Picking the clones: you work with what you have

November 14, 2011 | By | Reply More

  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 differentVirginia wineries, and I've been impressed with the range of grapes that are being made into high-quality wines.  To cite just a few examples: Lovingston Winery has a lovely Pinotage, a wine most often found in South Africa’s Western Cape, and Afton Mountain Vineyards makes a crisp Guwurtzraminer, a wine more likely to come from Alsace or Germany than from Nelson County, Virginia.  Some vineyards seem to be doing well with Pinot Noir, and here and there, you’ll find one that is making a Sangiovese or a Nebbiolo (Gabriele Rausse makes a wonderful Nebbiolo), even though everyone knows that Sangiovese finds its best expression in Tuscany and Nebbiolo can only be grown in Italy's Piedmont region.

But you only get so many chances to get this right, and so I’m focusing not on the exceptions, but on the grapes that seem to work best most often and in most places in Virginia.  Cab Franc and Viognier have done quite well in vineyards throughout the Commonwealth, and those seem like obvious choices.  Two years ago, I had never tasted a Petit Verdot made as a single-grape varietal, but I’ve sampled a number now and I think it’s Virginia’s next hot grape.  By the way, I got a note from Sharon Roeder at Barrel Oak Winery (BOW, for you dog lovers – and this may be Virginia’s most dog-friendly winery) this weekend with news that they have just released the 2009 Petit Verdot.  I barrel tasted the 2010 and loved it, but that won’t be in bottles for another year.  I can't wait to taste the 2009, hopefully next weekend.

Petit Manseng is also doing well at a number of nearby vineyards, Veritas, in particular. And based on what I tasted at Lovingston, I am wondering if Pinotage may someday be a Virginia superstar.

Pinotage is a bridge too far, though.  With the land we have, we think we can only plant four grapes, and that may be pushing it.  But, hey, we're planning a hobby vineyard, so efficiency is not an issue.  In any event, we’re just about finished with our selections.  We’ve ordered 50 Cab Franc and 50 Petit Verdot, plus 25 Viognier vines, and we’re looking for a good source for Petit Manseng.  If that doesn't pan out, Merlot is a possibility, but we're concerned that Merlot may not be cold-hard enough for our vineyard.

It hasn’t been easy to find the clones we want.  Based in part on notes in Tony Wolfe’s superb book, Wine Grape Production Guide for Eastern North America, we decided to go with a type of clone known as ENTAV.  ENTAV (which stands for, Etablissement National Technique pour l’Amelioration de la Viticulture, or National Educational Association for Viticultural Improvement) are clones of French origin, and sold in the United States through licensed nurseries vines.  Believe me, they aren’t that easy to find.

We're making progress.  In little more than four months from now, we’ll be planting vines, and in four years we’ll be sampling the Viognier and dreaming about the Cab Franc and Petit Verdot.  The world may not be a perfect place, but on the whole, it’s not all that bad. 

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Category: All Posts, Virginia Wineries, Viticulture, Wine

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