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Petit Verdot | Project Sunlight - A Winemaker's Education

Tag: Petit Verdot

You Never Forget Your First Crush

Scott Elliff of DuCard Vineyards once told me that harvest was a joyous time, the culmination of a year’s hard labor tending the vines.  And on September 21, after four years of planning, preparation, and hard work, we experienced that joy in our own vineyard, picking grapes from the vines we had planted with our own hands and nurtured like our own children.  If I’m at this ten years from now, I’m sure I’ll still find joy in the harvest, but I doubt that it will be anything like the euphoria I felt as we picked those first Cab Franc grapes this year.

Using a refractometer to check the Brix (sugar levels) the night before harvesting.

Using a refractometer to check the Brix (sugar levels) the night before harvesting.

To recap a bit, the Vineyard Goddess and I began this adventure some four years ago.  We took classes on viticulture and enology at Piedmont Virginia Community College, did lots of research on our own, debated which clones and which rootstocks to order, and finally planted our vineyard in the (very) early spring of 2012. Since then, we’ve invested a lot of sweat, a couple of tears and even a little blood (I snipped my finger with the pruning snips during the harvest) in bringing those vines to the point where they were ready to produce a crop of grapes worthy of picking.

And, oh my God – did those vines ever produce!

The Cab Franc and the Petit Verdot were absolutely magnificent:  nearly perfect fruit that proved irresistible to the bees that laid siege to those rows of vines.  The Merlot, for whatever reason, fell behind.  I had thought we’d pick the Merlot first among the reds, and by all rights we should have. But after accumulating sugar at a rapid pace, the Merlot vines just shut down.  We picked them October 5, and I’m hoping for the best.

Picking the Cab Franc. Started at first light, just finishing as the sun is starting to rise.

Picking the Cab Franc. Started at first light, just finishing as the sun is starting to rise.

The Viognier was disappointing.  Virginia-grown Viognier makes a wonderful wine, but it’s hard to grow.  For some reason it’s subject to something called primary bud abortion, and I guess our vines experienced that phenomenon, because the Viognier was the least fruitful of all our varieties.  The grapes looked lovely, but I had expected about 100 pounds or so, and we got about 20.  Other vineyards around the Commonwealth had the same experience, though on a totally different scale (the difference between tons and tens of pounds).

The last of our varietals is Petit Manseng, and those grapes looked beautiful when we harvested them two weekends ago.  We want to make a desert wine from them, and so we let them hang a bit longer than we might have.  We had hoped they would accumulate a little more sugar and lose a little more acid.  If we had known we were in for some pretty significant rain the week prior, we might have chosen differently, but weekend vintners like us have to make some tough decisions and then live with them. As it turned out, we didn’t get the extra sugar or the lower acidity. We’ll work with it.

But getting back to where I started, there are some things you never forget.  I can still remember the first crushes of my life – the first time I saw the Vineyard Goddess in the newsroom of our college newspaper, the first book I really fell in love with (thank you, James Joyce), the first time I saw my children, and the first time I saw Venice, walking out from the train station on a beautiful sunlight day to see the Grand Canal sparkling with life.  Some things you just never forget.

The Petit Verdot (and for that matter, the Cab Franc, could not have been any more perfect.

The Petit Verdot (and for that matter, the Cab Franc, could not have been any more perfect.

And so, I don’t want to get too sentimental about this, but when we had finished picking the Cab Franc on that beautiful September morning, the VG and I hugged and felt a sense of euphoria. All those years, all that sweat, and all that worry behind us; now we had the fruit of our labor in front of us, collected in a dozen five-gallon Home Depot buckets.  It was one of the most wonderful moments of my life.

A little detail: we had gotten up at first light that morning to pick, and we finished before the sun hit the vines.  The early morning, especially this time of the year, is cool, and you want the grapes to hit the crush pad (i.e., our driveway in Fairfax) cool. The crush, by the way, is the term applied to the harvest and the process of preparing the grapes for fermentation.

As we picked, we stored buckets in a refrigerator we had purchased just for this task.  With the shelves removed, we could fit six buckets, stacked on top of each other, separated by the shelves I had pulled out and repurposed.  As we brought more grapes up from the vineyard, we pulled the buckets from the frig and dumped them into a 120 quart cooler from Costco.  When it was filled, we pulled out smaller coolers.  The grapes were cool to the touch right up to the crush, and the must came in at around 60 degrees or lower.

As it turned out, picking the grapes was the easy part.  I had done a lot of research and reading, a lot of planning, and a lot of online shopping for the equipment and supplies we would need.  But for all that work, when it got down to actually making the wine, I found myself in the weeks before the harvest feeling a bit lost.

A refrigerator full of wine grapes -- this is about half the load of Cab Franc.  We dumped these into the cooler and refilled the frig.

A refrigerator full of wine grapes — this is about half the load of Cab Franc. We dumped these into the cooler and refilled the frig.

So, before we picked the first grapes, I started making a cheat sheet.  It went something like this:

First, add sulphur at a rate of 50 parts per million (.33 grams per gallon), which kills off unwanted natural yeasts and protects the must (the mix of juice, skins, seeds, and stems that will turn into wine) during those vulnerable hours before fermentation begins.  Next, check the brix, pH and TA (titratable acidity) of the must (add a dozen steps here). Rehydrate the yeast (add a half-dozen steps here).  And so on.  (Add dozens and dozens of individual steps.)  And for all that, I found myself furiously reading the instructions (again) on my lab test equipment to be sure I knew how to test the TA, and reading other literature on hydrating and preparing yeast.

When we arrived back in Fairfax, we started with the easy stuff: the sorting table.  We had purchased a folding table, which turned out to be the perfect place for the family and friends to gather around for some work and talk. Kind of like what I imagine a quilting bee was like a century or so ago. We pulled some chairs around the table, and the VG and I, plus daughter Kate and a couple of neighbors, sorted the grapes. That’s easy and straightforward, but it’s also very time consuming.

The fruit was amazing, so we didn’t throw away very much at all.  Mostly, we were looking for MOG – matter other than grapes.  We found the occasional spider web (with the spider, in most cases, which elicited a few screams), and some extra leaves and such. But the fruit that went into the crusher was just about perfect.

The crusher-destemmer was way more of a machine than we really needed.  It crushed the fruit faster than we could drop it in, and we were finished with that part of the process in maybe ten minutes.  Honestly, cleaning it took way longer than the actual crushing.  But I’m still glad I bought it.  More on that in another post.

In the end, the Cab Franc yielded some 20 gallons of must – juice, grape skins, seeds and some stems that fell through the destemmer.  As luck would have it, I had a 20 gallon bucket on hand to catch it all.  Again, we’re still on the easy part.

The cooler is getting full!

The cooler is getting full!

I weighed the sulphur (potassium metabisulphite), mixed it with distilled water and added it to the must. And then, I spent hours measuring the pH and TA and brix, deciding whether to adjust the sugar level or acidity (I decided not to), and preparing to pitch the yeast.  And in between, I cleaned out the crusher, the extra buckets, and everything else I used in the process.  Not to mention sanitizing everything that came into contact with the must.

I have always used potassium metabisulphite for sanitizing, but now, with my own grapes at stake, I worried a bit.  I had used sulphites at 50 ppm to protect the must, and the mix for the sanitizing solution was much stronger than 50ppm. So I decided to go with Star San, an acid-based sanitizer that requires no rinsing afterward.  Pretty much every bone in my body was calling for sulphur, but I resisted.

It was some day.  We were in the vineyard at about 7 a.m., and it was close to 10 before I pitched the yeast, which started the fermentation (Not right away mind you; no, the yeast played with me, waiting days before they actually began to ferment the must).

Much of the time spent that day involved nothing more than anxiety – wanting to get everything just right and worrying that I was getting everything just wrong – but another part of it was the actual physical labor involved. By the time the day was over, I was exhausted, and the memory of hugging the Vineyard Goddess at the end of the harvest was just that – a distant memory.

Well, I suppose in the end, it’s like dating the first girl you had a crush on – the hopes, the anxiety, the desire to get everything just right, the certainty that you have gotten everything totally wrong, and the physical exhaustion that comes from working so hard.

But I’m hoping this crush is like the time I laid eyes on the Vineyard Goddess for the first time.  If this crush is as perfect as that one, we’ll have a wine for the ages.

 

 

 

 

October 31, 2014 | By | 7 Replies More

Saving Our Grapes from Birds and Other Predators

Last year, as we approached harvest time, I was admiring our grapes one weekend day when I realized it was time to check the sugar levels.  Unfortunately, I had left my refractometer in Fairfax, which, well, wasn’t very helpful.  But not to worry.  I made a mental note to bring it with me to Afton the following weekend, when I was sure that the sugar in the grapes would be just about perfect.

I remembered the refractometer, but unfortunately, I could not find the grapes.  I searched the Petit Verdot rows, where I was sure I had seen small clusters hanging, and the Cab Franc rows, which I knew also had grapes hanging from the vines.  But there were none to be seen.

It was kind of like the time my car was stolen at the train station in Jersey.  I stared at the space where my car used to be wondering why it was no longer there, and then wandered around the parking lot as though I hoped it was magically somewhere else. Somewhere other than where I knew I had left it. Self-delusion is a terrible thing.

It was heartbreaking to see that the birds, bears or other predators had picked the vines clean.

It was heartbreaking to see that the birds, bears or other predators had picked the vines clean.

My car was gone, all those years ago, and last year, so were my grapes.   My first thought was birds.  Yeah, they love grapes, and they know when they’re ripe.  They descend upon the vineyard just at the time when the brix (a measure of the sugar level) is just right, and they steal everything in sight.

Of course, it could have been other predators.  It seems that all of nature has its eyes on grapevines as the harvest season grows near, and so the vineyard manager needs to be alert.  Raccoons love grapes, as do squirrels and bears and crows and turkeys.  As it happened, our neighbors told us about a bear they had spotted wandering through our property last year, right around the time we found a huge gash in our deer fence.  Jim Parkhurst of Virginia Tech told the summer technical meeting of the Virginia Vineyards Association that a bear will sit down in the vineyard, pull clusters of grapes off the vine, and then move down the row, sit again and pull off more clusters.

But, of course, it’s hard to know for sure which predator stole my grapes. Last year was a very difficult year because of the acorn shortage.  There are two types of acorns; those that come in every other year and those that come in annually.  In 2013, both types failed. So squirrels especially were desperate for a meal, and vineyards were like the free sample aisle at Costco.  I talked to vineyard managers who reported losing more than a third of their grapes to predators last year, which is extraordinary.

So, this year, we’re all taking precautions.

This is more or less what the netting will look like once it's dropped.  Here', I've just attached it to the first catch wire, and haven't yet rolled it up.

This is more or less what the netting will look like once it’s dropped. Here’, I’ve just attached it to the first catch wire on the Viognier vines, and haven’t yet rolled it up.

I spent the day Sunday (after a full day Saturday working with the Vineyard Goddess on canopy management) installing bird netting.  Bird netting places a barrier between the grapes and predators, and hopefully it will be enough to preserve this year’s crop.  I got about half-way through the vineyard, hanging the netting on my Viognier and Petit Verdot, and then rolling it up so that it will be out of the way until it’s needed.

I should point out that I would have also gotten the netting up on my Petit Manseng except that the Vineyard Goddess had found – I can’t even bring myself to say this – a bird nest in those rows, and asked me to wait a week or two.  I wanted to rip the nest out, but I couldn’t.  She’s the Vineyard Goddess, after all, and she outranks me when we’re working among with the vines.

As it turned out, I wouldn’t have gotten that far anyhow.  I ran out of clips before I was quite through the Merlot, and I ran out of energy before I got to the Cab Franc.  So, I ordered more clips today from Spec Trellising, and I’ll be praying next weekend that I don’t run out of netting.  The roll that they shipped is 1,650 feet long, which should give me a couple of feet to spare.  But who knows.

Here's what the netting looks like after it's rolled up, waiting until the grapes are ripe enough to attract predators.

Here’s what the netting looks like after it’s rolled up, waiting until the grapes are ripe enough to attract predators.

A couple of words of advice to the weekend vintner about installing bird netting.  First, don’t expect instructions.  Apparently the netting doesn’t come with any.  And don’t expect advice on how to install it – I didn’t get much.  Also, don’t think the Internet will be of any help.  I googled side-netting, bird-betting and every conceivable permutation of those terms for hours and got no help whatsoever.  I did find lots of helpful advice, videos included, on different kinds of netting, especially the stuff that hangs over the trellis, creating a ceiling of sorts that you can drive a tractor underneath.  But nothing for my side netting.

As it turned out, though, much to my surprise, bird netting isn’t all that hard to install.

Once I got the netting into the vineyard, and looked at the net clips, I was able to figure out (after one false start) how to do it.  The clips look like tiny boat anchors, with a hook at the top to hold it to a catch wire and one hook on each side at the bottom.  What I finally realized is that the back hook holds the netting on the catch wire permanently, and the front hook holds the rolled up netting (the storage position) until it’s ready for use.

The hooks that hold the netting to the catch wire.

The hooks that hold the netting to the catch wire.

I have lots of other questions, but I’ll figure it out as I go.  And I ordered one more piece of equipment –  small “C” hooks, which will hold the netting together at both the top and bottom to keep birds from finding a way in.  I also have a tagging gun which is supposed to be a good way to zip shut the net at the bottom, but truthfully, I couldn’t figure out how to make the gun work this weekend.

I’m feeling pretty good about the netting, though.  Unlike last year, I think most of my grapes will make it through to harvest.  And if they don’t, it will be for reasons other than birds and other predators.

And, this is my first real harvest.  As upsetting as it was to see my grapes stolen by predators last year, the fact is, it wasn’t that much of a loss.  We had dropped fruit during the year to give the two-year old vines a good start in life.  We wanted their energy to go toward developing a strong trunk and root system, not grapes.  So, for those of you wondering exactly how many grapes were stolen, the answer is something like a half-dozen or so clusters that we missed when dropping fruit.

Not the end of the world, thank God.  More like a cheap lesson for the future.

July 22, 2014 | By | 3 Replies More

Looking Back on the First Year

A spring-time view of the newly-planted vineyard

A spring-time view of the newly-planted vineyard

So, now that we’ve been through most of a full season, from preparing the ground and putting in the trellis, to planting and nurturing the vines all the way through the “harvest” (three clusters that grew despite our efforts to keep the vines free of fruit), I think it’s time to enjoy a glass of someone else’s wine, reminisce happily about how well everything turned out, and then get down to the serious business of evaluating what we did right and what we did wrong. On the plus side, I think we got a lot of things right. We spent more time than I care to remember researching and thinking through what varietals we would plant and more specifically, what clones would do best on our property – 740-feet above sea level, on a steep, westward facing slope in Afton. We settled on four grapes – Cab Franc, Petit Verdot, Viognier and Petit Manseng – and I’m very happy with the choices we made. We’re thinking of putting in some Merlot next spring, but I think the four we started with are great grapes for Virginia.

We decided to go with ENTAV clones, and worked through three different nurseries to get the vines we wanted. For the record, we ended up getting ENTAV 214 Cab Franc; ENTAV 573 Petit Manseng; ENTAV 400 Petit Verdot; and ENAV 642 Viognier. We put all of them on 101-14 rootstock.  Continue Reading–>

January 9, 2013 | By | 4 Replies More

Pruning and training first-year vines

 First-Year Vines Need Lots of Care

I’m still in the process of recovering from surgery and so unable to travel or tend a vineyard, but it turns out the vines are growing perfectly well without me.  Who knew?

Here’s what one of the Cab Franc vines looked like before it was pruned and tied. You can see the tendrils caught the training stake and are holding it straight.

Still, young vines still need lots of care.  In my absence, Chris, the Vineyard Goddess, and daughter Kate were on site in Afton last weekend to prune the vines, tie shoots to the training stakes and handle other assorted chores (mowing and spraying, among them), and once again they provided pictures and a full report from the front.

Tying the shoot to the training stake is an essential part of the vine’s development, and it turns out that there’s more than one approach to pruning and training first-year vines.  Tony Wolf’s Wine Grape Production Guide for Eastern North America, for example, suggests leaving two or three shoots on the young vine, so that you’ll have something left if deer or other predators find their way into the vineyard and begin chowing down, or if one or more shoots simply break.

Here’s the Cab Francs after pruning and tying.

Wes Hagen, Clos Pepe’s vineyard manager and a regular columnist for WineMaker magazine, suggests a different approach.  Choose the best of the shoots, tie it to the training stake and then – once you are certain that the shoot you’ve chosen is safely on the stake – prune away the remaining shoots and any swelling buds.  We went with this approach, and hopefully we’ll finish the season with strong and relatively straight trunks to support the vines in the years to come.

You can see the results in the photos.

I remain hopeful that in another week or so I’ll be able to see the new vines for myself, but for now, it’s nice to know that they’re independent enough to carry on without me.  And also nice to know that Kate is able to handle the mowing activities.  Believe me, handling a lawnmower on a 15-20 degree slope is no picnic, and I won’t be in a position to use the tractor for a number of months.  (Driving a tractor across the slopes is no picnic either; the pucker factor is always present!)

A Mammolo Toscano that we thought had been killed by frost is staging a comeback!

All of the nearby pictures were taken before she mowed, so the vineyard is looking a bit ragged in these shots.  The rows themselves are pretty clean (with the possible exception of the Mammolos), although in some pictures, the camera angle makes it look otherwise.

By the way, keeping the rows clean can be a challenge.  We decided not to use grow tubes to protect the vines, so spraying in the row with Roundup or another herbicide is more difficult and probably out of the question.  However, our vineyard is small enough that we’re hoping to keep the rows clean by hand.  (We’ll be getting out the hoe next visit —   and probably the kneepads too, since at some point we’ll undoubtedly be down at ground level pulling weeds by hand!)

A row of Cab Franc vines in the foreground, with the first row of Petit Verdot just behind it.

Here’s a couple of Viognier vines before they were pruned and tied

June 8, 2012 | By | Reply More

Spring in the Vineyard

Despite months of crazy weather, it's finally springtime in the vineyard.  And after all the hours of planning and research and all the work that went into getting the vineyard ready for planting vines – not to mention the planting itself – I was pretty bummed about not getting to see the early fruits of our labor this weekend.  My wife, Chris, ably assisted by daughter Kate, the vineyard volunteer worker, traveled to Afton without me this weekend to un-hill new vines, continue the work on the deer fence, and handle a dozen other tasks that demand attention in the spring.

So, this isn’t exactly an eyes-on report from the scene.  It’s more like something cobbled together by an editor hunkered down in a newsroom, piecing together a story out of dispatches sent in by reporters from the front lines.  I've been both a reporter and an editor in my life, and believe me, being a reporter is way more fun.  Editors sit behind desks in newsrooms waiting for reporters to tell them what’s going on.  When I was an editor, I generally got cranky while waiting.  Reporters get out of the office and see things happen.  Even in the day of Blackberries and instant communication, I'm sure they still keep editors at bay during the day by telling them there’s way too much going on to stop and talk.  And they’re usually right.

In this case, Chris and Kate filed their dispatches by text messages, emailed pictures, and a number of old-fashioned cell-phone calls, all of which provided some color on the early progress our vines are making.  I have to say, we’re just thrilled with the results.  Out of the 150 vines we planted this spring, only one appears to be clearly dead, according to the reports I've received, although another ten are doubtful.  But the rest look magnificent!  (Especially in the pictures.)

I’m particularly pleased with the progress of the first group of Cabernet Franc vines that we transplanted from our Fairfax vineyard two weeks ago.  They not only survived, but they’re flourishing.  And they have fruit!  Big clusters of berries that will turn into grapes very soon if we leave them on the vine.  Which, of course, we won’t.  Even if the vines hadn’t been through the shock of being dug up in Fairfax and replanted in Afton, they’re still only in their second year of life, and they needto devote all of their energy to developing a strong root system and trunk.  So we’ll be dropping the fruit soon.

We had planted seven Cab Franc vines in Fairfax a year ago, all for the purpose of getting additional hands-on experience working with vines.   This weekend, Chris dug up the last three and moved them, so the Fairfax “vineyard” is officially defunct, although it lives on in spirit in Nelson County.  We can’t be sure that all seven will make it, but we’re very hopeful.

In any event, I'm glad we tried this experiment, which was prompted by an article by WineMaker’s magazine’s Wes Hagen.  He recommended ordering extra vines and planting the excess closely together on some spare land.  That way, you have some surplus vines to replace the ones that inevitably will die.  And that’s one of the sad facts of viticulture.  No matter how good you are, no matter how carefully you plant, and no matter how great the nursery you buy from, you’re going to lose some plants.  So, even though some of the 50 Cab Franc vines that we planted this year will surely die, with the additional one-year old vines Fairfax we should end up ahead of the game.  Wish I had read the Wes Hagen advice before we ordered vines for planting this year.

Looking at the rest of the vinyeard, our whites are doing quite well.  We planted 25 each of Petit Manseng and Viognier on the weekend of March 31, and mounded hills of earth over them, covering the graft union with about two inches of soil to protect the dormant vines from the possibility of late frost.  We un-hilled them two weekends ago on May 6, and they have been doing quite well ever since.

Likewise, the reds are showing great promise.  Chris and Kate un-hilled the 100 Cab Franc and Petit Verdot vines that we planted over three days in early April.  Both grapes seem to do well in Virginia, and we are wildly optimistic about their potential.  Which, of course, puts us in the company of farmers everywhere who start each spring full of optimism, no matter how bad the previous year went.  And don’t get anyone started talking about the 2011 vintage.  Trust me, just don’t.

By the way, the un-hilling I did two weeks ago involved a lot of careful work with my hands, but it was positively crude compared to Chris’s method.  I pushed the dirt aside a little bit at a time, until the vine was completely uncovered.  Okay, maybe a spare bud or two got knocked off in the process.

Chris would have none of that.  She bought a makeup brush for the final removal of soil from the vines, and claims it worked like a charm.  I wasn’t there, so I’ll take her word for it.  It seems like a pretty time-consuming approach, so I’m pretty confident that I’ll do my part of the un-hilling next year sans the makeup brush.  Unless of course the vines she un-hilled do better than mine.  Let’s not even go there, okay?

And there’s still so much work to be done.  I think I’m recovering well enough from surgery that I’ll be able to be in Afton myself for the next trip.  Chris and Kate have gotten to be quite the dedicated and skilled vineyard workers, handling everything from driving posts into the ground to planting vines.  I’d sure like to be able to lend a hand.  Or at least be there to watch with great enthusiasm while they do the work

May 21, 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

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

In Search of a Few Good Vines

Now that we know what kinds of grapes we want to grow, it’s time to get down to the serious business of ordering vines and getting ready for spring planting.  (Actually, this whole process has been serious business, but since the selection of grape varieties mostly involved visiting wineries and tasting wine, this part of the effort is serious in a somewhat different way.)

We began with some research on what clones have done well in Virginia.  When you order vitis vinifera wines (which encompasses the European-style grapes most people are most familiar with, from Chardonnay to Cabernet Sauvignon), you’re making two decisions for each variety – the type of rootstock to use and the clone that will be grafted onto it.  At a minimum, it’s important that rootstocks be resistant to such pests as phylloxera, the root louse that all but destroyed European vineyards in the 19thcentury, and nematodes, but we’re also looking for roots that will inhibit excessive growth, withstand cold winters, and work well in our soil, which is clay and loam.  Long story short, we’ve pretty much decided to go with a root stock known as 101-14, the same root stock on the Cab Franc vines we’ve already planted in both the Fairfax and Nelson County vineyards.

Clones are more interesting, and they took a bit more time to figure out.  Keep in mind that grape vines reproduce asexually. Cuttings from a Cab Franc are used to produce more Cab Franc

Here's a Cab Franc vine in the Fairfax vineyard (with Phoenix the Vineyard Dog standing guard) The clone is FPS 4, grafted onto 101-14 rootstock. The picture was shot a few months after planting.

vines, and it is presumed that the clone will exhibit the same qualities and characteristics as the vine it was taken from.  But variations occur, and if a new vine exhibits differences that are deemed to be desirable, it may be characterized as a new clone and propagated more widely.  So there isn’t just a single Viognier or a lone Cab Franc.  There are a number of different Cab Francs, each classified as a separate clone, and each exhibiting different qualities, not just in the way they grow, but in the quality of the wine they produce.

So the choice of clones was very important to us. We relied  heavily on Tony Wolf’s indispensible  book,Wine Grape Production in Eastern North America, and came up with the following oddly-named clones (actually, all clones are oddly named; they sound a bit like the parts in an erector set) :  For Cab Franc: ENTAV 214, 327, or 623 (whichever one we can get); for Petit Manseng: ENTAV 573; Petit Verdot, ENTAV 400, and Viognier: ENTAV 642.  I mentioned Merlot in my last post, but we’ve pretty much decided that’s a clone too far for this year.

 You can see that the clones we are most interested in all have the word ENTAV in their name.  ENTAV (which stands for, Etablissement National Technique pour l’Amelioration de la Viticulture, or National Educational Association for Viticultural Improvement) are grapes of French origin, and sold in the United States through licensed nurseries.  (By contrast, the clones we purchased early this year, referenced in the caption above, are FPS, which stands for Foundation Plant Services, the UC-Davis department that produces, tests, maintains and distributes premium foundation-level virus & disease-tested plant materials for use by California nurseries.)  

We called one of the nurseries a few days ago, assuming that when we told them we planned to order a whopping 125 vines that they would fall all over themselves to help us, perhaps even offering to fly us out to California to get a look at the nursery.  (You know I’m kidding, right?  I would guess that their average order is measured in multiples of a thousand vines.)  Our actual assumption is that we’d be able to get someone on the phone who could talk to us for a couple of minutes and then take our order and credit card number.

The nursery was Sunridge, which seems to be one of the very best in California, and the woman who worked with us could not have been friendlier or more helpful.  Unfortunately, they didn’t have most of what we wanted.  It turns out that they didn’t develop most of what we wanted “on spec” this year.

“On spec” seems to mean roughly the same thing in the grape vine nursery business as it does in the housing industry, where developers either build to order for a buyer who puts money down in advance, or build on spec in the hopes that buyers will show up with cash in hand.  Whatever the case, they had the Viognier clones, but nothing else among our favorites.    

Okay, that was a surprise.  We had just assumed that everything on the web site would be immediately available and that all we had to do was call and ask for what we wanted.  Now we are wondering if we will have to settle for clones that aren’t exactly what we want or wait another year to get clones of our dreams.  Given that it takes a minimum of three years before the vines begin producing grapes, and a year or more after that before the wine is ready to drink, you only have so many chances in a single lifetime to get it right.  And in our case, we only have so much land to devote to this enterprise.  Putting off the planting for a year is not an option.

My wife, the Vineyard Goddess, sprang into action, and promptly identified a number of nurseries that distribute the varieties of grapes that we’re looking for.  Great news!  The bad news, however, was that only a handful sold the ENTAV clones we’re looking for.

We knew that there are only a limited number of ENTAV-approved nurseries in the United States, but we didn’t know how limited that number was.  It turns out that only four nurseries in the U.S. are licensed to sell ENTAV clones, and two of them appear to have merged.  Of the remaining two, one doesn’t have a web site, which is making it difficult to contact them, and the fourth has been a bit slow in getting back to us. 

We think there might be other options, including Mercier California.  According to the National Grape Registry, which is hosted by UC-Davis, Mercier has a presence in California.  However, Mercier’s web site is tout en francias, and we are wondering if their ENTAV vines are shipped from France.  Not that I care where they are shipped from.  However, I do care about shipping costs.   A friend who spent most of his life working vineyards in Bordeaux highly recommended Mercier, so we are hopeful that this is a viable option.

Okay, apparently purchasing vines isn’t as simple as logging into Amazon and selecting one-day shipping.  But most of the things in life that are worthwhile require some extra work.  And if anything warrants extra labor, it’s good wine.  We’ll keep at it until we get it right.  And with luck, we’ll be ordering those vines next week!

September 6, 2011 | By | Reply More

Getting Ready for the Spring Planting

We’ve learned a lot about viticulture (so much so that if we were in the army, the body of knowledge we’ve accumulated would fal­l under the heading of “knowing just enough to get us killed”), and so we’re feeling like we want to plant a larger vineyard this Spring.  “Larger” is a relative term, of course; given that we’re starting with a vineyard of seven vines, it would be hard to go smaller.  We’re thinking of something between 100 and 200 vines.

Our Nelson County vines are feeling lonely – hopefully this Spring we’ll give them some company.

Most people in the business, even most backyard vintners, would regard that as a small undertaking, but it’s large for us, especially since we won’t be living close to this vineyard for at least the next few years.  Everything we plant has to be maintained, and that includes spraying very soon (within 24 hours) after any rainfall that drops more than three-quarters of an inch of water onto the vines.  So, while the number of vines we’re considering is very small by most standards, it’s sizeable by the criteria most relevant to us.

However, it makes the question of what grapes to plant – and how many different types of grapes to plant – much  more complicated.

In a small vineyard like ours, it’s probably best to plant relatively few types of grapes, since it’s easier to process 50 gallons of one type of wine that 25 gallons each of two varieties.  Well, we’re going for fun, not efficiency, so we’re thinking of four or five, all in the Vitis vinifera family of European-style grapes.  There are others, such as Norton, a Virginia original, that are much easier to grow (less spraying, less worry all around), and many Virginia wineries say that Norton is their most popular grape.  But again, we intend for this to be a labor of love, so while we’re not going to disregard entirely issues of suitability, we’ve decided to grow varietals that we love.

First off, we want a white, and Viognier has been named Virginia’s signature grape by the Virginia Wine Board.  We wouldn’t agree that Viognier is the best grape, period, for Virginia, but among whites, we do think a Virginia Viognier is something quite special.  Chardonnay and other whites do well here, but I think Viognier grown in Virginia has the potential to be world class.  So, Viognier makes the cut – three (or maybe four) to go.

Next, we’d like to have some kind of desert wine, and after drinking a bottle of Petit Manseng from Veritas Vineyards over the weekend, we decided to add that one as well to the shopping list. Two down, now on to the reds.

We like Bordeaux-style blends, so we want to choose from among the great grapes of Bordeaux:  Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cab Franc and Petit Verdot. (I’m not counting Malbec, which I doubt will do well on our property.)  We’ve had all four from Virginia wineries, so we know they’re at least realistic options.

Almost everyone agrees that Cab Franc does well in Virginia, and we’ve had good Cab Francs from many wineries.  In addition, the dozen Cab Franc vines that we planted in our two separate “vineyards” seem to be doing quite well, despite the late planting.  So Cab Franc seems like an easy choice.  But the results we’ve observed from Cab Sauv and Merlot are a bit spottier.

We’ve had very good Merlots from King Family Vineyards, among other wineries, and we tasted a lovely Merlot at Barboursville Vineyards Saturday, full of fruit, and very drinkable.  I’ve also had a few Cabs from Virginia wineries that I’ve enjoyed, including one at Barboursville last weekend, but on the whole, I have to say that I haven’t loved Virginia Cabs as much as I would have liked.  It would be nice to have one of the two for Bordeaux blends, and while my heart is always with Cab Sauv, my head tells me that Merlot is the better choice for us.  This is a tough one.

That brings me to Petit Verdot.  Two years ago, I had never tasted Petit Verdot as a varietal, and I can recall being surprised the first time it was offered in a tasting room.  I remember enjoying it, but thinking of it as a bit of a novelty.  I had grown up believing that Petit Verdot was a blending grape that was used in small amounts to correct acidity in Bordeaux blends.

A few weeks ago, when we decided to give Petit Verdot serious consideration for our vineyard, we visited a couple of wineries that bottled this grape as a varietal.  Both were sold out, which we thought was a good indicator of what wine-drinkers think of Virginia Petit Verdot. 

 

Phoenix, the Vineyard Dog, inspecting BOW's tank room. Here he is walking away from a tank after discovering that it was empty.

Our major concerns at this point were all practical.  Petit Verdot is a late-ripening grape, at least as late as Cab Sauv, which we think might be hard to grow, and that concerned us.  On the way home from Nelson County Thursday, we stopped at Barrel Oak Winery (BOW), which is not only dog friendly (Phoenix the Vineyard Dog was traveling with us), but we thought it featured a Petit Verdot (PV for the rest of this post).  

Alas, BOW was also sold out of PV.  However, we lucked out.  Sharon Roeder, who owns BOW along with husband Brian, and serves as its winemaker, took us on a tour of the winery, and offered a barrel sample of the 2010 PV. 

It’s not so easy to tell how a wine will develop as it continues to age in the barrel, and then ages some more in the bottle. But I was just blown away by this Petit Verdot.  It’s a big, bold, exuberant wine that is just full of fruit.  I would have loved to have poured a bottle and taken it home.  However, this wine has a ways to go before it’s bottled sometime in the Spring of 2012.  Before bottle aging starts, it will have spent 15 months in oak.  Fortunately, BOWs 2009 PV will be released in a couple of months.  I expect to be first in line.

So, that tasting eliminated by doubts about growing Petit Verdot. Maybe it’s more difficult than other grapes, but the results are surely worth it.  And while I agree that Viognier is Virginia’s signature white grape, I’m wondering if Petit Verdot will join Cab Frank as the Commonwealth’s (by my reckoning) signature red.

So, we’re done to Viognier, Petit Manseng, Cab Frank, Petit Verdot, and maybe Merlot. Now the real challenges begin.  How much of the total vineyard to plant next Spring?  How many of each varietal?  And which nursery to buy the vines from?  Tough questions.  Probably best to ponder them over a glass of wine.  Maybe a Virginia Viognier.  

 

 

August 25, 2011 | By | 1 Reply More

A Trio of Virginia Wineries

I'm planning to add some reviews of the wineries I like, but that will take a bit more time than I have today.  So, for now, I'm just going to offer a list of three wineries in the Monticello AVA that I am particularly fond of.  And there is a theme here: these are the three wineries who came together to make a wine they named (appropriately enough) "3."

Each of the three contributed one of the varietals to the blend.    Pollak Vineyards provided the Petit Verdot, Veritas Vineyard and Winery supplied the Cab Franc, and King Family Vineyards contributed the Merlot grapes.  In theory, they planned to blend one third each of the grapes, but in practice, I think they realized that a blend required some judgment, and would likely end up being something other than one-third each.  When blending wines, as I learned from King Family winemaker Matthieu Finot, you spend a lot of time experimenting and tasting.  In this particular blend, I'm guessing that the Petit Verdot was very powerful, and they may have decided to use less of it and more of either of the other two grapes.

No matter.  The wine was fabulous, and since they only made 150 cases, it sold out quickly.  Each customer at Veritas was limited to three bottles at $33.33 each — yes, they carried the 3 theme pretty far — and I personally think this one will age quite well.  So my three bottles are stored in my EuroCave wine celler, waiting for that perfect moment in the near future when they will achieve perfection.

May 28, 2011 | By | Reply More
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