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Viticulture | Project Sunlight - A Winemaker's Education - Part 3

RSSCategory: Viticulture

Building the Trellis, Part I

Here's how the vineyard looked last weekend, March 17. The posts are in the ground, the rows have been ripped, and it's beginning to look like a real vineyard! You can see our neighbors, the Alpacas, on the hill, top left.

How we built the trellis

Well, I have to be honest, I didn’t exactly build it myself.  Much as I wanted to install the posts with my own hands, I ended up short on time with the planting season upon us.  We needed to get the vines in the ground, pronto.

I’d spent much of the winter, between viticulture classes, my job and all of the work that goes into maintaining two separate properties, thinking about how to handle the trellis.  There were moments when it seemed simple enough — eight foot posts put 24 to 30 inches into the ground, plus some kind of end-post system, which would be only slightly more complicated.  And then, there were times when I wondered if I was up to the job.

Here’s a shot of one of the rows, showing the ripped soil.

As part of the planning, I did some research on what kind of equipment I’d need to buy or rent.   A lot of the literature suggests that the best way to put posts into the ground is to pound them in, but the equipment involved would have made that impractical for me to do on my own.  The easiest way to get the posts in is to drill the holes with an auger.

So, I briefly considered the idea of a hand-held power auger, which was the least expensive approach, or an auger for my tractor.  I spent a lot of time visualizing the process, and considering whether it would be more cost-effective to do it myself or hire someone to do the work.  I was pretty confident I could get the line posts in without a problem, but I spent a lot more time worrying about the end posts, which are more complicated.  At some point, I began waking up at 4 a.m. to worry about how much work needed to be done and wonder if the vines we had ordered were destined to just, uh, rot on the vine?  No, bad metaphor.  Go to seed?  mmmm…. no, that doesn’t work either.  Wither and die?  Well, something like that.

Eventually, we passed the point where I could reasonably expect that it would be Continue Reading–>

March 22, 2012 | By | Reply More

Dormant Winter Pruning — and other Vineyard Considerations

After a long winter that sometimes seemed like it would never end, spring planting is just around the corner.  And despite all the time we had to prepare for the new season, we are now feeling not quite as ready as we’d like to be.

We’ve ordered 150 vines –50 Petit Verdot, 50 Cab Franc, 25 Viognier and 25 Petit Manseng – and lately I’ve been waking up in the middle of the night wondering if we’ll have everything in place in time to plant.  I’m still worried, but we’ve made enough progress lately, especially this weekend, that I’m feeling a bit better about the whole enterprise.

The Nelson County Vineyard - complete except for the trellising, vines and deer fence!

Our biggest concern is the trellis.  If you’ve followed our progress through this blog, you’ll note that I didn’t worry about that last Spring when we planted 14 vines, split between our Fairfax and Nelson county properties, but that was different on a couple of counts.  First, those vines were more for our education than for the eventual production of wine.  And we’ve learned a lot from taking care of those vines.  Wine in two years would be a bonus, but it wasn’t the goal when we planted them.  The second reason I didn’t obsess over the trellis is that I didn’t expect those vines to reach the height of the first wire in that initial year.  And since there are so few Continue Reading–>

February 29, 2012 | By | Reply More

Every Grape is Different — Notes from a Vineyard Conference

 The Virginia Vineyards Association brings together commercial grape growers, hobbyists and others with an interest in viticulture, and its efforts to promote cooperation and the exchange of information  is one of the reasons that the Commonwealth’s wine gets better every year.  I believe, and I think most of the growers who participated in the association’s technical meeting in Charlottesville last week would agree, that the reputation of Virginia wine is influenced by every bottle that’s sold.  If someone has a bad experience the first time they taste a Virginia wine, they may never try another.  So all of us have a vested interest in doing what we can to help each other make the best wine possible. 

Seven glasses ready for tasting. The bottle of “SanTasti” is a palate cleanser.

  Another reason for the success of the Virginia wine industry is the work that’s being done at Virginia Tech by folks like Tony Wolf, Bruce Zoecklein, and Mizuho Nita, all of whom played major roles at the meeting.  Tony Wolf’s book, Wine Grape Production Guide for Eastern North America, has become our bible as we move toward planting a small hobby vineyard, and Mizuho Nita’s blog is the indispensible guide to grape disease management.  

  However, this was my first encounter with Dr. Zoecklein, and I’m hopeful now that it won’t be my last.  Dr. Zoecklein has written the book (actually, at least four books and too many articles to count) on wine chemistry, and he manages to make the chemistry both accessible and practical for people like me.  And since this was a class on “Sensory Evaluation for Grape Growers,” he taught the class through the tastes and aromas of seven separate wines, which we tasted blind throughout the class. Continue Reading–>

February 5, 2012 | By | Reply More

Tim Mondavi and Cabernet Franc

 We’ve been pretty sure for a while now that Cabernet Franc was a good bet for our small vineyard.  It’s a wonderful grape for blending, often used to soften the harsh tannins in its close cousin, Cabernet Sauvignon, and it is lovely on its own as a varietal.  And we’ve tasted it at enough wineries in enough different parts of the state to believe that it’s well suited to the growing conditions found in Virginia.

A Cab Franc marker from another vineyard It is (usually) the dominant grape in Cheval Blanc, one of the great wines of Bordeaux. It is not a first growth, since Saint-Emilion was not included in the 1855 classification, but in the 1955 Saint-Emilion classification, it was one of two ones to be ranked as a "Premiers Grands Crus Classés A."  And, of course, the 1961 Cheval Blanc was the wine that Miles had hidden away for a special occasion in Sideways.  (He drank it from a paper cup at the end while at a McDonalds, since his love interest had told him that — and I'm paraphrasing from memory — any time you drink a Cheval Blanc, it's a special occasion.)

For those of you willing to spend upwards of $1,000 a bottle (and more) on a Cheval Blanc, I have no doubt you will feel the money well spent.  But if you do, then don’t hesitate to invite me to share it with you.  I’ve never tasted Cheval Blanc, but I’ve certainly lusted over the thought.

However, if you are among the 99 – make that the 99.9 – who can’t afford Cheval Blanc, you should think about a Virginia wine that is either entirely Cab Franc or included as the dominant grape in a blend.  Almost every winery in Virginia seems to have a Cab Franc in its tasting room, and many of them are splendid.

But while we’re sold on Cab Franc, it’s always nice to hear that others feel the same way.  In the Nov. 15 issue of The Wine Spectator, a lengthy article on Tim Mondavi includes a sidebar (The Francophile in Continuum,) that highlights this great winemaker's love for Cab Franc.

"The wines that had the highest percentage of Cabernet Franc were the wines I loved the most," says Tim. "When I would be looking at the wines in barrel, I found there was a higher perfume [in Franc] that was very different from Cabernet Sauvignon.  It also adds viscosity and suppleness you can't find with Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot."

Franc does need to be ripe, the Wine Spectator adds.  “Otherwise it can be herbal, stalky and coarse.”

That’s precisely the problem that some identify in Virgina reds – vegetal flavors, usually produced by a compound known as methoxypyrazine that comes from grapes that are not quite ripe.  The risk is especially pronounced in areas with short growing seasons or in years when rain or other conditions force an early harvest. Done right, Cab Franc can be wonderful, in Virginia wines as well as in Mondavi’s Continuum.

In another four years, after the vines have matured, the grapes have been picked and fermented, and the wine has been in the bottle for a suitable period of time, I’ll be able to tell you how well it worked out.

 

 

 

December 1, 2011 | By | 1 Reply More

Picking the clones: you work with what you have

  One of the toughest calls we've had to make concerns the types of grapes we’re going to grow.  I know what I like – well, to be honest, I like a lot of things when it comes to wine.  Almost everything actually.  But I especially love Bordeaux-style blends, wines made with some combination of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cab Franc, Petit Verdot and maybe some Malbec, as well as blends from the Southern Rhone (Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre, and perhaps a bit of Cinsault).  And I haven't even started on the single-grape varietals that I love, which are too numerous to mention (but I’ll give it a shot anyhow): each of the above-named Bordeaux and Rhone grapes on their own, plus Pinot Noir, Nebbiolo (especially Barolo), Sangiovese, Chardonnay, Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc, and – okay, okay, it’s time to stop.

You see the problem.  If the world were a perfect place, I’d just pick the grapes I love the most, and we’d have some wonderful blends and some lovely single-grape varietals.

But of course, the world isn’t perfect, and you have to work with what you have.  So, our first limitation is the fact that we have a small plot of land that forces us to narrow our selections down to three or four grapes.  That’s fine, though.  This is a hobby, not our vocation.  (Ah, but if only.  As I said, though, the world is not a perfect place.)

More important is the terroir, the mix of soil, climate, elevation, aspect and everything else that determines how a Merlot grown here, on my property, will be different from a Merlot grown on the right bank of the 

Gironde River or in Napa or even in the King Family Vineyard a few miles away in Crozet.  And it’s not just a question of why our Merlot will be different from Merlots grown elsewhere.  It’s also a question of whether Merlot can be grown successfully on our property at all.  We're not so sure about Merlot.

The fact is, Virginia isn’t the easiest place in the world to grow grapes.  Unlike the wine valleys in California or eastern Washington state, we are dealing with humid summer days and lots of rain, and we can’t count on the kinds of long sunny days that you get in, say, Sonoma County.  Our property is about 760 feet above sea level, below the thermocline that provide optimal temperatures for grapes and protection from late Spring frosts or early freezes.

So, where does that leave us?  I’ve sampled a lot of different Virginia wines in a lot of different Continue Reading–>

November 14, 2011 | By | Reply More

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

Bringing in the Grapes – Part III

I received a note today from Kirsty Harmon, winemaker and general manager at Blenheim Vineyards, and I thought I would draw from it to add a little bit to my last post.  Kirsty was kind enough to take time out from this most difficult harvest to talk with our class, even though we had barely harvested as much, between the entire group, as a single member of a field crew would have picked in, oh, maybe 15 minutes?  Remember, I did say in Part II

I'm sooooo tired. You think picking grapes is easy? Okay, then, you try it.

that we spent a lot of time staring at the vines, wanting to be sure that we didn’t add bad fruit to the lugs or leave good fruit on the ground.

 In any event, we were working on half a section of Viognier that day.  Kirsty had told us that they picked the first half a week earlier, due to advanced ripening at the top of the hill and indications that sour rot was starting to set in.  Since it was clear that rain was on the way, Blenheim picked the first section which had ripened early, and let the rest hang on in the hope that it would continue to gain sugar and flavor. 

The two types of rots that appeared on the grapes in the second section – Botrytis and sour rot – both make grapes mushy (both leak juice with a vinegary odor), and so by the time they would have made it back to the sorting table, they would have leaked all over he good fruit.

 “Field sorting is labor intensive, but worthwhile,” Kirsty said.  “I would say that many

We weren't very fast, but the fruit we added to the lugs sure looked good! Can't wait to taast the wine. 2011 Viognier.

wineries do take the time to do it though. Lots of wineries pick into bins rather than lugs, and not all wineries have the ability to sort when the fruit is picked into the half ton bins.”

 You can see from the pictures in my last post how small lugs are.  They are meant to bring grapes back to the crush pad or sorting table in good condition, without the weight of too many clusters at the top crushing those on the bottom.

Blenhein has almost completed its harvest.  It has a small amount of Cab Franc remaining to be picked at the vineyard, and a few varieties in the Shenandoah Valley vineyards that it sources grapes from.  You can bet that every winemaker and every vineyard manager will be glad to have all their fruit off the vine and into the fermentation tanks.  It’s been that kind of year.

“This vintage has been the most challenging one of my career in Virginia,” said Kirsty.  I think that almost every vineyard in the Commonwealth – and probably a good many in California as well – would agree.

September 30, 2011 | By | Reply More
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