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2011 October | Project Sunlight - A Winemaker's Education

Archive for October, 2011

A night in the Vineyard — with Snow

Before explaing why we found outselves in the vineyard late last night with the snow coming down, let me give you a little background, which hopefully will assure you that we are not crazy.  Not completely, anyhow.

Planting a Cab Franc vine
Planting the vines under sunny skies. Now it’s time to protect them from Mother Nature.

In my last post, I talked about the importance of weather in vineyard management.  Obviously weather is a factor in all things agricultural – there’s not a farmer in the world who doesn’t keep at least one eye on the sky throughout the growing season – but it raises very specific and difficult issues when it comes to viticulture.  Vines, after all, aren’t annual crops.  It takes three or more years to bring vines to the point where a crop can be harvested, and they can be be expected to bear fruit for decades after that, which means they must be nurtured through hot, humid summers and cold winters.

 I also talked about the importance of site selection in my last post, and it turns out that many of the issues in selecting a vineyard property boil down to coping with weather.

 For example, a late frost can cost you an entire growing season.  No grapes, no wine, and (if this is your business), no money – although you’ll still have to undergo the expense of caring for the vines throughout the growing season  And a serious winter freeze – one in which temperatures drop well below zero – can cost you the entire vineyard.  That’s why wine-grape growers in Virginia look for property with an appropriate elevation.  In much of the area east of the Blue Ridge Mountains, elevations above 800 feet are highly desirable, since they bring you into a sweet spot of a thermocline where warmer air is trapped.  Optimal elevations, those within a thermal belt or thermocline, vary by region. In our area (the Monticello AVA), I believe that elevations of 800 to 1500 feet above sea level (ASL) are optimal.  Any higher or lower and you risk problems from frosts and freezes. Continue Reading–>

October 29, 2011 | By | Reply More

Finding the Perfect Spot to Plant Vines

It’s hard to imagine anything more important to the establishment of a great vineyard than the selection of the right piece of land, yet hardly any step gets less attention from home vintners.  That’s because most of us use the land we already have.  And even those of us who search for a property with a vineyard in mind sometimes give less than full attention to the site’s suitability for growing wine grapes.

Slopes are good for vineyards, but this is almost too much. Try getting your tractor across it without tipping.

 I can attest to that.  Before buying our Nelson County home, we looked at something on the order of 45 properties.  Initially we set our parameters at five acres or more, preferably 10.  We excluded properties that were wooded (“private” in real-estate speak), and those that were at too low an elevation to provide safety from winter freezes.  We wanted slope, we wanted an eastern aspect, we wanted land that was so infertile that a farmer would turn his nose up at it.  (Bad soil is ideal for wine grape production, but that’s a story for another post.)

 And in the end, we bought a property that was only three acres, with a western aspect and tall trees on the eastern border that would limit sunlight in the morning.  So what in the name of all that’s holy were we thinking?

Well, this is the home we plan to retire to in a few years, and we pretty much just fell in love with it.  It’s a great house with beautiful mountain views.  And it does have a few things going for it as a vineyard property:  slope (almost too much slope), really crappy soil, good drainage, and a small section at the western end that we believe will get sufficient sunlight for grape production. Continue Reading–>

October 28, 2011 | By | 1 Reply More

Bringing in the Grapes — Part V

Readers of ProjectSunlight have noted a recurring theme over the past month.  The weather, at least insofar as vineyard mangers in Virginia are concerned, really sucked this year.

Our classmates from PVCC's viticulture studies at work picking Cab Franc at DuCard

It may be small comfort to the Commonwealth’s vignerons, but the weather has generally sucked worldwide. Jancis Robinson, in her Financial Times column last weekend, detailed the carnage in California and Europe, and even in the Southern Hemisphere, where the growing season is reversed.

 “If Europe’s vintners have found 2011 much more trying than any other recent vintage, six months earlier, while picking their 2011s, the Australians experienced the vintage from hell,” she wrote.  “Harvest time in the supposedly sunny wine state of South Australia was sodden.  Winemakers have had to work extremely hard in some areas to fashion drinkable wine out of bloated, rotten grapes.”

And it goes beyond Australia.  “The vintage in New Zealand was bloated too, thanks to frenzied recent planting of vines there, fuelled by a belief that the world is in love with Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc,” she added.  “Argentine growers were also afflicted by rain at harvest time in 2011, as well as the usual hail, and unusually late frost in November last year.”

So, weather-related problems span the globe.  As I’ve noted before, that’s the way it is with agriculture.  You really have no control over the weather, although you can compensate to some extent – to a great extent in normal years, less so in years like 2011 – with a disciplined spraying program. 

And winemakers can exert some magic of their own once the grapes come in.  This year will be difficult for sure, and none of the winemakers I’ve spoken to have any illusions about the challenges ahead of them.  This vintage will definitely separate the men from the boys, so to speak, and show, as Ms. Robinson said, “who exactly are those master craftsmen.”

 

October 14, 2011 | By | 1 Reply More

Bringing in the Grapes – IV

The harvest is so full of unknowns.  You never know exactly when the grapes will ripen – when the pH, Brix, tannins, flavor, and so many other variables will all be perfect – and so vineyard managers study the vines each day as

Cab Franc, waiting to be picked

the growing season nears the end, squeezing juice from a random selection of grapes onto the refractometer, checking the seeds, examining the skins, measuring the pH, tasting the juice, and no doubt thinking, “Why me, God – why do You make me suffer each fall?”

But of course, that’s what makes viticulture the wonder that it is.  Each season is different.  So much work goes into growing the grapes and then so much judgment and so much hope goes into the decision about when to harvest.

Without a doubt, this has been the most difficult growing season in memory in Virginia.  It’s hard enough to fathom out the date when the grapes will achieve the perfect balance of sugar and acid, without the additional complication that comes from weather.  Consider this: If the grapes will be perfect on Wednesday, but it rains on Tuesday, then you probably would have been much better off picking on Monday, when they were a few days shy of perfection.

And here’s another twist: if it rains on Sunday and Monday, and the grapes swell from the

After a season of work and worry, the harvest is a joyous occasion.

precipitation, you might think it wise to wait until Thursday or Friday to give them a chance to recover.  If the sun comes out and stays out, you will think yourself a genius.  But if it rains again, you may curse your stupidity.

Rain causes so much trouble at harvest.  The grapes swell and split, bees attack, and the vineyard is ravaged by sour rot and botrytis.  Botrytis is a problem, but it can be dealt with in the winery.  Sour rot is different.  You can see it and smell it, a sour vinegary odor that is apparent in the juice that breaks out of the berries and covers your hands. It’s best to let those grapes fall to the ground.

Every year brings something new, and this year when we arrived at DuCard Vineyards to pick Cab Franc, it was unseasonably cold.  The thermometer read 47 degrees when we woke, and didn’t get above 50 until 8 a.m.  At that temperature, it would be hard to get the grapes to begin fermenting, so we waited until 10 a.m., after the morning had warmed up just a bit, to start picking.

And what a glorious day it turned into!

Here's the difference between a good harvest and a bad one -- how you pour the grapes into the crusher. 🙂

As Scott Elliff, owner of DuCard Vineyards said on a recent Saturday, this is what we’ve been working toward all year!  This is the harvest – this is the fun part! 

He was right.  It was like a celebration.  We (the Vineyard Goddess and me) spent that day at DuCard picking Cab Franc grapes with a dozen of our friends from viticultural classes at Piedmont Virginia Community College.  And while it was work, it was also joyous fun. Continue Reading–>

October 10, 2011 | By | Reply More
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