The Year of the Sorting Table

December 21, 2011 | By | Reply More

Following up on my last blog, which concerned Cab Franc, Tim Mondavi, and the 2011 vintage in Virginia, among other things, I just read Emily Pelton’s article on the 2011 harvest in Grape Press, the publication of the Virginia Vineyards Association, and I am somewhat more hopeful about this vintage.

First, some introductions.  Emily Pelton is the winemaker extraordinaire at her family’s

Emily Pelton and "3" wine
Emily Pelton of Veritas Vineyards (showing off bottles of "3" wine)

vineyard in Nelson County, Veritas Vineyard and Winery.  And the Virginia Vineyards Association is the indispensable organization for anyone in the Commonwealth  interested in viticulture and winemaking.  The November issue of the Grape Press was one of the best I've read.  In fact, I think I read every word, from beginning to end, and it was all good.

In any event, I spent part of my last post lamenting the difficult weather conditions, particularly the abundant rain that created all kinds of problems in the vineyard.  One of the difficult decisions that winemakers and vineyard managers make as harvest approaches is how willinging they are to gamble on the weather.  If rain is in the forecast, do you hold out a little longer, hoping the grapes will achieve the perfect balance of sugar and acidity, or do you pick early, sacrificing a bit of brix for the certainty that you will at least have a harvest?

And in 2011, the decision was even more difficult, since for many vineyards, waiting wasn’t an option.  Because of the frequent rain this year, berries swelled and shrunk over and over, finally splitting, which brought on sour rot.  The rain also led to abundant disease, particularly Botrytis.  So, many vineyards found themselves picking earlier than they would have liked, sacrificing sugar to save the harvest.

Under-ripe grapes often exhibit green, vegetal flavors, a result of a compound known as methoxypyrazine, and I have worried in a number of recent blogs that this year’s difficult growing season could leave us with some very green reds.  In her report on the harvest, however, Emily provided a bit of hope that Virginia reds might turn out okay, particularly Cabernet Franc, which was the subject of my last post.

She wrote that a group of Central Virginia winemakers got together recently to taste 2011 Cab Francs, and talk about what worked and what didn’t in the winemaking.

“Two important observations came about,” she said.  First, “the best Cabernet Francs were truly vineyard driven, sourced from vineyards that just seemed to get less rain or ripened before other sites.”

That much was probably expected.  What she said next was not.

“The really interesting thing was that in our region we did not find a huge level of methoxypyrazines.  Given the 'numbers' one would expect more underripe, or green fruit characters in the finished wine. Not so in our tasting. The fruit was ripe, it just lacked the flavor intensity, colors and tannins we wanted due to the constant wet(ness).”

That last finding surprised me, and it is definitely a cause for optimism.  Cab Franc is probably Virginia’s most widely planted red grape, and it is an important not only for blending (think Bordeaux), but as a varietal.  That’s especially the case in Virginia.  And it’s especially important to me, since we’ve decided to plant a third of our small vineyard in Cab Franc.

We’ll see how the vintage turns out.  But as one who worked through a couple of vineyards this fall, I can tell you that the grapes were a mess.  And so, one last bit of wisdom from Emily rang especially true.

“I just want to clarify, and make sure everyone knows that 2011 was not the year of the winemaker, it was the year of the Sorting Table!”

Hear, hear!  Winemakers will do their best to work some magic in the cellar, but it was at the sorting table that sharp-eyed workers with quick hands made a real difference by separating out the good from the bad.

And while I'm not yet ready to make wine from fruit, I did work at the sorting table in a couple of vineyards.  I'm not mentioning any  names, but it's just possible that the next bottle of Virginia wine you drink will owe its drinkability to my work.  No guarantees here.  I'm just saying.


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Category: All Posts, Virginia Wineries, Wine

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