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Virginia GSM… Really!(?)

In continuing with the Virginia winemaker interview series, today we hear from Jordan Harris, winemaker and General Manager at Tarara Winery – a beautiful 475-acre farm in Leesburg, VA along side the Potomac River.  Jordan came to Tarara in 2007 from his native Canada, where he is considered a wine rock star.  I learned first-hand how highly thought of Jordan is in Canada during a Canadian Wine Tasting in Toronto – winery folks at nearly every booth I visited knew (or knew of) Jordan.  Several of the Canada wineries asked us to send him back.  Tarara is lucky to have someone with Jordan’s talent and great reputation.

During a recent conversation about what’s new and interesting in Virginia wine, Jordan mentioned that he believes GSM could be a future contender in the Tarara lineup.  My response… silence (a rarity for me).  Huh?  GSM as in Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre… in Virginia?

Being a fan of the Rhone, I asked Jordan to expand on his thoughts on a Virginia GSM via a guest post.  Below are Jordan’s thoughts on GSM at Tarara:

Jordan Harris at Tarara.

Virginia wine’s domestic and international momentum is generally due to a few key varietals that are growing well in some of the best sites throughout the state.  Most people think of Virginia wine as being synonymous with Viognier and Cabernet Franc, but can’t some other varieties grow well in select sites? Well sure they can!

Virginia is a massive area and to assume that each corner has a similar terroir is absurd.  There are some varieties that grow better at higher altitude rockier sites in the Piedmont – like Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay – or Merlot on the sandy soils of the Northern Neck and Eastern Shore.  At the northern tip on low-lying limestone rich vineyards along the Potomac, maybe there is another train of thought, more Rhone varietals!

In the Nevaeh Vineyard, Tarara Winery’s estate vineyard, we are finding that Syrah has started to shine as the number one red variety for quality and consistency.  Considering how well another popular Rhone varietal – Viognier – has done here, it makes sense that Syrah would flourish as well.

In many areas of the world these grapes grow side-by-side enjoying similar climates and often similar soils.  If you look at the distance between Condrieu and Ampuis of Cote Rotie, one realizes it is about the same distance apart as Leesburg and Middleburg, and they are essentially on the same range of hills.  They both have great East and South facing slopes and often wineries are producing both.  In Cote Rotie, most of world class Syrah being produced actually contains a small amount of Viognier as part of the blend from the vineyard.  Upwards of 20% is actually allowed by law.

Tarara’s first Syrah was produced from Nevaeh Vineyard in 2007 and sold out well prior to release through barrel samples and a futures program.  The wine contained 9% Viognier in the classic style and showcased true varietal notes of smoked meat, plum, and blueberry but also had Nevaeh’s signature minty and minerally tones.  As of the 2008 vintage the Syrah is produced with a bigger style in mind after understanding the potential.  We plan to age in barrel for 38 months, like the La La wines of Guigal in Cote Rotie.

The wines are tasted weekly to ensure that the regime will be suitable for the Nevaeh terroir, but all signs seem to be good for the extended elevage.  That said, the Syrah is also now used as a blend component at Tarara.  The two planned wines to contain a good portion of Syrah are the Nevaeh starting with the 2009 vintage and the new GSM starting with the 2010 vintage.

The GSM (Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre) is meant to be a take on the Southern Rhone styles instead of the more Northern Rhone Syrah dominated reds.  Can the Grenache and Mourvedre succeed in Northern Loudoun County as well as its Rhone counter-parts Syrah and Viognier?  Well…the jury is still out.

There is a small portion of each Grenache and Mourvedre planted in Nevaeh Vineyard, just enough for a few hundred cases of GSM potentially, but the 2010 vintage is the first harvest.  The fruit is wildly different then anything else grown in the vineyard.  The Grenache has almost Pinot Noir like larger berries with thin skins, but it needs about 4-6 weeks longer to ripen.  The color is somewhat light and would classically show velvety tannins, lovely floral aromas and loads of berry fruit with beautiful elegance but is probably the last to ripen in the vineyard.

The Mourvedre has clusters of all sizes with small intense berries with thick almost leathery skins and deep color.  The wines are typically known for their power, gaminess, color and being extremely masculine.  In 2010 both varieties made it just to the point of ripeness.  The only characteristic that was left in need was the seeds in the Mourvedre were still slightly green; not completely browning so could extract meaner tannins.  The sugars were well above 26 brix, the flavor wonderful and the color exactly as it should be.  The problem is 2010 is the warmest and richest vintage we could have imagined.  If they just met their ripeness potential in 2010, will they be able to mature in future years – which is why the jury is still out.

The beauty of having Grenache and Mourvedre planted in Nevaeh is that even if they can not make it to their full potential as red wines in future vintages, Tarara will be set for making some truly classic Rose.  Grenache and Mourvedre are of course, the backbone of the fine Rose’s of Provence and Tavel.  With the limestone rich soils of the Pond block where they sit these grapes will be the backbone of something superb for years to come at Tarara whether for world class Rose’s or for massive, concentrated reds blended with their flagship Syrah.

In the end, there are not yet any right or wrong answers for the varieties in Virginia as a whole.  Some regions have shown better promise then others for certain varietals and we should be open to seeing what can thrive in an area that still needs an identity.  In Northern Loudoun County there has been great promise shown with blended reds including the Bordeaux reds, and Tannat but none have been proven on their own yet.

One could make the argument that Viognier is the only varietal in Northern Loudoun that has proven itself as a single varietal attempt ‘year in year out,’ so why not look at what traditionally may be beside it, the other Rhone varietals.  Why not see how Syrah, Grenache and Mourvedre show?  We now know at Tarara Winery that the Nevaeh Vineyard is great with Syrah having now four vintages of it being the shining start, but will Grenache and Mourvedre follow.  We will see.

We will see indeed.  I will be keeping an eye on the Tarara GSM, and can’t wait to try it.

The next time you find yourself in the Loudoun County area, be sure to visit Tarara Winery:
13648 Tarara Lane
Leesburg, VA 20176


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