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2012 — A Little Frost and Hail and Hot, Hot, Hot, but Too Early To Call

For those that have not been outside for a couple weeks, do not watch television, and are not lucky enough to have Facebook and Twitter friends that partake in the annoying habit of posting photos of their car thermometer, let me be the first to share with you that much of the country is on the receiving end of one helluva heat wave courtesy of Mother Nature.

Here in southeastern Virginia temperatures have reached 94 degrees or hotter eight consecutive days with thermometers hitting 100 degrees many of these days.  If the daily triple-digit temperatures weren’t enough, a massive storm — termed a ‘derecho‘ — rolled across central and mid-Atlantic states on June 29th leaving about 2,000,000 people without power, including a number of local wineries.

Though I’m not a meteorologist, as a wine enthusiast with a particular interest in Virginia wine, I have more than a passing interest in weather systems in the context of the potential effect on local vineyards and this year’s vintage.  Early season hail and frost in some areas coupled with heatmageddon makes for some interesting weather observations and early opinions on the 2012 vintage.

Rather than prematurely conclude on the 2012 vintage (something neophytes like me impulsively do), I asked the experts — Virginia and Maryland vintners — to share their thoughts on the 2012 growing season thus far…

All things considered, I think 2012 looks very promising.  You have to remember we have a lengthened season because of how early bud break was, especially for the early whites.  Our Chardonnay for instance is almost 25 days ahead of last year.  Bloom and fruit set were all considerably ahead.  Spring weather was good for us, with no serious disease pressure and good fruit set with a few exceptions.  Everyone thought the insects would be bad, due to the mild winter, but I haven’t seen a lot of issues yet in our vineyards.  That’s not to say that nobody has.  I’ve heard all the standard horror stories about frost, hail, downy, etc., so I feel fortunate that we haven’t had big issues with these, although some of our neighbors have been pretty unlucky.

This early heat puts a lot of stress on the vines, especially when it doesn’t rain.  Some of our younger vines and new plantings are having a hard time – nothing horrible, but, if things remain this way, we’ll have to bring in irrigation.  We’ve seen some sunburn, certainly a slowing down of vegetative growth, but we’re not at a point where things are horribly unusual.  Yet.

What does this say for the 2012 wines?  There’d be a lot of wild predicting on my part to say much about that.  We still have six weeks or two months before most grapes will be ripe, so a lot can happen between then and now.  Next week, for instance, looks relatively mild for mid-July.  What I can say is that since we’re so far ahead of schedule, we should certainly not have an issue with underripeness, even in some of the difficult to ripen varietals.  We should have a long window during which we can decide when to pick, which will be a lot of fun.

As far as whether alcohols will be high, or whether acids will be low, etc., I’m not ready to make a call on those things yet.  You never know what’s going to happen.‘   ~ Nate Walsh, Sunset Hills Vineyards, Purcellville, Virginia (on Twitter:  @SunsethillWine)

I was certainly one who thought the mild winter would result in much higher than normal insect problems.  Though several growers throughout the state have experienced insect problems, not as wide spread as I thought it would be.

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The first point is that it is very early in the season, so the heat is no big deal either way.  For whites, we’d like some cooler weather and a bit of rain – that would slow down the ripening so that they ripen slower in a cooler part of the season, and keep the sugars down (our preferred alcohols are around 13%, which means a brix of about 22, and if this heat keeps up the sugars will go higher than that).  For the reds, this dry spell is excellent – it will induce the vines to keep the berries small, giving us higher skin-to-juice ratios and more concentrated wines.  We also worry about higher alcohols on the reds, but again it is early so we’ll be ok if the weather turns back to normal.  All in all, the vintage is setting up very nicely, but with the caveat that late season is the critical time for vintage quality, not June/Early July.‘    ~ Ed Boyce, Black Ankle Vineyards, Mt. Airy, Maryland

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So far so good, but last year looked great until August 29th. [August 29 being the date Hurricane Irene worked her way through mid-Atlantic leaving behind 30+ days of consecutive rain.]  Like everything we do as winemakers/winegrowers/vineyard managers/farmers/etc we are completely over exaggerating this heat.  We actually had a pretty cool and dry start to the vintage and to expect it to not get hot and humid in Virginia is ridiculous.  I know there was one article already written and one of the varieties mentioned was Sauvignon Blanc andhow it needs cooler weather then this.  Well…Yeah it does.  That is why there are only select sites that can do anything with it.  

The early spring and now more traditional Virginia summers (at least since I have been here in 2007) does mean that there could be a risk of an early harvest and/or higher alcohols.  I personally don’t care about the higher alcohols if they are in balance.  I have tasted many wines over 16% that are great and have beautiful balance and I have tasted wines that are 12% and come off hot.  It is better to have 15% natural alcohol then to have 12% and chaptalize up to 13% in my mind.  

Chaptalization is often the cause of disjointed alcohols that come off hot.  It is required to have any depth in some vintages (2011), but it is far less preferred to me.  Where high alcohols are an issue is that it causes some people to dilute their wines with water to get the alcohol lower (usually just below 14% for tax reasons I assume).  I do find it “convenient” that many winemakers think just below 14% is the magic number for wines and it also happens to be when you pay less tax.

My only concern would be if the acids fall out too early and don’t protect the fruit so it needs to be harvested because of poor fruit integrity prior to full development of the seed and skin tannins, color and flavor profile.  It is way too early to call that though.

As far as what we are doing in the vineyard, really there is nothing different at this point.  The only practice I might recommend is to leave a little extra leaves around the fruiting zone, but we are not aggressive until a little later with this anyway.  To aggressively leaf pull too early you are at incredible risk of sunburn and right now is too early in my opinion with a heat wave or not.  I expect we will have at least one more big heat wave in August since it always happens.   So far there has not been anything that has been too far out of the ordinary.  Young plantings are in need of some water and there has been a small amount of downy mildew pressure, but nothing out of the norm.   ~ Jordan Harris, Tarara Winery, Leesburg, Virginia (on Twitter:  @TararaWinery)

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In a nutshell, it’s too early to know yet what impact the current heat wave may have.  If you recall, last year was also hot through this date but it ended up being a year most of us would like to forget.  Crunch time only begins at veraison, which is still a couple of weeks away.   

In terms of Growing Degree Days (GDD), we’re only even with 2009 and 2008 and we’re way behind 2010.  2010 was a great year for reds and a ripe year for whites, so if we have a hot (and dry) year like 2010, then we might expect similar results.  It’s been a good year so far but it’s way too early to call the vintage.‘   ~ Jim Dolphin, Delaplane Cellars, Delaplane, Virginia (on Twitter:  @DelaplaneCellrs )

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The heat wave over the last 2 weeks in Virginia is not an issue for the vines at this stage, since we are pre-veraison.  The vines entered into “protection mode” and lay dormant, thereby preventing water loss/respiration in an effort to stay cool. Due to good rains last month, there is also abundant moisture in the soil.  We are looking forward to this week, as the nights will be much cooler and will provide better ripening conditions for veraison to start.  If the heat wave were to continue through this week as veraison started, sugar levels may rise and acids would decrease (depending on variety), thereby contributing to the possibility of a hotter, less acidic crop.  Nonetheless, we don’t anticipate this to happen, and even if our days continue to be extremely hot, cooler nights should prohibit any strong concern.    Our team’s harvest forecast: mid August start date, which, of course, could change.‘  ~   Frantz Ventre, winemaker, and Jonathan Hollerith, vineyard manager at Early Mountain Vineyards, Madison, VA (on Twitter: @EarlyMountain)

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We only got up to 96 degrees at the vineyard today, but 7 of the last 8 days we have been in the mid 90′s!  We do have irrigation, so if the plants look like they are getting ready to shut down, I will turn on the water and keep the vines developing the fruit.  We are clean in the vineyard with 9 sprays so far.  The Chardonnay has started veraison and it definitely looks like we will be picking again in August this year, for the third year in a row!  Our norm before 2010 was the first two weeks of September.  We invested in an Orchard-Rite wind fan back in 2009 and it sure earned its keep this year with the freezes after the earliest bud break we have ever had (started 17 March 2012).  We have missed all the rain in those thunderstorms that have been going overhead this month, but did loose power for 9 hours last Saturday.  In the vineyard we have not pulled as many leaves as in years past hoping that will help to maintain higher acidity in the grapes.  I think the heat will impact the reds more than the whites, since the reds need to hang longer and ripen more fully with some differential between day and night temperatures.  If we have to pick them before that happens, it will not be optimal.~ Rock Stevens, The Vineyard at Point Breeze, Virginia 2011 Grower of the Year

I would like to thank each winemaker/grapegrower for their thoughts on this subject.  It’s clear that vintners believe it’s too early in the season to call the 2012 vintage.

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