Another Virginia Viticulture Milestone: Virginia’s First Organic Certified Vineyard — Are Hybrids the Answer?

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As regular readers know, 2012 and 2013 were watershed years for the Virginia wine industry.  While many of Virginia’s vinous accomplishments and vintners were the subject of glowing profiles in major national and international publications, one significant viticulture milestone went largely unnoticed by those that watch and report on the industry.

On February 22, 2012, Loving Cup Vineyard (then called Hambsch Family Vineyards), a four acre block situated on a 150 acre family farm set amongst the rolling hills in North Garden, VA, about 10 miles southwest of Charlottesville, became the first vineyard in Virginia to receive official organic certification.

Loving Cup Vineyard & Winery, which opened for visitors last week, was founded by Karl Hambsch along with his wife Deena, and his father, Werner.   The Hambsch’s path to winemaking began by chance, with a crop of flame crabapples.  In prior years, the crabapples were picked and given to a family friend for jelly.  When that friend wasn’t able to collect the apples one year, rather than have the fruit go to waste, Hambsch followed a recipe found online to make their first batch of crabapple wine.

Loving Cup - HambschsThe Hambschs soon moved on to making other fruit wines from pears, cherries, persimmons and raspberries,
followed by grapes.  From grapes harvested from their organic vineyard in 2012, the family produced 200 cases of wine and 400 cases from the 2013 vintage.

“I have no formal viticulture education,” says Hambsch, whose background includes a M.A. degree in History from Auburn University, a year in sales for a small wine distributor and stints at two Virginia wineries.  “I got my wine education on the ground, getting dirty, experimenting and learning from our mistakes.”

Hands-on experimentation is how the family came to plant hybrid grape varieties instead of more common vinifera varieties (grape species that hails from Europe and includes the most well-known and revered wine grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir).

Loving Cup - Wine Bottles“We conceived the organic vineyard project in 2007, and planted our first grapes the following spring in a test block to evaluate their compatibility with organic practices,” said Hambsch when asked about his decision to pursue organic viticulture.   “Organic certification was never our goal, it was more about peace of mind, respecting the land I grew up on, and building a business around our principles.”

While the vineyard at Loving Cup is certified organic by Quality Certification Services (a USDA certifier since 1989), in order to include the phrase ‘Made with Organic Grapes’ on a wine label, the winery must also complete the organic certification process, which is expected this year.  Loving Cup wines bearing the ‘Made with Organic Grapes’ label will be available when the 2014 vintage is released some time in early 2015.

The vineyard at Loving Cup is planted to five different hybrid varieties — two reds (Marquette and Corot Noir) and three whites (Traminette, Cayuga, and Vidal Blanc).   The Marquette was developed (hybridized) at the University of Minnesota, and the Traminette, Corot Noir and Cayuga White hybrids were developed at the Cornell University New York State Agricultural Experiment Station.  Vidal Blanc is a European-bred hybrid variety.

Each of these grape varieties are known as ‘cold-hardy’ breeds, meaning the vines were developed to be especially cold-tolerant.  The Marquette, for example, can withstand temperatures to minus 40 F (in case Virginia ever experiences an arctic-like winter).  These particular hybrid varieties also tend to be more resistant to diseases like black rot and downy mildew than many vinifera varieties (though not always true).

“All of the grape varieties planted in our vineyard were chosen for their suitability for organic production, are disease resistant, not overly sensitive to copper or sulfur [which are approved as organic fungicides], have loose cluster architecture, and of course for their potential wine style and quality,” said Hambsch.

Given Virginia’s hot and humid growing season fungicides are often needed in vineyards to abate diseases like black rot and powdery mildew.  Cultivating hybrid varieties may provide an alternative to those vintners that want to farm organically.

Considering how focused the Virginia wine industry (as a whole) is on cultivating and promoting vinifera — perhaps because 75% of bearing acreage in the state is planted to vinifera varieties — exclusively planting hybrid varieties and farming organically is a bold move!

For Loving Cup, aside from the environmental benefits, the potential economic and branding advantage of being recognized as the first organic certified vineyard in the state could be significant.

Whether or not Loving Cup’s organic certification will move the needle on perception and/or plantings will not be known in the near-term however, one thing is for sure, achieving organic certification for a vineyard in Virginia is a big deal.   Not only significant for Loving Cup but for the industry as a whole.

For the larger industry, this certification may help contribute to Virginia’s growing reputation as an up-and-coming progressive wine region.

So, are hybrids the answer? That all depends on the question.

If the question is how to best cultivate grapes organically in Virginia while spending less on synthetic pesticides, then hybrids are likely the answer.   This answer of course could (will) change when/if an organic solution to abate black rot proves effective.

Loving Cup Vineyard & Winery is a winery to watch (and visit) and is sure to be a big part of the Virginia wine narrative this year.
I would like to extend sincere thank you to Stephen Ballard of Annefield Vineyards, Christine Vrooman of Ankida Ridge Vineyards, and Cliff Ambers of Chateau-Z, for sharing insights and expertise relating to hybrids and viticulture.

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