It is good. It is very, very good. It is in fact, one of the very best.
But that is about as far as some Central Virginia winemakers will go in describing this year’s harvest. Now that the grapes have been picked and the fruit is fermenting, Stephen Barnard, the winemaker at Mountain & Vine Vineyards and Winery, formerly Delfosse, said, “Let’s see after it has been bottled,” before he will call it a banner year.
Matthieu Finot, winemaker at King Family Vineyards in Crozet, compared 2023 to the 2009 vintage, which produced the best wine he said he has ever made. When asked by The Daily Progress if 2023 will top that. “I’ll tell you in one year,” he hedged.
“Likely one of the best,” said Jake Busching, a consultant to multiple wineries who also has his own line of wines. Asked for specifics as to why, he said, concisely, “No frost. Dry Summer. Not too hot. No hurricanes.”
He also cited the diurnal variation, which is the difference between daytime and nighttime temperature, as a contributing factor. Night temperatures were down into the 50s, unheard of in August. “We had good crop loads, about as good as it gets,” he said.
In the rolling hills east of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the Monticello American Viticultural Area, which includes the counties of Albemarle, Greene, Orange, Fluvanna and Nelson, has all the hallmarks of a good winegrowing region.
The climate is temperate, the elevation ranges from 500 to 1,100 feet, the soil is full of clay and sandy loam; these are ideal conditions for growing grapes. But it is also an area of inconsistent weather, marked by high humidity and, as a result, vintages like 2023 are not regular occurrences.
There was, in fact, some anxiety in June and early July, when rains fell with hand-wringing regularity. It likely brought back thoughts of the painful 2018 vintage, when Central Virginia received nearly 70 inches of rain. The annual average is about 42 inches. Some winemakers were unable to produce red wines at all that year. Bloated and swollen, the grapes literally fell apart.
Thankfully, 2023 was different. Starting in early August, the rain ceased. Drought-like conditions prevailed through mid-September. Moderate drought is not a bad thing: A vine that has to struggle produces smaller berries concentrating the juice.
In mid-October, Barnard was picking the last of the season’s grapes on his 17-acre vineyard, high up a steep hillside about 30 miles southwest of Charlottesville in Faber, an unincorporated community on the eastern edge of Nelson County. Two of his late-season reds, cabernet sauvignon and chambourcin, a French-American hybrid, were the last grapes on the vines. Mountain & Vine won this year’s Virginia Governor’s Cup with its 2021 Screaming Hawk Meritage, 30% of which was cabernet sauvignon.
Back at the winery, standing atop a vat of fermenting petit verdot, Barnard pushed the cap of deep purple-black grapes down, revealing a frothy mix of bubbling red liquid. It smelled heady and tastes of grape juice, albeit very fresh and lively. The must, as the fermenting mix of pulp, skins, seeds and stems is called, is still very sweet as the yeast is in the early stages of converting the sugar in the grapes into alcohol.
For Barnard, this vintage is his first at Mountain & Vine. He was the winemaker at Keswick Vineyards for 21 years. “There’s a lot to take in considering it’s the first harvest at a new property for me. Coming from a property that I spent many, many, many years at, it’s really to start at the beginning and to learn … not knowing the soil and the aspects and what the vineyard gives you,” Barnard said.
“Mother Nature was very kind. It is rare to have this kind of quality across the board,” he added. The biggest challenge was protecting the grapes from bear, deer and the odd racoon. Barnard estimated he lost between 30% to 40% of the crop this year to animal poaching. “If they can’t go over [a barrier] they go under. Where we are, we might as well be a zoo.”
But the quality of the fruit that survived is good. Barnard said he can be minimalistic this year. The chardonnay has “crackling acidity and wonderful citrus and stone-fruit character.” The late-season reds benefited most from the long growing season; they ripened but retained acidity due to plentiful sunshine and really cold evenings later in the season.
Barnard is most excited this year with his sauvignon blanc for whites and his malbec for reds. The first whites will be available in May or June, the reds around November 2024.
Several other winemakers mentioned the late-season reds as exceptional. It often rains in Virginia in the fall, many call it hurricane season. The dry weather meant those varieties had a longer hang time because they take longer to ripen. The higher skin-to-pulp ratio translates to higher tannin, more vibrant color, greater fruit concentration.
Busching cited three reds as standouts, most notably his merlot but also two late-season varietals, tannat and cabernet franc. Cabernet franc is also high on Finot’s list. He always looks forward to working with it. “If I had to get rid of everything and keep only one grape it would be cab franc.”
In the Shenandoah Valley AVA next door, which has a cooler climate and drier weather than Central Virginia, there was a spring frost. Tim Rausse, who like many in the Monticello region often purchases fruit from vineyards in the neighboring valley, said some early buds were affected, leading to crop loss and lower yields, but the weather was dry when it mattered most, in the fall when the grapes are reaching peak ripeness. “Lack of rainfall is what we pray for. It helps concentrate the fruit,” he said.
In vineyards where buds survived the early frost, the grapes are terrific this year, especially the reds. Cabernet franc is consistently high-quality, he said, but style runs the gamut. Chardonnay is also good, but perhaps the stellar varietal this season is petit manseng.
An ideal vintage in 2023 is not the only reason Charlottesville-area wineries are crowing. Wine Enthusiast Magazine just put the region at the top of its list of best wine countries in the world. The Monticello AVA has more than 40 wineries today, almost all of them open to the public for drop-in tastings, although reservations are recommended on busy weekends. The area has a robust tourism infrastructure as well as a rich history. While native son Thomas Jefferson’s vision of a wine country rivaling France failed in his age, two centuries later, the Virginia wine country is flourishing.
It is now a $6 billion industry.
A great year translates into better wine across the board but does not necessarily translate into bigger yields. The 2023 production totals have not yet been submitted by the wineries. For 2022, the Virginia Vineyards Association lists grape production in Central Virginia at close to 4,578 tons. More than 40% of the commonwealth’s total production comes from Central Virginia, with Jefferson’s own Albemarle County leading all other counties at about 22.3% of total production.
The first white wines from the 2023 harvest will be released next spring, the reds later in the fall. While restaurants, wine merchants and grocers will carry some Virginia wines, as always, the best place to find them is individual wineries.
Mountain & Vine’s award-winning 2021 Screaming Hawk Meritage will no longer be available at the winery after November. It will be replaced by the 2022 Meritage, which owner Mike Albers says is just as good.