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This post is Part II in the Virginia Winemaker Interview Series – What Grape Works Best In Virginia.

As I noted in Part I, this series is a follow up of sorts to the ‘Thomas Jefferson was right: The grapes that work best for Virginia’ session at the Drink Local Wine Conference last month.  Since the session resulted in such robust discussion, this series is intended to 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).

In Part I of the Virginia Winemaker Interview Series, we heard from:

Today we hear from:

(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 in the global wine marketplace if we focused on our stand out grapes – Viognier, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot.)

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Derek Pross, Gadino Cellars

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

Virginia is still very much in experimental mode regarding grape varietals and the microclimates of a very geographically diverse Virginia terroir.  To place this in context, Europe has had centuries of experience and have carved up their countryside to support the growth of specific varietals.  Even California can barely claim 100 years of wine growing, and really can only claim about 40-50 years of focused wine growing to produce premium wines.

In our experience, the varietals Viognier, Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot are proven varietals throughout most of the state – Petit Verdot being the latest arrival into this cadre. The easy answer as to why these varietals are ideally suited is that they grow and ripen well and are made into premium wines that, and this is the key word, consistently, show well on the world stage in international competition. Further, one can find different expressions of these varietals in the bottle that are directly related to the diverse terroir of Virginia.  To elaborate, these varietals can winter well in many areas of Virginia, grow in diverse soil profiles, withstand high humidity environments, high summer heat, ripen to reasonable harvest times and can endure some of the hurricane driven rains in the fall if necessary.

Up and coming varietals include Petit Manseng and some clones of Cabernet Sauvignon. Both of these varietals generally require a longer season to reach full maturity. In the case of Petit Manseng, trying to nurture this grape to a late harvest raisin requires risk, but the reward is a bright pineapple and citrus wine suited for blending, semi-sweet and dessert wines.  The Cabernet Sauvignon with smaller berries tends reach maturity sooner adding more depth, color and tannic structure to the finished wine.

In the right microclimates, varietals such as Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc and Nebbiolo can produce really nice wine. However, I’m not convinced there is enough terroir available to promote large-scale production.  I think there are many varietals that fit this classification right now.  Time will tell if any of these will rise to the forefront of production and quality. These varietals are the crux of varietal experimentation right now.

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

Again, while Virginia is in this experimental phase, it’s hard to definitively say what varietal does not grow well.  We have struggled with Reisling and have heard tales of woe over Pinot Noir. Reisling tended to struggle in the heat and under produce. In the case of Pinot Noir, the thin skins and tight clusters are susceptible to rot in our high humidity environment. However, if one can find a relatively low humidity environment, which some winegrowers have, then a Pinot Noir can, and is, made.  The question then remains, “can this grape produce a consistently high quality wine?”  If not, it’s probably not economically feasible to continue to grow.  (Editorial Note:  Your humble correspondent’s opinion – Pinot Noir in Virginia is a colossal waste of time and land.) Ultimately, Virginia as a whole will settle on its selection of fine wines based what can be grown at larger scales and can consistently be made into world-class wines.

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Sébastien Marquet, Winemaker & Vineyard Manager, Doukenie Winery

What grape do you feel is ideally suited for Virginia’s climate?  Why?  Conversely, what grape would you say is not well suited for our climate?  Why?

The climate in Virginia is very extreme from average lows of 26 degrees F in cold months to an average of 86 degrees F in warm months.  In the summer season, it is very warm and humid with an average of 35-45 days of thunderstorm activity.  Local mountain ranges – the Appalachians and the Blue Ridge – can create the microclimates necessary to grow vineyards despite the pressures of weather extremes. After managing a vineyard in the Caribbean for eight years, where I dealt constantly with tropical weather conditions, I believe strongly that the only option for growing grapes in any unpredictable climatic condition is to select the most adapted varietals.  These varietals must also interest the customers and wine connoisseurs who patronize our business.

Some of the goals of grape growing are to correctly develop the flavors and sugar, as well as produce a quantity that is economically sensible. There are some varietals in this geographic region that are especially challenging.  Riesling is one of them because of its sensitivity to Botrytis and tendency to not ripen correctly.  Almost every year the chaptalization process is necessary to increase the alcohol content for Riesling, however raising the brix by four or five degrees is not the best practice for producing quality wine. Viognier can present issues with consistency.  I have seen a difference in quantity of Viognier about every other year, and sometimes I have no crop at all. There are ripening issues with Petit Verdot and Cabernet Sauvignon because they ripen very late in the season.  If the weather turns cool too early in the fall, these varietals may not ripen completely. The selection of the varietals is a critical component to successful grape production in this region.

Another key to success is vineyard management. For example, the technique of pruning needs to be adapted to the weather conditions.  Creating space between spurs will allow more room around clusters or leaves and minimize mildew and Botrytis cinerea.  Such space will also permit the spray to penetrate inside the vegetation and clusters.  Spray programs should always take weather conditions into consideration.  Additional techniques include leafing on the morning light side to dry the clusters and allow the wind circulate between plants, then leafing on the afternoon light side to increase the direct sun light to the grapes.  Doing this will change the characteristics of the flavors and decrease the risk of Botrytis cinerea.

In my three years of managing the vineyard and all aspects of wine production at Doukenie Winery in Loudoun County, I will say that Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Traminette, Vidal Blanc, Seyval Blanc are the white varietals that are the most consistent, both qualitatively and quantitatively. I believe that Cabernet Franc and Merlot are the most consistent of the red varietals.  Customers are very receptive to this quality, and Doukenie Winery received Gold and Silver Medals from the San Francisco Chronicle International Wine Competition for these wines.

The importance of proper training for growers cannot be overstated.  Bad decisions take a long time to correct and can be detrimental to the industry as a whole.   As growers, we must be constantly vigilant.  It is an integral part of the work that we do.

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Jason Burrus, Winemaker, Rappahannock Cellars

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

Asking which varieties are suited to Virginia is the million-dollar question. The short answer is that nobody knows for sure.

In this day and age, it seems that a new wine region gets attention not by being unique, but by successfully imitating a famous wine region/variety. I don’t use “imitate” as a negative, just as a matter of fact. (Editorial Note:  Very true, excellent point!) Napa Valley, Australia, New Zealand, and Chile all successfully imitate France. You could even make the argument that New Zealand has usurped Sancerre as the benchmark for Sauvignon Blanc. If you were to agree with this perspective, you could imagine why Virginia has pursued Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot instead of Chambourcin, Norton, or Seyval. Of course, this argument has nothing to do with quality, only the pursuit of recognition.

Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot happen to be Virginia’s three most-planted varieties. In my opinion, this was a good decision. We successfully imitate France with these three varieties, though our Cabernet Franc is more in line with Loire Cab Franc than from Bordeaux. These varieties seem to ripen early enough to fit in to our short growing season. This doesn’t answer the question directly though. Our climate and soil don’t match Bordeaux or Burgundy, so it might be wise to assume that Virginia will never make wines that match the best of France. This is where the question of uniqueness comes in. Is it good enough to make a “Virginia” Chardonnay? Or does it have to be as good as the best of Burgundy to have successfully “made it” as a fine wine region? I’d love to assume the former, though it seems that history teaches the latter.

Viognier is another matter. I like it and think it makes a great wine. But it’s not famous even in France, so what chance do we have? The Virginia growing season seems to shut down before Cabernet Sauvignon wants to ripen. There are countless other varieties in Virginia that we grow and make decent wine out of (Norton, Traminette) that don’t have widespread name recognition to shine a positive light on Virginia. Even Petit Verdot makes a nice wine, even as a stand-alone wine, but it’s falling out of favor in Bordeaux and is an afterthought everywhere else in the world. Argentina pulled off making Malbec famous, but then it had a much more established wine industry before that happened. And it has the economies of scale to introduce a reasonably priced Malbec to the rest of the world. Imagine being persuaded to buy a $25.00 Argentinean Malbec you’ve never heard of. That’s what we’re facing in Virginia with just about everything we make. Tannat is gaining popularity with many winemakers in Virginia, as it is vinifera and darkly-colored for blending. But it’s not a stand-alone wine; and because of this, will never shine a positive light on Virginia.

For me, it’s Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Chardonnay as my picks for Virginia. They ripen well, make quality wine, and are reasonably good imitations of popular French examples. For better or worse, these seem to be the criteria to garner the attention of the wine-buying world.

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Thank you to Derek, Sébastien, and Jason for taking time to participate in this Virginia Winemaker Interview Series.

Virginia winemakers/wineries: I am working on two new topics for future ‘Virginia Winemaker Interview Series’ – if you would like to participate in upcoming series, please contact me:  frank.j.morgan (‘at’) gmail. Com

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