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Virginia Wineries | Project Sunlight - A Winemaker's Education

Tag: Virginia Wineries

Five Vintages of Cab Franc at Gadino Cellars

 

   As I’ve said before, I believe that Cabernet Franc is Virginia’s signature red grape, even if Petit Verdot iscoming on strong.  It is more cold-hardy than Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon, and it ripens earlier.  That’s important in Virginia, which can be prone to early frost, Fall rains, and the occasional harsh winter.  And Cab Franc is a wonderful grape on its own.  It has softer tannins than Cab Sauv, and while it might not be quite as age-worthy, wines today are being made (and

Five Vintages of Cab Franc waiting to be poured, along with a mystery wine, hidden in brown bags for blind tasting

purchased) for early drinking, not for years in the cellar.  Cab Franc will age, of course, but it is also more accessible when young than the more tannic reds.  And Cab Franc can be used on its own or as a blend to make wines with great complexity, as the great St. Emilion blend, Cheval Blanc, demonstrates. 

 Cab Frank is particularly important to my wife, the Vineyard Goddess, and me, because it’s one of three grapes we will be planting this Spring, the other two being Petit Verdot and Viognier.  (We had hoped to plant Petit Manseng as well, but couldn’t find the certified vines we wanted.)

 So, I was thrilled to have the opportunity Saturday to participate in a vertical tasting of Cab Francs at Gadino Cellars in Washington, VA (Rappahannock County).  We tasted wines from 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, and 2009, plus a barrel sample of the 2011.  The Gadinos threw in a mystery wine, which we tasted blind.  More on the mystery wine later. Continue Reading–>

January 30, 2012 | By | 2 Replies More

The Year of the Sorting Table

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? Continue Reading–>

December 21, 2011 | 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

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 – 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

WBC11: A Conference for Wine Bloggers -Part II

When I signed up for the North American Wine Bloggers Conference, I had just assumed, without really giving it much thought, that it would be a conference mostly about the art and practice of blogging, made into a wine blogger conference by the shared interest of those attending.  In fact, it was mostly about wine, with a few sessions devoted to the practice of blogging.

Thank God for that.

What was I thinking?  Of course, it should be about the wine.  After all, I get a regular stream of solicitations at the office for conferences focused on the how-to of social media, so that market is apparently covered.  The wine blogger conference market, however, is another story, and WBC11 catered to it in so many ways, especially by providing am abundance of opportunities to taste wines – Virginia wine in particular, I’m happy to say – and hear from the men and women who grew the grapes and turned them into wine.  That’s something you just can’t get just anywhere else. Continue Reading–>

August 3, 2011 | By | 1 Reply More

WBC11 – A Conference for Wine Bloggers

I’ve been meaning for a week now to write something about the Wine Bloggers Conference (WBC11) that was held in Charlottesville July 22-24.  It was a well-planned, well-executed conference, but what I think was most important about it for the purpose of this blog is the way it showcased Virginia’s wine industry.  Some 325 bloggers from around the country attended, and they were all exposed in a variety of ways to Virginia wine.

While I was gathering my thoughts, I had occasion to read two really terrific posts from Frank Morgan on his blog, "Drink What You Like."  I started to respond to the post, and my piece turned out to be too long for a comment – probably too long for a blog post, for that matter – so I decided to submit a trimmed-back version to his blog and run the extended piece here.  If you haven’t yet seen Drink What You Like, trust me, it’s well worth a visit.

What’s great about these two posts (A View from the Punt, I and II) is the perspective it provides from “the other side of the bottle” – the views of those who were pouring their wines at this conference.  I had actually been wondering what the winemakers, vineyard managers, marketing directors and others who poured during the conference thought about the event and about the bloggers.  They pour (sorry for the pun) their lives into their wines, then pour the wines for people who sniff and swirl it for a few moments before rendering judgments that can be generous in their praise or critical to the point of being mean-spirited. Continue Reading–>

August 1, 2011 | By | 3 Replies More

The Agony of Dropping Fruit

A cluster of grapes that will never be wine.

This is only a guess, albeit a somewhat educated guess, but I suspect every vineyard worker has the same uneasy, guilty feeling the first time he drops fruit from a vine. 

By dropping fruit, I mean walking through the vineyard, from one vine to the next, and cutting off perfectly good clusters of grapes and letting them fall to the ground.  It seems wasteful, and when you see a cluster of nearly perfect grapes lying on the ground next to your feet, you feel like a butcher.  But you have to remain focused and keep your eye on the prize.

“Think about the wine,” said Julien Durantie, the vineyard manager at DuCard VineyardsAh, yes, the wine.  Don’t worry about the grapes on the ground that will soon rot and return to the soil to nurture future crops.  Think ahead a year or more to the wine that will be made from the fruit that remains.

Bob “The Butcher” ruthlessly hacking fruit.

The idea behind dropping fruit is simple:  the vine has only so much energy, and by reducing the number of clusters, you end up with a more concentrated juice and much better, much more intense wine.  In a sense, this is a continuation of the process we’ve been engaged in throughout the growing season.  Early on, we thinned out the shoots, leaving behind a smaller number of shoots that we hoped would produce high-quality grapes.  As we moved through the season, pulling leaves to open up the canopy, we continued to remove suckers, laterals, and extra shoots that would deprive the vine of its vigor.

Removing suckers and thinning shoots was one thing.  Clipping off beautiful clusters of berries that were turning into wine grapes, was much harder.  I tried to keep my mind focused on the wine.

Another view of the carnage.

As was the case in many classes before, I found myself nearly paralyzed at the start, not quite remembering what I had been told, and staring at the vine, afraid to make the first cut.  And so, I spent time separating out vines that had become tangled, pulling some laterals (which look like a small, separate leaf system), and considering whether to cut this clump or the next one.  And finally, as always, I called Scott Eliff, the vineyard’s owner, or Julien, and begged for help.

We were working just at the onset of veraison, the time in which the berries change color.  Here and there, we spotted a few cab franc grapes turning purple, but the vines we actually worked on were Viognier, Virginia’s signature white grape.  (Actually, while the Virginia Wine Board has declared Viognier to be the Commonwealth’s Signature Grape, I prefer to think of it as the signature white.  Cab Franc and Petit Verdot are my choices for reds.

In Memorium: Honoring the fallen clusters.

In any event, a little bit of my heart lay on the ground with each cluster of grapes.  And I was only the hired (well, volunteer) help.  I can’t imagine how agonizing it is for the owner of the vineyard to drop fruit, knowing he or she is reducing the vineyard’s yield significantly with each clip of the pruning shears.

Fortunately, this is one kind of heartache that can be cured by opening and tasting a bottle of wine that has benefitted from the “Green Harvest” of dropping fruit.  Wine is often said to be made in the vineyard, and the best is made by vineyards like DuCard that are willing to sacrifice quantity for quality.

July 26, 2011 | By | 6 Replies More

Vineyard Diseases and How to Cure Them

           It’s scary to think about how many predators are out there waiting to attack the average vineyard.  Birds, bees, foxes, rabbits, deer – Even Bambi can’t be trusted! – and a host of insects, from the potato leafhopper to the Japanese Beetle, want nothing more than to devour the vines, from their leaves on down to the grapes themselves.  And that isn’t counting the fungi.           

Black Rot – note the black border around the brown spot

Last weekend at Monticello, Gabriele Rausse taught a class on vineyard diseases that was as wonderful (Gabriele and Monticello) as it was depressing (birds, bees, deer – you get it).  The predatory Bambis of the world can be controlled fairly easily with fences.  Birds, which begin taking a serious look at the vines after the sugar level rises almost to the point where it is time to harvest, can be scared away with foil streamers that are hung at intervals so that they fly in the breeze. 

           But fungi are a different story.  They require lots of attention, and no small amount of chemicals.  Unlike California’s wine valleys, where vines grow in dry heat with cool nights and little rain, Virginia vineyards are subject to heat, humidity and lots of rain.  (Especially this year.)  All of which provides a good, but hopefully not perfect, environment for a variety of fungal diseases to take root, so to speak.  Black Rot, Downy Mildew, Powdery Mildew, Botrytis (and not the good kind of Botrytis, the “noble rot” responsible for Sauternes) and many other diseases just lie in wait for the conditions that enable them to ruin a vineyard.

Downy Mildew – similar to Black Rot, but no dark borders around the spots.

            So, that means spraying.  Not just once or twice, but routinely, weekly and especially after three-quarters of an inch or more of rain.  We’d love to go organic and dispense with the spraying, but it’s not possible in Virginia, at least not with vines.  I don’t know if other fruits and vegetables can be grown in Virginia without spraying, but I’m inclined to think you can’t.  Certainly, Virginia Tech’s Cooperative Extension service web site has tons of information about spraying programs for fruit and vegetables, which implies that fungicides are needed.  But whatever the case for other types of fruit, wine grapevines require spraying.

             That’s also true in other environs.  Gabriele said they had to spray in his native Italy (the Veneto region), for example.  So, it’s not a crime to spray.  But it does make for a lot of work and expense, one of the reasons, in fact, that Virginia wine is so expensive.  

              And by the way, if you're interested in this subject, the best source of information availale, at least for Virginia viticulturists — and probably for grape farmers everywhere — is Mizuho Nita's blog.   It's a must-read for anyone interested in growing wine grapes in Virginia.

            Spraying is a discipline, and it's one of those things you have to do when it's needed, whenever it's needed, with no exceptions.  Hard work, for sure.  But I think it's worth it, and that the end result of all that pest management will be wine that is truly memorable.

 

July 21, 2011 | By | Reply More
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