Virginia’s 2019 Growing Season – The Hype Is Real!

2019 was a great year for Virginia wine. Given how disastrously wet 2018 was, even an ‘average’ summer would have been a blessing. But this summer seemed intent on making up for last year’s non-stop rain and cloudiness, resulting in what many places are calling one of Virginia’s best vintages…EVER.

“Ever”, they say? When I first heard that, I thought it sounded like a lot of hype – not to mention a huge generalization for a state as big as Virginia. No two vineyard are identical, and Virginia’s 300-ish wineries can’t all have a perfect year at the same time. So I asked around…and found the hype may be warranted.

In most parts of the state bud break came on time or a bit early, and the lack of an early frost coupled with plentiful rains enabled good fruit set. But the real boost came in mid-summer when drought set in and the heat spiked. After than it seemed to be a race as multiple varietals often became ready for harvest at nearly the same time.

Vineyards in the Northern and Central Virginia AVAs seem to have benefited the most from this season; the term ‘the best year ever’ was utilized by several places, including some who have been growing since the mid-2000s. While wineries the Southern or Shenandoah AVAs somewhat less inclined to use such hyperbole, all were very pleased.

This is great news, but the goodness doesn’t stop there. Perhaps the adjective that was most-often used describing this harvest is ‘clean’. Mild humidity resulted in greatly reduced disease pressure across most vineyards. Wine making is never easy in Virginia, but this came close.

There’s still work to be done in the cellar, so many winemakers were reluctant to ‘make a call’ regarding the vintage. But even those who have been wine growing for 10+ years are lauding the quality of the fruit. When the debate is mostly between “Is this a great year” vs. “Is this our BEST year”, you know you’re in for something special.

In researching this topic I contacted around 30 x wineries across the state so I could get a good cross-section of opinions. I took the liberty of paraphrasing these conversations for brevity, but kept the comments in their entirety whenever possible.

Northern Virginia:

  • Doug Fabbioli/Fabbioli Cellars: A bit cold over the winter. There was some winter kill on sensitive varietals. A bit wet in the spring. It wasn’t until late spring that we felt our wet pattern from last year had shifted. Lots of heat. The acids seemed good at harvest but seemed to crumble a bit in the fermenter. The wines are solid but some will need an acid addition. I think each vintage is a little different. Our job as winemakers is to absorb those variables and finish our wines in a way that we have some consistency. We will be up to the task.
  • Jordan Harris/Tarara Winery: Easily the most balanced and “perfect” vintage I have seen since I arrived in 2007. Very efficient ripening with limited disease pressures.  Fruit set was decent as it was fairly dry by then, shoot growth was slow but steady being fairly dry and berry weights were small. The result was balanced vines and balanced grapes of great concentration and heavy skin to juice ratios for the reds
  • Katie DeSouza Henley/Casanel Vineyard: Every vital phase necessary for what we consider a successful growing season (i.e., bud break, bloom, veraison, etc.) left us happier than most of the milestones in previous vintages. We are at or above benchmarks that we have set in previous historical vintages.
  • Mark Malick/Maggie Malick Wine Caves: Spectacular year – almost no rot. Chemistry was great, compares well to 2010 and 2017. 2018 rains threw off the vineyard a bit. Bud break normal. 1-2 week earlier than normal harvest.
  • Roxanne Moosher/Winery 32: This was our best harvest yet. We had minimal disease and insect pressure. Our fruit had excellent brix and pH. Flavor, color and aroma are outstanding. 

Central Virginia:

  • Ben Jordan/Early Mountain: 2019 was an excellent vintage with balanced whites and reds with ripe intensity and richness.  Moderately early bud break.  While this notably early start to the vintage was psychologically challenging, the fruit was well-balanced. It is understandable to compare 2019 to 2017, however yields were more typical and balanced in 2019, compared to high yielding 2017. 
  • Luca Paschina/Barboursville: Considering “Outstanding” as my highest score, 2019 was “Excellent-Outstanding”. By comparison, 2010 was as Excellent (hot dry season) and 2017 Excellent-Outstanding (a bit cooler than 2010 and with more mid-summer rains). I am indeed among those which would have preferred a slightly cooler season as we had in 1997-2007 2009.
  • Rachael Stinson Vrooman/Stinson Vineyard: We will see some beautiful wines come out of 2019. It was a challenging vintage in the vineyard, but the fruit was clean and super concentrated. We had quite a bit of downy mildew and drought stress in the vineyard – which sounds antithetical, but early morning dew was just enough to keep disease pressure on the leaves. Canopies started to brown and drop their leaves by early September, forcing an early harvest for most varietals. Luckily, sugar levels were high from the raisining and flavors were ripe and generous.
  • Jake Busching/Jake Busching Wines: 2019 was a challenging year for the state from the late drought perspective. No frost, good ground water presence, and a ‘normal’ spring got the vineyards up and fruiting and then it went dry mid-summer.  I think the excessive heat was the real issue; if folks didn’t see it coming and curtail leaf pulling a bit I think they may have burned some fruit. For those of us tuned into maturity I think 2019 is the best vintage we’ve had since 2009. 

Shenandoah Valley:

  • Robert Muse/Muse Vineyard: It certainly was a large vintage. Whether it will rival ’10 and ’17 in terms of quality remains to be seen. Over time we’ll see what the effect, if any, was of an exceedingly hot September that produced accelerated sugar accumulations and therefore early harvests.
  • Krista Foster/North Mountain: Harvest was plentiful; well balanced. Best harvest in 10 years.
  • Lee Hartman/Bluestone: We were really pleased with everything that came in.  I think in the Shenandoah Valley we are able to find good balance in the fruit due to cooler temperatures, day and night, as well as having lower rainfall.  We might have harvested a little early, but not as early as I would have thought closer to veraison.

Southern Virginia:

  • Virginia Hamlet/Hamlet Vineyard: I’ll just start with WOW! Hot dry July but enough water to keep things moving. No disease pressure – I mean NONE. Prettiest canopy we’ve ever had. Has anyone checked the charts of the stars because those babies aligned this year!
  • Sandy McPherson/Hunting Creek Vineyard: Our growers had a banner year! I can only hope these wines will come close to the 2010 vintage. I think 2019 in general is similar but slightly better for us in Southern VA than 2017 in terms of difficult varieties like Viognier doing very well.
  • Justin Rose/Rosemont Vineyard: We had a very wet June (the most rain we have seen in one singular month ever since we started tracking in 2005). Luckily August and September were very dry and the reds were able to concentrate and we had lower sugar levels than normal. The white wines and reds have a little less acid then I would like but not a huge deal. Therefore with the weaker acid profiles and the larger berries this year may not rank the best ever but it was very, very good.
  • Robert Schenkel/Altilo Vineyard: There was plenty of rain here during spring and early summer.  The dry weather later was perfect for us even though the heat lowered acid and raised PH.  Yields may have been less than 2017 but the quality was far superior.  2019 should be a very good vintage for Virginia wine.

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