Virginia Wine: No farms, no booze

A bottle of wine is not just a beverage but a story—a drinkable distillation of time and place, dramatically shaped by the conditions in which it was produced.

“People don’t make the connection that wine is an agricultural product,” says Jennifer McCloud of Chrysalis Vineyards. Yet, simply to acknowledge it as an agricultural product is just scratching the surface.

A bottle of wine is not just a beverage but a story—a drinkable distillation of time and place. Where mass-production wines fully cater to the consumers’ demand for predictability—employing all manner of manipulation to achieve a consistent product—true artisanal wine offers a sensory experience that is dramatically shaped by the conditions in which it was produced.

A Cabernet Franc from France’s Loire valley will taste very different from one grown in the Shenandoah, yet, like twins separated at birth, they’ll likely exhibit some shared traits. And, if you think the difference in an iPhone 4 and an iPhone 5 is astonishing (“OH MY GOD, OH MY GOD, OH MY GOD! It’s slightly thinner!!!), go to any Virginia winery and A/B any red from 2010 with its counterpart from 2011. An extended cool season and excess rain in 2011 yielded a dramatically lighter, subtler vintage that the previous year’s, where hot and dry conditions produced exceptionally ripe fruit and rich, robust wines.

“Virginia is a special place, for sure,” says Kirsty Harmon of Blenheim Vineyards. “But it’s a special place that changes every year.”

What doesn’t kill you, makes you more elegant & food friendly

Spend some time talking to a Virginia vineyard manager and you’ll leave with one major takeaway: those winemakers out in California are some lucky bastards.

Compared to their West Coast colleagues, whose growing seasons seem to be an endless stretch of 72 degrees and sunny, Virginia growers need to navigate a gauntlet of obstacles to bring a decent wine to the table. Take whatever romantic image you have of life in the vineyard and turn it on its head, because to grow grapes here you have to be plucky, resourceful, and willing to improvise.

Faced with the unprecedented arrival of Chinese stink bugs in 2010, and concerned how their funk might affect his grapes, Barboursville’s Daniele Tessaro left nothing to chance. “We did a trial on a gallon of Cabernet Franc crushed up with about a 100 stink bugs, and did the normal fermentation on that small batch.” Fear not, dear reader: this special cuvée (which was surprisingly free of any off aromas or flavors) was enjoyed exclusively by Barboursville staff, and my suggestion to release a “2010 Stink Bug Reserve” was dismissed with a polite laugh.

That is but one example (albeit a particularly gross one) of the resilience and ingenuity demanded of local growers each year. A flat screen in the tasting room at Chatham Vineyards cycles through images of an emergency harvest of 30 tons of Chardonnay, before Hurricane Irene could touch down and harvest it herself. Blenheim’s Kirsty Harmon recalls nine days without power at the height of harvest season. Cardinal Point’s Tim Gormon remembers watching his winery lose $40,000 overnight thanks to an unexpected spring frost.

Yet, Virginia viticulture is not simply a calling for masochists. While there are certainly conditions that would make growing grapes easier, there’s a consensus that all these quirks and challenges help to build character. Not just in the producers, but in the grapes themselves.

Far from California dreaming, Jennifer McCloud sings the praises of our region’s frequent cloud cover, crediting it for grapes that are allowed to achieve a “full and physiological ripeness.” According to her, this climate lets Virginia winemakers “craft more elegant, distinctive, and food friendly wines than most other regions in the New World.”

Terroir, terroir, terroir

Though Virginia growers can be very grabby in the vineyard—pruning, pulling leaves, training vines, etc.—the best wineries shift to a decidedly hands-off approach in the fermentation room.

“I don’t fight the fruit,” McCloud says. “[Virginia grapes] have a particularly fruity, aromatic quality. We use vinification techniques that support that fruity character.” Blenheim’s Harmon even limits herself to the use of a single yeast strain for all her wines in an effort to “understand the grape better.” “I’m always more interested to see what the grapes give on their own rather than from any manipulation I can do in the winery.”

This humility became a recurring theme in all my discussions with area growers. However scientific, cerebral, or snarky their demeanor throughout the rest of our conversation, their language became suddenly humble when the topic turned to terroir.

Despite almost 16 years working for top Virginia wineries (Pollak, Jefferson, and Keswick) Jake Busching approaches his work at the new Mount Juliet Vineyards not as a master of his craft but as a student. “My goal is to bring it back to a vineyard based on site expression, using my knowledge to draw out the voice of the dirt,” he says. “This will take years.”

And that may be the most exciting thing about the Virginia wine scene. While cheerleaders like myself sing of its existing quality, our best growers and winemakers are quietly pushing themselves to get better and better. To them, this is only the beginning.

Photo: bsabarnowl

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Matt Brehony

When he’s not musing on food for his blog, or working as a server/Minister of Propaganda for Secco Wine Bar, or writing editorial pieces for various media outlets, or starring in sketches and commercials, Matt Brehony doesn’t do much of anything.

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