Saturday, July 10, 2010

Will hot, dry weather make 2010 a good year for Virginia wines?

While much of the East Coast has been wilting under excessive heat and no rain the past weeks, there's a silver lining for vineyard owners who have been smiling because dryness is good for grapes. Will 2010 be a good year for Virginia wines?

As temperatures hovered at 100 degrees in the central Shenandoah Valley this week, I contacted my friends Susan and John Kiers who own Ox-Eye Vineyard and Farm located in the rolling hills of western Augusta County. I was curious about the effect the weather was having on the crop.

Made up of 20 acres of fertile soil, the Kiers planted 12,500 vines in this picturesque area of Virginia in 1999, and have been providing wine grapes to Charlottesville's Blenheim Vineyards owned by Dave Matthews (yes, that Dave Matthews) and his family who bottle an award-winning Ox-Eye Chardonnay.

Ox-Eye Vineyard handles dry seasons differently than most Virginia vineyards because they do not depend on any irrigation -- ever. Irrigation trains the roots to stay near the surface which can be disastrous in drought conditions. Instead, they planted vines from a drought-tolerant root stock in deep soil which encouraged the roots to go very deep looking for moisture. Even in the driest of seasons, Ox-Eye's grape vines encounter very little stress.

Last winter's prolonged period of snow cover in the Valley was ideal. With snow on the ground from mid-December through mid-March, the moisture soaked in and provided excellent conditions going into the 2010 growing season.

The current dry conditions lessen maintenance in the vineyards by cutting down the chances for fungal disease, and can cause wonderfully condensed sugars and intense flavors in the grapes. That, in turn, should translate into a good wine.

But what about the intense sun on days with triple digit temperatures? To prevent sun-burned fruit clusters, some leaves are removed on the eastern (morning) side of the rows but most of the leaves are left on the western (evening) side. This allows the sunlight necessary for ripening from the soft, morning light but shades them from the intense heat of the mid to late afternoon sun which is when they are most susceptible to burning.

Being in the Valley at 1,800 feet in elevation, Ox-Eye Vineyard has a climate different than many other Virginia vineyards. Average rainfall is less, average temperatures are lower, there's a significantly greater diurnal shift (which is the difference between day and night temperatures, and is especially important during ripening), and a shorter growing season.

Because of these and other conditions, Ox-Eye can successfully ripen some varieties that other Virginia operations may shy away from, such as Pinot Noir and Reisling.

While they have been successfully selling their grapes to other vineyards the past 10 years, a new on-site winery will now allow the Kiers to bottle under the Ox-Eye Vineyard label. Hopefully, the dry weather of 2010 will do its part to help in their success.

Cross-posted at The Washington Examiner

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