Tuesday, October 2 was a beautiful, if somewhat warm, autumn day – the kind of day that we hope for in early October, when we are typically just starting to pick the black grapes. But this, the final day of picking in 2018, signaled the perplexing character of the vintage. The image of Dodon’s weather vanes pointing toward each other on an otherwise lovely morning is its lasting symbol.
The year started with brutally cold temperatures, as low as two degrees below zero (Fahrenheit) on the morning of January 7. While a few weeks of very cold temperatures has many benefits in the vineyard, we start to worry about bud viability when temperatures approach zero. In contrast, February was usually warm – speeding vine phenology - but March was cool – slowing the vines. Bud break occurred in the Chardonnay on April 15, about on-schedule, followed by freezing temperatures three days later.
The next variety to bud, the Cabernet Franc, waited until May, indicating that a late year would ensue. Yet this isn’t what happened. Bloom, which typically occurs 45-60 days after bud break, arrived just 24 days later. Suddenly, it was an early year, requiring adjustments to already modified schedules for canopy management and sprays. The vines were confused by the temperature extremes, as were their human partners. Dodon’s vineyard manager, Roberto Gomez, finally thawed from winter pruning, complained of vertigo.
And then it rained. And rained. And rained. The soil at Dodon is made up of about 50% solid matter – rocks, minerals, microbes, insects – and 50% pores, occupied by air and water. When the pores fill completely with water early in the season, the roots don’t have enough oxygen to develop normally. In response, the leaves produce more stomata (the structures responsible for evapotranspiration) than they would otherwise. The effect is to make the vines more susceptible to drought.
So of course, drought came in early July, and the vines became stressed. As we finished irrigating the south slope, it started raining again, this time lots of it. Our colleague Jim Law of Linden Vineyards described it as biblical in its proportions. We had more rain in September than in the previous five Septembers combined. And when it wasn’t raining, it was hot and very humid. Most people correctly associate excess moisture, whether from humidity or rain, with molds and mildews. But by drowning the roots late in the season, excess rain causes the vines to focus on survival by growing roots and foliage, diverting energy from ripening.
Our usual response to excess rain is to let the canopy grow higher, increasing evapotranspiration, and let the grass grow to create competition with the vines. But this year the amount of rainfall overwhelmed these measures. The canopy developed downy mildew, and the grass grew so quickly that we couldn’t keep it out of the fruit zone. The fruit ripened unevenly, with the ripest fruit falling prey to botrytis and other late season bunch rots. We sorted heavily while picking, leaving about half of the black fruit on the vineyard floor.
To say that the vintage was, and remains, puzzling is an understatement. We never quite knew what to expect. The vines remained confused all year, with growing shoot tips appearing around the vineyard throughout September. This atypical behavior also occurred in other plants, particularly crab apples and magnolias that could be seen blooming throughout southern Maryland this fall.
Decisions about picking were particularly uncertain. In mid-August, I told the team that I didn’t think we would begin picking for at least two weeks. Four days later, we picked the first of the Sauvignon Blanc followed by the Chardonnay, both from the east vineyard. We waited a week to pick the Sauvignon from the west vineyard.
We also picked the black fruit earlier, and thus less ripe, than in the past. In the cellar, we extracted less aggressively, leaving behind the unripe tannins that cause bitterness. With less structure, the wines will need less oak and more stirring to achieve their potential. As a result, the 2018 red wines promise to be more accessible early in their life, and less age-worthy, than is typical for Dodon wines.
Despite the challenges, or maybe because of them, I’m left feeling extraordinarily grateful for this vintage and the lessons that it brought. There were many bright spots. Our effort to create a balanced ecosystem seems to be working. The increasing diversity of insect life around the vineyard is stunning, and except for the occasional spot treatment, we didn’t use any insecticides this year. A mantid even joined us on the sorting table this year.
While there was a bit of mold in the Sauvignon clusters, the white wines turned out beautifully. I’m especially excited about the Chardonnay, which has the depth, range, and vitality that we seek from this classic variety.
The main lesson, though, is that the climate is changing rapidly. Over the last three years, old weather patterns have given way to prolonged periods of drought and rainfall. It has tested our farming and winemaking skills, the front of house team who rearranged plans daily, and even club members who had hoped to attend one of the seven rained-out Dodon ‘til Dusk gatherings. (Thank you for your patience.) These challenges will continue, especially in the mid-Atlantic where temperatures and rainfall are predicted to rise faster than in other parts of the world.
In response to these changes, we need to think critically about how we can adapt and become more resilient. It’s crazy to irrigate in a year of record setting rainfall, but that’s what we needed to do. Fortunately there are solutions, some that we are already working on. Soil with good structure allows excess water to pass through quickly to the aquafers below. Soil rich in organic matter holds on to some of the water until it is needed by the plants. In the pastures, we can create this healthy soil using a technique called MOB grazing; in the vineyard, we can create it using appropriate cover crops with deep roots and plenty of residual biomass.
As the year comes to an end, the 2018 vintage reminds me of Bach’s six suites for solo cello, performed wonderfully by Yo-Yo Ma. Each suite is based on a different French dance, and each is composed of six movements that span the range human emotion, none the same but all very beautiful. The same might be said of the variation that occurs between vintages, and in 2018, variation within the vintage. Like Bach’s cello suites, some vintages are deep and soulful, some sad and mournful, others light and lively, but all with their own exquisite charm. The lesson of this vintage is that we can succeed by dancing together as a community to nature’s varied tunes.