Winegrowing with Climate Change

Winegrower Nate Walsh and family | Photo Credit: Walsh Family Wine

My wife and I operate a winegrowing venture in Northern Virginia, near where Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia meet.  We farm fifty acres on five distinct sites, planted along two mountain ranges pushing through Loudoun County.  From these sites we produce almost exclusively vineyard-designate wines. Our goal, equal to that of so many of our peers, is to grow wines that celebrate the uniqueness of an individual site, to sync up varietals and farming and winemaking in a way that is distinctive and exceptional.

We have had the joy of establishing our vineyards, creating a team, being part of a community, and, central to all of this, learning how to sculpt our winegrowing goal into a functioning (and hopefully thriving) business.  We have the added opportunity – and challenge – of growing wine in a relatively unproven and uncharted region.  For someone in my profession, that challenge is a wonderful, lifelong gift.

Above all else, my opinion is that vineyard lifespan is essential for our objective. My experience has taught me not to presume to understand a site on the first year, the second year, the fifth, tenth, maybe beyond.  If the goal is to produce something reflective of place, one needs an intimate connection with the land.  It often takes decades (arguably generations) of farming to coax out the nuance of place. Also, there is the nebulous but more often than not demonstratable belief that old vines really begin to get down to the heart of the thing.  Finally – and most pragmatically – simply based on the capital investment required to establish a site in our region, those vines have got to last quite a while before they really start to pay us back.  If blocks, or panels, or individual vines fail, the repercussions swell out into the future, over all of these considerations.  This is not new knowledge.  A concern for the life of the land is central to what we are doing.

I have worked in wine production and vineyard management since 2004.  The goal of establishing and maintaining a vineyard that will last decades was not how I was trained.  For years it didn’t even occur to me, to be honest.  Vineyards were planted, wine was made and sold – whatever occurred ten years beyond was not really my concern.

Vine after pruning | Photo Credit: Walsh Family Wine

I was taught to prune, for example, always imagining what the vine will do next year – where the clusters will be, the position of spurs and shoots, the bud spacing, et cetera – but I was not looking three years into the future, or five, or ten.  Anyone who prunes the same vine over multiple years perceives, however, that cuts made this winter will dictate vine architecture long into the future.  A mis-cut one year will lead to larger cuts the next – trunks being shortened, or cordons halved – which create risky wounds.  In our neck of the woods, these wounds start the vine on a short hike toward trunk disease, which leads, a few vintages into the future, to vine decline and, ultimately, death.  Dead vines aren’t doing anyone any good.

Pruning is a small example of a larger shift in our vineyard management, all with the goal of healthy, longstanding vines.  We’ve shifted to a focus on more biotically active soils, an adjustment to our definition of “balance” with regard to yield and our yearly demands of each vine, an overhaul of pruning cuts and techniques, a focus on sourcing clean plant material, and on and on – we continue to make many small changes which will hopefully lead to longer lasting vines.  We are a few steps down this very long path, and many of our colleagues are much further down.

We didn’t invent this.  The more I have become interested in long-term vine health, the more I have learned how much of the winemaking world has been doing this for decades, how it has always been a part of traditional regions, and how important growers view it to wines of place and to logical business practice.  In a sense, why would anyone ever operate differently?  Why wouldn’t all of our decisions connected to nature and the environment be viewed with a large lens, from 1000 feet?  It goes without saying that they almost never are.

Bud break at Bethany Ridge | Photo Credit: Walsh Family Wine

Now, at the end of 2019 (arguably a bit late), Walsh Family Wine is reacting to climate change.  Knowledge of what to expect from a changing climate focuses us to take a more macro, sometimes borderline existential, perspective of our vineyards, particularly with regard to vine longevity, and to ask some solemn questions.  Can we expect our vines to survive the changing climate?  Will our wines improve or suffer?  What is the proper way to establish a new vineyard for the climate of the future?

We know what to expect as the climate changes. In Virginia as a whole, we are expecting an increase in overall temperature primarily spring through fall, with more rain, but rain that comes in more concentrated, violent spurts.  Winters will be milder, but more variable.  One has to take these changes piece by piece.

Heavy storms, for example, will not only make soil drainage even more paramount, but increase damage from hail, strong winds, and erosion, while also increasing vigor. We can mitigate these to an extent with adjustments to trellis structure and canopy management.  We can’t stop hail, for example, but we can delay leaf pulling, which helps somewhat (admittedly, often not very much), or we can expect to use hail netting, like we are seeing in regions like the Piedmont.  We can delay shoot thinning until the risk of strong winds has passed.  We can adjust our hedging protocol to accommodate higher vigor, or shrink the volume of permanent wood per vine, thus lowering carbohydrate sources.  We can’t solve these issues, but we can be prepared.

Harvest 2019 at Walsh Family Wine | Photo Credit: Walsh Family Wine

Warmer weather in the spring, summer, and fall in Virginia is not a negative per se, but it brings to question varietal appropriateness.  Are we growing the correct varietals today for the vineyards we want to have in 2050?  If not, what are we waiting for?  When should we plant them, knowing as we do how long it takes to parse the subtlety of site?

The industry in Virginia is at an interesting intersection of vinifera and hybrid – the state as a whole grows about 80% vinifera and 20% hybrid/American. Walsh Family Wine was initially planted exclusively to vinifera, as we felt it was better suited for our goals in winemaking.  With the changes to the climate, I’m no longer as certain, or at least I’m less certain of some of our current mainstay varietals.  Our early-ripening grapes, such as Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, will see their ripening windows pushed into the hotter portions of summer, not only increasing risks of bunch rots, but also sapping them of acidity and finesse – two characteristics we feel are crucial to our wines.  Similarly, in a region with potassium rich soils, pushing ripening into the hotter summer will raise overall pHs, something we struggle with already.

Ultimately, we need varieties that are more protected to bunch rots, that won’t have as much difficultly with projected swings in winter temperature, and that ripen late, so that we can avoid ripening during the hot summer months, keeping sugar levels in sync with physiological ripeness.  As always, our bread and butter in Virginia is thick berries hanging from loose clusters.  We need those to begin with.

Twin Notch Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc | Photo Credit: Walsh Family Wine

What we view as the next generation of plantings for our business are an opportunity. They are a clean slate upon which we can improve our farming practices, and plant for the future.  Despite the changes to climate, we are looking for varietals that are not only suited for the warmer weather and more violent rains, but that despite that can be approached with less passes on a tractor, less chemical input, and still speak to a site and region.

We’re opening up our options in a number of ways.  We’re interested in “lesser known” vinifera (we’re eyeing Eastern Europe) and hybrids (the U.S. Northeast), as well as new crosses coming out of breeders like Cornell and Vivai Cooperativi Rauscendo, who are pushing forward the idea that the best varietals may not even exist yet.  Certainly, we can’t presume, in a region with forty years of modern growing, to have synched up varietals to our sites.  Nor can we presume that we’ve even ever heard of them.

We are by no means alone.  Like most of agriculture, the world of winegrowing is very aware of the shift in climate, reflected in the growth of plantings in England, in experiments with new varieties in traditional regions like Bordeaux, and in adjustments to altitudes and latitudes considered “plantable” in places like Chile and Argentina, for example.  Anybody, regardless of region, who expects to have a thriving winegrowing business thirty years from now needs to be planning for these changes.  Farming for quality is immensely nuanced and delicate, and that’s when you exclude these altering variables.

In the vineyard | Photo Credit: Walsh Family Wine

Anything we put into the ground from this point forward will be something we believe can be achieved organically with continued improvements to our farming and spray material, and with the new climate in mind.  That’s a tall order for the humid Commonwealth; I am well aware that one should read that with justifiable skepticism.  This as an opportunity, though, to get it moreright than we have in the past.  We are currently mapping out blocks at our primary site – Bethany Ridge – for mixed experimental plantings, almost entirely hybrids.  All of our new plantings will be dedicated to this.  For a grower and a winemaker, it is very exciting.

The market is changing in a way that opens up options to varietals without name recognition, at least for wineries of our size.  This is great for the expansive world of the vine and also for growers, an opportunity to move away from traditional market trends toward what has always led the marathons – varietals matched for site and for expression of place, wines that, because of that nebulous mixture of site and variety and farmer and winemaker, cannot be duplicated.  Wines with this approach are often richer in meaning, more full of pleasure.

And don’t get me wrong: I am aware that these wines in my head, that I wish to grow from our sites, will probably never come out of the cellar while I am around. I am aware of the singularly focused farming and winemaking required, vintage after vintage, to push the wines in the best direction (and that’s assuming the vineyards are actually exciting in the first place).  Optimistically, though, maybe it’s my replacement who bottles the first Walsh wine that stops someone in their tracks, that speaks to more than just potential, that gets down a bit in the ether.  That person will inherit something from me regardless.  I’d rather leave behind a project of pure potential. That’s certainly better than leaving a bit of a mess.