Early ripening varieties: Wet conditions only got worse through September. Varieties that reach maturity rapidly fared better than late-season varieties. Varieties with less under ripe characteristics like ‘Merlot’ were more forgiving than ‘Cabernet Sauvignon’ — if picked early and in some cases supplemented with sugar.
Hybrids: Wine grapes grown in Virginia are dominated by vinifera varieties. However, while hybrid varieties make up less than a third of the planted acres, they are important to Virginia wineries due to their durable nature. For the most part, these varieties fared well in 2018 with appropriate attention. Like other varieties, if the growers fell behind with pest management, hybrids, too, were compromised. I think of ‘Vidal Blanc’ as a very durable variety, especially in Northern Virginia. This year, Vidal did not fare well with bunch rots.
Low crop levels: Similar to early ripening varieties. In most seasons, vineyardists can ripen large crops. But lighter crops that ripened more rapidly were desirable in these wet conditions. Any factors that allowed growers to get fruit off the vines quicker were of benefit to growers.
Field sorting: Lastly, between injury due to grape berry moth or botrytis, there was plenty of compromised fruit. Growers that have the labor capacity for field sorting were able to head off slow processing at the winery and/or wines made from compromised fruit.
What Did Not Work
Most of these are techniques and practices that work well in many other conditions. However, in an unrelenting rainy season in Virginia, growers that deployed these practices did not fare well.
Low-key spray programs in the late season: There is no benefit to spraying more fungicides than necessary. However, in years with frequent rain events, keeping up with protective and curative fungicides in the late season is necessary. Growers that put away the sprayer in August had a rough harvest.
Late-ripening varieties: The rain did not let up; it continued to rain into winter. Later-ripening varieties were caught in these undesirable conditions for a longer period of time and suffered the consequence with bunch rots.
Large crop levels: Similar to later ripening varieties, vines may take a longer period of time to increase sugar on a large crop level than a small one. Growers that often ripen large crops in Virginia had trouble ripening such large crops in 2018. It’s a bit of gambling, because in late summer around verasion, growers were fine-tuning their crop levels and they did not have reliable forecast information to know how wet September would be.
Waiting: An important harvest question is when to pick? In Virginia, this decision is often made with a three-day forecast in mind. What conditions will the fruit experience if not picked? I saw a couple examples of growers with clean fruit postponing harvest in lieu of waiting for better fruit maturity. Returning a week later, half the crop had been compromised. This was a year to play it conservative: A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.
Again, this was a very challenging year for Virginia vineyardists. However, many are optimistic about the wine quality obtained in this demanding year. It comes down to the decisions that growers made during a taxing harvest. Growers that had seen wet harvests before had an advantage in knowing some of the issues to expect and knew some of the pitfalls of poor harvest decisions — having made them in the past.