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Virginia wine | Project Sunlight - A Winemaker's Education - Part 2

Tag: Virginia wine

Bringing in the Grapes – Part I

It’s getting on toward the end of September, and the wine grape harvest is in full swing.  Most vineyards have harvested most of their white grapes, which ripen early, and are watching their reds very closely, with one eye on the grapes and the other on the weather.  Agriculture is an unpredictable

An unguarded moment picking grapes at Blenheim Vineyards — mostly I had my eyes on my work while using pruning shears to snip clusters of grapes.

business, and there are a lot of tough decisions to be made, especially in a growing season that has featured too much rain at the wrong times.  (Thank you, Irene.)  Sometimes it comes down to a compromise – do I pick the grapes now, when they’re not quite perfect, or wait and hope that weather doesn’t get in the way and cost me the entire harvest?  It’s an especially troublesome set of decisions now, in the midst of the 2011 harvest, for several reasons.

For one, the wet conditions are a breeding ground for disease, particularly Downy Mildew and Botrytis, and spraying isn’t always possible in these last weeks.  That’s a problem for this year, if you’re trying to avoid issues such as sour rot, and it’s a problem for next year as well.  Mizuho Nita, a grape pathologist at Virginia Tech, notes that while the berries (grapes) should be resistant to Downy Mildew, vineyard managers need to be concerned about the effect of disease on the canopy.

Vines need healthy leaf areas for accumulation of carbohydrate into the main trunk in order to survive the winter,” he said in a recent blog post.

In addition, the grapes swell with water after a rain, which dilutes the wine that would be made from them.  Brix levels (a measure of the sugar and potential alcohol) drop after a big rain, and the skins may crack, which is a cause of sour rot.  Moreover, the skins, which provide color and tannin to reds, may be too thin to do their job well.

“Mother Nature certainly isn’t doing us any favors with all of this rain and the never-ending dreary days,” says Sharon Roeder, winemaker at Barrel Oak Winery (BOW, for the dog-lovers among you – and who isn’t a dog lover!).

Despite the weather, Sharon says she’s still pleased with what she’s seeing from the harvest – at BOW, they’ve already brought in Seyval Blanc, Chardonnay, and Vidal Blanc – but the year will be challenging for winemakers, she says.

“The 2011 vintage won’t be a piece of cake, and the winemakers are definitely going to have to pay attention,” she adds.  “But those who put their experience to use and take advantage of the resources available to us certainly have an opportunity to craft some excellent wines this year.”

At DuCard Vineyards, where I’ve been learning about vineyard management through a series of hands-on classes, owner and winemaker Scott Elliff has a similar perspective.  He’s picked the Viognier, and is grateful to have those grapes in the barn.  Some vineyards, he noted, were delayed by rain, and by the time crews arrived to pick, the crop was lost.

Reds are a different story.  With Cab Franc and Petit Verdot, Scott is holding out.  “We are seeking to maximize ripeness and maturity and not ‘just’ get to acceptable Brix levels,” he said. 

We were pretty ruthless in deciding which grapes to keep, but it was worth it. They could not be more beautiful. Can't wait to go back to Blenheim next year and taste the wine.

However, “it’s a crapshoot,” he added Friday, especially after looking at the forecast that morning.  He wants to bring the grapes in when they’re as close to perfect as possible – and that means more than the right balance of sugar and acidity.

Julien Durantie, DuCard’s vineyard manager, said that even though the numbers were decent, the Cab Franc grapes still have green seeds.  The green color means the seeds aren’t fully mature, which imparts a bitterness to the wine. 

And of course, there’s so much more to the decision about when to harvest.  You can measure the Brix with a refractometer, measure the pH and look at the seeds.  But Brix is just a measure of sugar and potential alcohol, and you can add sugar to the fermenting wine to correct for low Brix.  A good winemaker also brings his or her experience to bear on the decision about when to harvest, and of course, they never really have full control. 

It’s harvest at its best, Julien says – “A wonderful nightmare.”

September 26, 2011 | By | 4 Replies 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

Studying Viticulture at Monticello

It’s hard to imagine a better venue for the study of viticulture than Monticello, the home of America’s first great connoisseur of wine, and so I counted myself fortunate that this weekend’s class on vineyard diseases was taught on the small mountain that was Jefferson’s home.

The vineyard at Monticello - just as Jefferson hoped it would be. Note the ancient trellising system.

I’m sure someone will question my description of Jefferson as the nation’s first great wine connoisseur, preferring another term in its place, but I think my words cover the subject better than any others.  Jefferson is sometimes called America’s first great viticulturist, and the notebooks he kept while touring the world’s great wine regions reflect an extraordinary knowledge of the subject.  Sadly, though, he was never successful in growing wine grapes at Monticello.  But he loved wine – that too comes across in his notebooks – and he devoted huge sums of money, as well as significant amounts of his time, toward procuring and enjoying wine (more on this subject in a future post), and so it seems most accurate to think of him as not just a lover of wine, but as the young nation’s foremost authority on the subject.  A connoisseur, and yes, much more than that.

Of course, Jefferson was an authority on many things, which is another reason why it seemed so special to be part of a class at Monticello.  There are few people today, indeed, few people in history, whose expertise ranged over so many subjects.  When you

Another view of the Monticello vineyard

consider how many hours that men of his age spent on the things we devote minutes or hours to – letters and travel, among them – it is nothing short of astonishing that Jefferson accomplished so much.

And for those of us (hopefully all of us) who care about the freedoms inscribed in the First Amendment, Jefferson is a name to be revered.  While Madison may be the author of the First Amendment, Jefferson’s influence was vital.  Free speech, free press, and the separation of church and state were central concerns for him.  The Cavalier Daily, the student newspaper of the University of Virginia, where I worked for two years while occasionally attending classes, cited Jefferson proudly and perhaps defiantly in its masthead: “For here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, not to tolerate any error, so long as reason is left free to combat it.”  I always thought that quote was the most elegant and eloquent summation of the argument for a free press that I have ever heard.

Back to the class.  It was taught by Gabriele Rausse, Monticello’s assistant director of gardens and grounds and the father of Virginia’s wine industry.  Gabriele arrived in the United States in 1976 from his native Italy, thinking he needed to learn a bit more English before returning to the wine country of Australia, one of several wine regions he apprenticed in.  At that time, the prevailing wisdom was that Vitis Vinifera, the great wine grapes of Europe, could not be grown in Virginia.  Gabriele decided to contest the prevailing wisdom, even though, as he told us on Saturday, everyone thought he was crazy. 

But of course, he was right.

Mammolo Toscanas at Monticello – and, yes, now you know where we got our Mammolos and why they are so important to us.

Today, Gabriele is the state’s best known vineyard consultant, and the wines he makes himself are elegant in the best traditions of Europe and, yes, Virginia.  More on Gabriele in a future post, but for now, let me just say, that if you are lucky enough to taste his wines at a Virginia wine show, you should buy some, as it may be the only chance you get.  His winery produces no more than 1,300 cases a year, so they are not only treasures, but they are rare.

Monticello and Gabriele.  Life doesn’t get much better.  I’ll post something in a few days about the class itself, but for now, I’ll just say that for those of us involved in the Virginia wine industry, even amateurs like me, the spirit of Jefferson will always be an inspiration. 

Coming up next weekend: the North American Wineblogger’s Conference in Charlottesville.  It says a lot about how far the Virginia wine industry has come that this conference is being held in Charlottesville, in the center of the Monticello AVA.  And one of the events I am looking forward to most is the wine tasting at Monticello.  It’s not like I’ve never been to a wine tasting, but the very idea of tasting wine at the home of Jefferson is humbling, to say the least.

I’m sure Jefferson will be watching over us, and wishing for just a sip of a true Virginia wine.

 

July 18, 2011 | By | 2 Replies More
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