I once overheard a Virginia winery owner explain that “except for frost, humidity and hurricanes, Virginia is just like California.” Of course that’s true…kind of. The basic elements of the vineyard year are the same regardless of geographic location. With that in mind, let’s begin by taking a look at the basic parts of the growing year. Then we will examine how the seasonal challenges of “frost, humidity and hurricanes” impact the growing regimen of a vineyard manager in Northern Virginia.

Components of a Growing Year

Generally speaking, there are six major stages of the growing year. Some might take exception with this simplification, but for our purposes we will concentrate on the milestones that begin with winter pruning and end with harvest.

Winter pruning typically takes place in or around February. Some vineyard managers may start earlier and conduct a final pruning. Exact timing can be dictated by weather.

In the spring, ideally, as temperatures start to climb above 50 degrees Fahrenheit, nodes on the branches of the vine begin to swell until they burst open. This event is known as bud break. After the buds form, the shoots mature and grow leaves.

Several weeks after bud break; the shoots will begin to flower. Flowering is a necessary step for all fruit-producing plants. The period between bud break and the first formation of fruit is when the vines are most vulnerable, and success or failure of the growing season hangs in the balance.

The vines require periodic hedging to control vigor. Photo by Brian Yost.

The vines require periodic hedging to control vigor. Photo by Brian Yost.

After the flowers are pollinated, tiny dots or berries will form. This is known as fruit set, and the small berries will mature and grow in size until they begin to take on color.

The point at which the grapes begin most noticeably to change color is referred to as veraison. Red varietals take on their distinct red hue, and white grapes become golden or translucent. From this point until harvest the grapes continue to store sugar, soften, become larger, and acidity levels drop.

Harvest begins roughly six to eight weeks after veraison. The precise timing of harvest is dependent largely on the growing season. Grape type is another factor. Early ripening varietals like vidal blanc, for instance, will be harvested weeks before later ripening grapes like petit verdot.

The year at Breaux Vineyards

Breaux Vineyards is located in the northern reaches of Loudoun County. Totaling over 90 acres under vine, its estate vineyard is the largest in Northern Virginia. While every vineyard in Virginia experiences the same difficulties, Breaux will be used to illustrate the challenges of “frost, humidity and hurricanes.”

The vineyard manager at Breaux is Gonzalo Ortiz. He and his father own small wineries in Chile’s Maipo Valley (a suburb of Santiago, where Ortiz grew up) and in Chester County, Pennsylvania. In addition to Chile and Pennsylvania, Ortiz has managed vineyards in New Jersey, and he is now in his fourth season at Breaux. So Ortiz has a lifetime of experience, but more importantly he understands the challenges of the Mid-Atlantic.

Frost Timing of the winter pruning is important, because it can lead to early bud break. This seems ideal since it accelerates the growing cycle and can lead to an equally early harvest before the threat of hurricane season and heavy fall rain. A late frost, on the other hand, between bud break and fruit set can be devastating for many varietals.

After the buds form, the shoots mature and grow leaves.

After the buds form, the shoots mature and grow leaves.

The impact of a late frost is most problematic in low-lying areas. Cold air, after all, is heavy and tends to settle into the valleys thereby sparing higher elevations. This is one of several reasons that vineyards are frequently planted on hillsides.

This year at Breaux a late frost impacted the low-lying areas, but according to Ortiz “the Vinifera (typical European varietals) was spared.” He went on to explain “they plant Vidal Blanc and Seyval Blanc in the lower rows, because they get a decent secondary crop.” In other words, these hybrids will bud again and produce a smaller crop. This may mean lighter yields, but the season is not entirely forfeit following a single frost.

Humidity

According to Ortiz, “humidity leads to downy mildew and botrytis,” either of which can impact the health of the leaves and ultimately the vines. These are fungal infections that when left untreated can destroy the canopy (leaves). “Without sufficient canopy,” Ortiz explained, “the clusters [of grapes] can be affected, and the vines will not be able to store enough energy reserves to make it through the winter.”

Throughout the Mid-Atlantic, vines must be regularly sprayed with antifungals. This can be an expensive proposition, but it is necessary for both the near-term and long-term health of the vines.

Hurricanes and other Rain Events

We need to differentiate between rain during the growing season and rain at the harvest. The timing and quantity of precipitation has different consequences depending on when it occurs during the vineyard year.

Rain is obviously necessary for growing grapes, but too much rain during the growing season can lead to excess vigor. In other words, the canopy will grow too thick, and that requires constant hedging to control the leaves and ensure that the grape clusters have sufficient sun exposure. Ortiz pointed out that this has been a relatively dry year, and he “has only hedged twice, which is two or three times less than previous years.”

Even at the end of the most successful growing season, a hurricane or large rain event can spell disaster. It is too early to know with certainty whether storms will threaten the 2017 vintage, but Ortiz was optimistic. He pointed out that after the warming trend early in the year and a period of cooling in mid-summer, the cumulative effect is “harvest will be five to seven days earlier than last year.”

Nearly ready for harvest, grapes are protected from predation by netting.

Nearly ready for harvest, grapes are protected from predation by netting.

As if that’s not enough…

Of course frost, humidity and hurricanes are not the only problems that growers must contend with. Young vines are particularly susceptible to winter freezes. Extreme cold, like the polar vortex in 2013, can kill even mature vines.

Another challenge includes hail, which can be very local, but can damage or destroy entire blocks of fruit.

Finally, there is also the threat posed by animals, or predation. Deer fences will keep out some predators, but they do not guard against starlings, wild turkeys and migratory birds. Raccoons can also ravage sections of a vineyard, and bears can destroy trellises and other vineyard structures while feasting on the fruit.

Do you still want to own a winery?

The fact is the Commonwealth is a tricky place to cultivate grapes. Every growing season brings a different combination of trials. As you can see, the challenges of frost, humidity and hurricanes are not the only problems growers face. We often forget that winemaking is an agricultural pursuit. Like most farmers, winegrowers and vineyard staff experience many sleepless nights attempting to minimize damage caused by weather events.

Fortunately, over the past 40-plus years, growers like Gonzalo Ortiz have learned how to manage the risk. Furthermore, growers cooperate and share information so that the industry will succeed. As a result, new wineries continue to open, and production levels continue to climb. So don’t give up on your dreams of owning a winery just yet. ML

Brian Yost blogs as The Virginia Grape and writes for a number of local, regional and national publications. His articles concentrate on wine trends and wineries in the Eastern United States. Find more of his writing at thevirginiagrape.com.