Climate change pushes Virginia wine makers to experiment with heartier grapes

October is Virginia wine month, but the harvest this year has been a challenge in part due to climate change.

In response, Virginia’s Wine Board has asked vintners Emily Pelton from Veritas Winery, and Ben Jordan from Lightwell Survey and Midland Construction, to research hardier grapes to grow in the future that can withstand an increasingly wet and hot growing season.

The sensitive grapes have had a harder time weathering the intense sways the D.C. region has seen in temperature, the severity of storms, and even the wind over the last few years.

Jordan joined Friday’s edition of the DMV Download podcast to discuss what the future of winemaking looks like in the commonwealth.

Along with other colleagues who’ve supported the project, Jordan and Pilton are working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to breed grapes, which is combining two traditional grapes, not making a new type of grape, Jordan said.

“What we’re working on — and it’s a long-term thing with the breeding — it can take 10 years or more to have a great variety come out the other end, but the goal for this particular project is grapevines that ripen well in Virginia,” Jordan said.

“So with our weather, (they’ll) ripen in September, make good wine, make wines that are competitive with wines of the world, but also have disease resistance.”

Changes to conditions can affect the taste of a wine drastically: Even if just one variable, like the summer’s average temperature, is warmer or cooler than the year before, the taste of the vintage will reflect that.

“This work is being kind of concurrently done with other research, such as at Virginia Tech, where they have an experimental vineyard, which is just to look at varieties that exist already,” Jordan said.

“And instead of looking at, let’s say, Burgundy in France, which is quite different than our environmental conditions here, look at maybe the conditions in a place that is more like, the climate that we have.”

It is likely 10 years before wine lovers will be able to try the wines produced from these new grapes, but Jordan said that consumers of Virginia wine have grown accustomed to vintners trying new grapes, and experimenting with new blends.

“As opposed to, if we were doing this in Burgundy or doing this in Napa, it would be a big shock to the system to all of a sudden bring a brand new grape variety that needed to be treated differently in some ways. We’re really well set up to embrace these new varieties,” he said.

Megan Cloherty

WTOP Investigative Reporter Megan Cloherty primarily covers breaking news, crime and courts.

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