Winemaking Tips from Virginia Winemakers

Four centuries after it was first believed wine grapes would be an agricultural staple in Virginia, early prophecies are a reality. Virginia is quickly emerging as an up and coming wine region in America, with wines that have received national and international attention.

In 1619, Jamestown settlers saw the potential for winemaking in the colony. A law was signed that required every male to plant and tend to at least 10 grapevines and send the wine they produced back to England. The promise that was shown early, however, never evolved as crops succumbed to disease and pests. Years later, founding fathers George Washington and Thomas Jefferson tried their hands at planting vineyards in Virginia too, however a similar fate as the early settlers was bestowed on their efforts as well and neither was ever able to harvest enough to produce a single bottle of wine.

It is quite a different story today, as wineries continue to pop up across the commonwealth. From less than 50 commercial wineries 20 years ago, there are now around 200 in the commonwealth; making Virginia the fifth most popular state to make commercial wine in the US. We asked four winemakers from across the commonwealth about making wine in Virginia and everything that comes with it.

Virginia Winemakers

James Batterson, James River Cellars in Glen Allen, Virginia. James has been immersed in Virginia wine for over a decade, yet crafts most of his work behind the scenes. He currently develops over fifteen different styles of Virginia-grape wine, when his attention is not required by James River Grounds Management — for which he is one of the owners. James is a graduate of The College of William & Mary, where he met his future wife and winery manager, Mitzi.

Seth Chambers, Naked Mountain Winery in Markham, Virginia. Seth has been the Winemaker at Naked Mountain Winery since early 2011 and has been working in the Virginia wine industry since 2006. He graduated from Penn State University in 2007 with a bachelor’s degree in Organic Chemistry. In 2011, Seth earned his Enology Certificate from Washington State University.

Rick Hall, Chateau Morrisette in Floyd, Virginia. Rick joined the winery as a production worker in 2000 and became Winemaker in 2008. He believes that winemaking is best practiced as a passionate fusion of art and science. With a background in both areas, he draws from his experience in the culinary arts and strives to create wines that are at home with a variety of cuisines. He has degrees in Biological Science from Virginia Tech and Culinary Arts from Johnson and Wales University. The artist in Rick always strives to create new wines.

Jordan Harris, Tarara Winery in Leesburg, Virginia. After graduating from Niagara College in 2004, Jordan began working at Niagara College Teaching Winery in Ontario where he received numerous accolades. He has been named one of the “Top Up and Coming Winemakers” by Wine Access magazine, he was awarded first place in Canada and Third in the World in the Inter-Rhone Sommelier Challenge. Since joining Tarara Winery, Jordan has been responsible for 3 of the first 7 wines from Virginia to be awarded 90 points in Wine Enthusiast in March 2013. Two months later he was included in Wine Enthusiast’s “40 under 40 in the Wine Industry.”

What comes to mind when you hear “Virginia winemaking?”

James Batterson — When I hear Virginia winemaking,  I think of the uncertainty we face each year due to the weather and what new challenges we will face.  Winemaking is all about the grapes, and the biggest problem we face is weather.

Seth Chambers — Diamond in the rough.  There are some really spectacular wines being produced in the state.  And with each passing year, it seems as though people are starting to better understand the process start to finish. We’ve made our mistakes in the past, and because we’ve successfully learned from them, the resultant wines are becoming more polished with every passing year.

Rick Hall — Excitement! Virginia is a fabulously interesting place to make wine. The weather patterns vary from year to year, resulting in a new set of aromas, flavors and textures each harvest to compose our wines from. It is exciting to compare wines from various vintages and explore their differences. I find this far more engaging than with wines from regions with much more repeatable weather patterns.

Jordan Harris — Virginia winemaking is all about small-scale craft winemaking. We are still trying to find all the best styles suited to our individual regions while also producing some world-class wines from many varieties and sites. We are small but extremely passionate.

How would you describe the terroir of Virginia, and the microclimate of your vineyard?

James Batterson — The terroir of Virginia is so varied I don’t think that you can describe one region and have it reflect the nuances of the soil, climate, and drainage of such a large area. Grapes are grown at high altitude in the Blue Ridge Mountains all the way down to the Eastern Shore. The microclimate of our vineyard has some of the characteristics of both extremes. We have fertile, sandy, clay  soil  with good drainage and fairly flat terrain, yet still have enough elevation to reduce some of the humidity problems of the eastern half of the state.

Seth Chambers — The overall terroir of Virginia is warm and wet. As far as I know, there is no other grape growing region in the world dealing with as much heat, rain, and humidity as we are.  This makes for some interesting vintages here in Virginia. Arguably not as consistent as Napa Valley, but on the good years, the wines can stand up to any international standard.

Rick Hall — I’d describe Virginia terroir as variable. Terroir is the sum of the effects of weather and soil on the varietal expression and character of the grapes grown in a specific place. Since our weather in Virginia is variable from year to year, and with the myriad of soil
types here, the terroir can be different each year in any given vineyard, making the exploration of these differences endlessly fascinating.

Jordan Harris — The terroir of Virginia is incredibly varied from mountain sites to humid, ocean-influenced clay to granite to limestone. It is impossible to define Virginia terroir as one. The only two general consistencies are that heat and humidity are fairly high. Our Nevaeh Vineyard (Estate) tends to be a bit more moderated temperature-wise from the Potomac River, is drier being in a mini rain shadow from the Catoctins, is quite windy from the Potomac Valley and has varied soils from Limestone to more sandy soils in some lower areas closer to the river. The wines tend to preserve acidity, get longer hang-times for riper characters and show some underlying minerality in particular blocks.

What varietals grow best in Virginia? What are you currently growing?

James Batterson — I believe Norton grows best in the state, however I don’t believe that it makes the best wine in the state. I think the best varietals for wine in the state are Viognier, Petit Verdot, and Chardonel. We currently grow Chardonnay, Chardonel, Vidal Blanc, Gewürztraminer, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Touriga Nacional, and Chancellor.

Seth Chambers — The varietals that I’ve seen grow the best are the ones with loose clusters and thicker skins (mostly to be more resilient to the harsh, humid conditions); Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Petite Manseng, and Tannat, just to name a few.  We’ve had a lot of luck with Chardonnay growing as well.

Rick Hall — The vinifera varieties Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay, and Petit Manseng all grow well and tend to reliably produce excellent wines. Of the hybrid grapes, Chambourcin is noteworthy as well. Norton, an old native-type variety, also performs extremely well in Virginia. Finally, while often more challenging to grow, both Viognier and Petit Verdot can produce exceptional world-class wines in Virginia. Since we are located along the Blue Ridge Parkway, our own vineyard is at high elevation and is only suited to growing the cold-hardy Niagara grapes we use in two of our popular sweet table wines, but we contract with around a dozen other Virginia wine grape growers for the rest of our needs.

Jordan Harris — Depends on where in Virginia. The varieties I tend to find show the most consistency across the board would be Merlot, Viognier, Tannat and Petit Manseng — mid-season ripeners that can handle heat and lower diurnal temperature swings. Our site tends to do well with Merlot, Syrah and Viognier as my favorites.

Why did you choose to grow grapes and make wine in Virginia?

James Batterson — I chose to grow grapes and make wine in Virginia because I have a passion for winemaking and Virginia is my home.

Seth Chambers — The thing that appeals to me about the Virginia wine industry is that even with the amount of growth and potential for great wines, it’s not as saturated as some other well-established regions. There are plenty of opportunities, and plenty of people from all around the world making their home here. This offers a very unique atmosphere for up and coming wineries and winemakers.

Rick Hall — I love to make wine here in Virginia because we work with many vineyards each year, so I get to work with a broad palette of excellent wines each year. This gives me tremendous flexibility when it comes to blending up our various finished wines.

Jordan Harris — I have a crazy obsession with the Rhône Valley and Rhône varieties. My favorite wines are often Syrah and Viognier. I knew Viognier would be world class here, but Syrah is really the one to make me super happy. I also love the people I work for, which is really the most important thing.

What challenges come along with growing grapes in Virginia, and how do you overcome them (such as pests, fungus, extreme weather . . .)?

James Batterson — The challenges to growing grapes in Virginia include diseases, insect pests, animal predation, and extreme weather. We have tried to overcome them by staying on top of the spray schedule and trying to keep the birds and deer at bay. The tropical storms that roll through Virginia around harvest time have been our biggest challenge. We often have to pick a little early to beat a hurricane, knowing that fruit quality would deteriorate if we waited.

Seth Chambers — Hot and humid are the defining characteristics of growing grapes in Virginia. Fungal growth seems to excel with these conditions. I would say, combating the fungi, through IPM (integrated pest management) is the toughest issue. Only through responsible stewardship of the land and the plants can this be achieved. It isn’t something that can be fixed just by spraying chemicals. You need to take a more synergistic approach. Canopy management (leaf pulling, shooting, thinning and positioning, dropping diseased clusters) can make all the difference between an infestation and a tolerable amount of loss.

Rick Hall — Virginia vineyard challenges also stem from the variable weather patterns. While this makes for exciting vintage comparisons, there are sometimes late frosts, which can interfere with the flowering phase — potentially reducing crop yield. Also, there are sometimes rainy years when, especially during the fall, fungus issues can arise. In areas prone to frost, the method of pruning can be adjusted to leave a second set of buds. If there is a frost damaging the first set, these can be pruned away later and the second set can emerge. Fungus issues are improved with proper canopy management, enabling good airflow in the fruit zone and proper penetration of fungicides.

Jordan Harris — The only real issue I find here that others may not have elsewhere is the potential for hurricanes and tropical storms at harvest. I overcome it by drinking wine! Some will say
downy mildew, inconsistent weather patterns, frost, etc. That happens everywhere increasingly now, so I just call that winegrowing.

What differences are there in the way grapes are grown in Virginia from other regions?

James Batterson — Virginia has the ability to grow a wide variety of grapes. I think this is the main difference from some regions that seem to specialize in a handful of varieties.

Seth Chambers — Winegrapes require an enormous amount of TLC to coax them into a suitable ingredient for wine. Because here in Virginia, a great season can be lost through one tough week of weather, it is important to always stay on top of any issues. It always pays to be proactive and not reactive. We also deal with Mother Nature cutting our growing season short. If we get large rain storms in September and October, we don’t have the luxury of letting our grapes ripen to the desired level. You have to make seat of your pants decisions on predicting the weather and if the grapes can hold out longer to possibly become a more suitable winegrape.

Jordan Harris — I don’t know that it is all that easy to answer how it is different in Virginia. It is different anywhere in the world and everywhere has its positives and negatives. It is all about understanding your site, choosing the right varieties, and not trying to do too much. If you are trying too hard and finding yourself still stressed, you are growing the wrong varieties for your site. Same can be said for anywhere.

What kind of trellising and canopy management is appropriate in Virginia, and why?

James Batterson — The trellising and canopy management needs to be suited to the grapes being grown and their vigor as well as the labor available to the vineyard. We grow on Vertical Shoot Positioning and shoot thin to keep the canopy open for the sprays to be the most effective. It is also less labor intensive than some of the divided canopy systems that are set up for high yield and high vigor vines.

Seth Chambers — There is a lot of discussion on this issue.  I’m not sure anyone has it completely figured out.  With different sites and different varietals, there’s always going to be conflicting opinions. The most common trellising system is VSP (vertical shoot positioning). There are plenty of derivatives on this idea as well; such as Smart-Dyson and Ballerina. My personal philosophy on this is because we have more fertile soils than most established wine regions, we can plant at a higher density than is seen in other places.  Although, vines can’t be too close because airflow and sun exposure is paramount to combating the disease pressure from the frequent rainfall and high humidity.

Jordan Harris — I believe cane pruned VSP is the best way to go. Vigor can be battled with variety, clone and rootstock. It is also tempered in time and that is the only reason I think to go with bigger split canopies unless you are going for higher yield. I have no interest in that. We are mostly Double Guyot but are starting to look at a single cane system in some denser plantings. I think the cane pruned VSP is better for disease control, lowers phomopsis issues, regulates yield, and opens the fruit zone, which allows better airflow in humid environments and it allows better control of sun penetration. I also think low canes (24–30 inches/61–76 cm) are crucial to allow more canopy and ground radiation to moderate temperatures.

Is irrigation an issue?

James Batterson — We have found that irrigation is only an issue in the first year that the vines are planted. If you plant in a drought year, you will have to do some hand watering or you will lose a portion of your vines. Those that don’t die will gain very little momentum in growing and it will take longer to get them mature. A year like this would have been a great year to plant new vines.
Seth Chambers — Because of the consistent rainfall we get, the only time irrigation is really an issue is in the first few years of a vineyard’s life. Once the vines are established with root systems that reach deeper into the soil, a drought intense enough to really negatively affect the vineyard is rare. I personally think it is a wasted investment to irrigate vineyards in Virginia.

Rick Hall — Not usually, but in well-drained, sloped vineyards, some use of drip irrigation in the first few years can be helpful in getting the vines well established. More often than not, however, excess rain is the issue.

Jordan Harris — No. I have not turned ours on since being here. We get plenty of rain and the soil moisture is plenty high, even in drought-like years. The only time for water here, in my opinion, is new plantings in dry years to get fast growth on them.

Where do you see the future of winemaking in Virginia going?

James Batterson — The winemaking continues to improve thanks to all of the education and research being done at Virginia Tech. We also have more winemakers coming in to the state from all over the world bringing in their experience and different practices to share. I think the quality of wine in Virginia will become more consistent, and in the future people will be surprised if they don’t like a Virginia wine.

Seth Chambers — Only up. We haven’t hit any sort of plateau or ceiling yet. With every passing season, the growers are a little more experienced. The winemakers are a little more sure of what they want and how to approach the common problems. Establishing a grape region doesn’t happen overnight, but once everything starts to fall into place (which varieties to grow, what farming methods work best with those varietals, which winemaking styles best complement the natural flavors of the grapes, and lastly how to market it to your consumers), the results are quite stunning.

Rick Hall — Many wineries here are already creating world-class wines; Virginia is clearly destined to rival the world’s great winemaking regions. The current availability of wine grapes is
not keeping up with the ever increasing pace of demand as the potential quality
of Virginia wines becomes more well-known. To fully meet this rosy future Virginia will need to grow a lot more wine grapes.

Jordan Harris — I think it will become more focused. We will start to learn more about varieties that grow best in individual sites. I also think people will stop thinking “Virginia” and start thinking about the individual areas. They are not all the same so it is hard to put them together. I imagine where we are will simply be known as DC’s Wine Country (Loudoun County’s coined name) as opposed to being lumped as Virginia. We will start to mature and focus on more sustainable practices creating higher quality wine. I guess that is industry-wide though, not just a regional thing.