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These are the Years to Learn From – Thoughts on the 2011 Vintage from Jefferson Vineyards Winemaker Andy Reagan

As I noted in my last post, 2011 will be remembered by many here in Virginia, in particular by winemakers, as a year of weather extremes — early(ish) spring frost, consecutive days of triple digit temperatures coupled with oppressive humidity, an earthquake, followed by Hurricane Irene that dumped 10″ to 16″ of rain in many parts of the state.

Unfortunately, the rain continued in the weeks following Irene.  In the Front Royal area, just over six inches of rain fell over the last 30 days, raising fears that 2011 may well end up like 2003 when many vineyards throughout Virginia (and the east coast) suffered as a result of high winds and torrential rains from Hurricane Isabel.

Several Virginia winemakers — Stephen Barnard, winemaker at Keswick Vineyards on the Keswick blog, and Jeff White of Glen Manor Vineyards on the Wine Berserkers forum — have shared their thoughts on these weather challenges.  For additional perspective, I asked Andy Reagan, winemaker and General Manager of Jefferson Vineyards, to share his thoughts on what will become of 2011:

It’s 6:30 am. I just woke up after hitting the snooze button a few times, busy day ahead, probably need more than 2 cups of coffee. After zipping through my normal a.m. routine, I step outside for my first smoke and cup of joe. Another grey, muggy morning brings another sigh. For weeks now I’ve been forced to listen to the sound of tires splashing down the country roads and water dripping off of the gutter… pure torture.  Just another day during the worst vintage I can remember.

To most industry insiders 2003 has been the benchmark for the worst-case scenario sadly 2011 has easily prompted me to think fondly of our prior crappy harvest standard. 2003 was wet, 3 sunny days in May, constant downpours, hot humid funky weather. That year there were 3 hurricanes whose remnants swept through the state in September. Yes, 2003 sucked, but at least there were periods it didn’t rain during harvest. This year we’ve had rain every day for the past 3 weeks. The whites came in well below desired ripeness. The reds, well ours our still hanging, but I’ve heard many folks have lost entire crops. Sorting tables are a necessity this year as rot rules supreme and winemaker interventions will be common. If any winemaker says they were minimalists in 2011, don’t drink their wine, and tell them they should be ashamed for lying. I was amazed last year that we were finished picking by the end of September we accomplished that because of the long dry and hot year with some of the best fruit I’ve ever seen. This year I am again stunned that we’ll finish picking so early, though thoroughly annoyed that it is a result of having no canopy to support the hanging fruit. Honestly it is a year to forget already, can we move on to 2012 please?

Rainy, foggy, crummy weather and all though, we still have a job to do. These are the vintages we have to expect in Virginia, they are inevitable and used to be the norm. We have been spoiled with a string of fortunate years. 2004 was great compared to 2003 but 2005 through 2010 were nothing short of outstanding, I think St. Vincent was feeling bad for us having suffered through 2003, hopefully we’ll kick off another long run of great vintages beginning with 2012. In the meantime dealing with the mess at hand; how will we produce wine of distinction? Can we make a wine with any real complexity? To be frank, (not Frank but frank) it is going to be tough. The whites will be easier than the reds. Our Pinot Gris actually ripened nicely before the onslaught of rain this September. And thank you God for Petit Manseng, by far the toughest grape ever. Between those two the whites will easily be as delicious as ever. The reds though, unfortunately we depend too heavily on seed and skin tannin to help turn that murky juice into the deep beautiful complex mouth filling brilliance we all love in a good red, so unless somehow we get lucky and have a couple weeks of warm sunny days and cool nights, get a little dehydration and somehow stave off the botrytis, well let’s just say I hope rose’s popularity sky rockets soon. I’ll do what I can with the reds, 30% bleeding, delestage twice a day and very hot, short fermentation will be key, judicious use of oak and forest selection will play a big role too, I’m willing to bet something will turn out great. For now, what though remains to be seen.

These are the years to learn from. They test are commitment to making great wine. This is the type of year that reminds us to not take anything for granted, that when it all comes down to it we really control very little in this industry and even in life. We need these standards to remind us to appreciate the better days, the priceless moments we typically expect, these are the moments in life that help us showcase our talents, give us character and some much needed humility. It’s 11:40 a.m. 2 press loads in to the day, sunny, 75° with a light breeze, perhaps the better days to come just arrived.

Thanks Andy for coming in from the rain to share your insights and thoughts on the 2011 vintage.  I hope a few other winemakers will share their experiences and thoughts on the 2011 vintage, weather permitting 😉 .  I’m curious how many harvested their whites prior to Irene, especially the Viognier.

Oh, one last word … it rained today.


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