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Virginia Winemaker Interview Series – What Grape Works Best For Virginia’s Climate

There are many polarizing topics in the wine industry – the three-tier distribution system, real cork vs. crappy synthetic cork vs. screw top closures, indigenous vs. designer yeasts, new vs. old world, the Hello Kitty wine brand, etc.  In our little corner of the wine world, opinions abound here in Virginia – especially about what grape(s) is ideally suited for Virginia’s climate.

For those unfamiliar with Virginia’s growing season – the summers are hot (especially in July and August) with oppressive humidity in most regions throughout the state.  The humidity, coupled with other weather conditions, provides a ripe environment for nearly every annoying mildew, pest, and rodent.

Despite these climate-related challenges (as if all grape growers don’t face climate challenges of some sort), our farmers and winemakers are a persistent and experimental bunch – dedicating land to many different grapes, including Albariño, Norton, Chardonnay, Riesling, Petit Manseng, Sauvignon Blanc, Traminette, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and for goodness sakes even Pinot Noir.

Clearly, there is no way to definitively conclude which grape is ideally suited for Virginia’s climate, however, the subject of ‘Virginia’s Grape’ does make for interesting discussion and brings out a diverse range of opinions.

Since the ‘Thomas Jefferson was right: The grapes that work best for Virginia’ session at the Drink Local Wine Conference resulted in a lot of great discussion, I wanted to continue the dialogue and provide a forum for more Virginia winemakers to share their opinions on what grape they feel works best in our climate (or works best in their micro-climate).

(Editorial Note:  In no way do I feel there is ‘one’ grape ideally suited for our climate.  This is not an attempt to identify ‘the’ Virginia grape, but instead, provide a forum for winemakers to share their opinions on what is working in their vineyards. Although I do appreciate the experimental spirit of our winemakers and the diversity of wine available here, I do wonder if Virginia wine could make a larger impact on the global wine market if we focused on our stand out grapes – Viognier, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot.)

In Part I of this Virginia Winemaker Series, we hear from:

In Part II, to be posted on Thursday evening, we will hear from:

  • Gadino Cellars
  • Doukenie Winery
  • Rappahannock Cellars

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Stephen Barnard, Keswick Vineyards

What grape do you feel is ideally suited for the Virginia climate?  Why?

In my opinion Viognier has the brightest future for white wine in Virginia, for a number of reasons. Firstly it is not a widely planted grape type and thus Virginia can develop a market niche with this type of wine. It is a tricky grape to grow; it flowers earlier than other whites and thus is prone to spring frosts as well as being susceptible to powdery mildew. It is also important to pick the fruit at the right time, pick too early and the resulting wines do not have those tropical aromas associated with the grape, pick too late and the alcohol levels can be extremely high and the wines taste hot.

It is a very versatile grape to work with, and as a winemaker it is very manipulative (lees ageing, skin contact, ml fermentation options) and thus is very intriguing. We can get it off the vine before the late season rains, and if done right, creates incredibly intoxicating wines that can be enjoyed young (another plus for the consumer) and is very food friendly.

Cabernet Franc and Petite Verdot are the two red grape varietals that seem to show the most promise although I think I favor the Cabernet Franc a touch more. Cabernet Franc ripens and buds a good week or so earlier than Cabernet Sauvignon. It is fairly vigorous and thus a touch easier to grow in the vineyards. The only negative I have of the varietal is that winemakers tend to pick it a touch early, thus manifesting the herbaceous character of the wine (for me I think that is a negative).  I think this could be a varietal that compares very well to the Long Island wines if we manage it a bit better in the vineyards and not get pigeon holed into the bell pepper character.

Petite Verdot shows promise, it is a very thick-skinned variety (not as prone to the rots) but it ripens a lot later than the other varietals and in some years might not reach full maturity. Certainly in well-drained and less fertile soils, if the fruit is picked at optimum ripeness levels the wines are rich, deeply pigmented and very aromatic but I question if we can do this year in and year out in Virginia. Personally I would like to focus on the varietals that give us the best chance to produce quality fruit and wines in the poor years for which Virginia is well know, and hence I favor the Cabernet franc a touch more.  In our best years I think Cabernet Sauvignon would be the way to go but it shows in the wine when the growing season has been poor.

What grape would you say is not well suited for our climate?  Why?

Virginia can be very hot and humid, as well as see a lot of rains so many grapes susceptible to botrytis would not be the way to go. Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling come to mind although there are a few exceptional wines made from these varieties in Virginia (most notably Linden and Veritas Sauvignon Blanc).  Pinot noir is a red wine grape that I would never ever consider planting here, not knowing too much about the grape, but I believe it needs cooler climates to thrive in, which we do not have. The resulting wines would reflect that and it is known to be the most difficult grape to grow, hence the name of the heartbreak grape.

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Emily Pelton, Winemaker, Veritas Vineyard & Winery

What grape do you feel is ideally suited for Virginia’s climate?  Why?

Sauvignon Blanc is working well for me in my micro-climate, and I am pretty sure that this is a site specific effect.  I would not recommend Sauvignon Blanc as a widespread Virginia white varietal.  That said, I am enjoying growing it, and feel that our top meadow is a wonderful site for Sauvignon Blanc.  I have two different clones on the top meadow, and I am really able to tell a significant difference in the wines produced from these two different grapes.

I would be much more comfortable recommending Viognier and Petit Verdot as grape varietals that are suitable for most Virginia vineyards.  While they are not without their difficulties on the viticulture side (splitting for Petit Verdot, and irregular harvest yields on the Viognier) I feel they are a little better suited to most sites.

My top three choices would be Viognier, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc (in order).  Viognier is well suited for the Virginia climate.  It is thick skinned, and does not tend to hang a very heavy crop, so despite the richness of the soil (which most Virginia vineyards suffer from the soil being too rich and the plants being overvigorous), the plant seems to moderate cropload a little better.  Small berries and very open clusters also allow us to avoid a lot of disease pressure that you see in other grape varietals.  I do have to note here that I am pulling out a lot of Cabernet Franc and replanting with Petit Verdot.  I never seem to have enough Petit Verdot in the Cellar or in the tasting room, so the demand speaks for itself.

What grape would you say is not well suited for our climate?  Why?

I am less informed about grape varieties that do not work in Virginia.  I have been fortunate enough, not to feel like I need to get rid of any varietals that we originally planted.  From talking to other people I have heard that Gwertztraminer and Pinot Noir are particularly difficult to ripen and manage disease pressure.  Currently I have Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Traminette, Viognier, Petit Manseng, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Malbec, and Tannat in the vineyard.

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Jordan Harris, Winemaker and General Manager, Tarara Winery

What grape do you feel is ideally suited for the Virginia climate?  Why?

I think this is an impossible question (Editorial Note:  Not an impossible question, just impossible to definitively answer – because there is no truly right or wrong answer).  There are many regions in Virginia with different micro-climates and varying terroirs.  I have tasted some great examples of Viognier from many areas around the state, but they are wildly different.  I like the ripe tropical fruit and floral notes of many of the low-lying NoVA Viogniers, the bright acids and citrusy and honeysuckle components of many of the higher elevation Piedmont and Albemarle examples.  I have not had many from the south of the State to comment strongly.

I know there is a lot of discussion about Cabernet Franc.  I personally don’t agree.  I think there is wide variance vintage-to-vintage (which is generally a good thing) but with Cabernet Franc it often results in green herbaceous character I look at as un-ripe and not terroir.

There have been some great examples of Tannat, Petit Verdot, Albarino and Petit Manseng that have shown consistency.  The problem is that Tannat and Petit Verdot have an aggressive nature that is not friendly to all consumers and all the varieties are hard to market.

Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc are good in some areas, but it has to be the more stoney and higher altitude vineyards.  They need the cooler climate and minerality to really distinguish them.  I like a few examples in the Piedmont and in the Albemarle regions.  You can make good Chardonnay pretty much anywhere, but you need specific terroir to make it profound.

In our vineyard, which is the one I can speak best on is Syrah, Viognier and Merlot.

Our Syrah enjoys great heat from the sun (in one of our most open areas), but our vineyard cools pretty well at night from the Potomac and our lake that is 65 feet deep maintaining a more consistent temperature.  It tends to be half way between a new world and old world style.  It has that cooler climate bacon and green peppercorn notes and even some olive character, but also holds this great floral and plumy note of riper fruit.

Our Viognier is all about complexity.  It is the coolest sight of our vineyard.  The is lots of morning shade so it has less direct sun through the day, but the sun it does get is intense.  This allows brighter acidity and maintains citrus fruit, while the afternoon heat brings in some tropical characters off certain rows in the block adding an element of complexity.  The soil where our Viognier is also has some limestone deposits that cut through and deeper soil, which helps maintain consistency and brighter acids.

The Merlot is a mystery somewhat to me.  I want to give a better answer, but I just happen to love it.  It has far better structure then many Merlots I have made elsewhere.  It does sit in two vineyards as our best Merlot.  One spot is very cool (right beside the Viognier) and the other is a south-facing slope with our deepest soils and more limestone.  It gets a long hang time, which helps, but I can’t give you a good straight answer.  I just like it.

What grape would you say is not well suited for our climate?  Why?

Riesling and Pinot Noir are horrible here.  It is too hot and the acids fall out.  Both of these grape varieties are all about time on the vine for phenolic and flavor ripeness and we cannot offer it here.  The grapes get high sugars and low acids very early with poor flavor and unripe phenolics.  The best Rieslings I have tried tend to be the last harvested fruit (with Cabernet Sauvignon usually) with very low sugars and ripping acid.  We cannot do that here.

There are a lot of varieties I have tried that I don’t love here, but many of them don’t have the history or winemaking background to have a better analysis.  I would love to grow the Southern Rhone varieties like Rousanne, Grenache and Mourvedre but I am not certain if they will ripen.  They are extremely late, like a couple weeks after Cabernet Sauvignon.

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Thank you to Stephen, Emily and Jordan for taking time to participate in this Virginia Winemaker Interview Series.

Please check back on Thursday for Part II of the ‘What Works Best In Virginia’ series.