Piedmont Reds: The Next Generation | November–December 2010
It’s fairly easy to make good white wines in a young region like ours. But with art, craftsmanship, and intuition, we can also make great reds.
After 30 years of winegrowing in Virginia, I feel that high-quality red wines from the mid-Atlantic Piedmont are lagging behind their white stable mates, as is often the case in emerging wine districts.
As a fledgling industry, ours has been in the discovery phase of winegrowing. White wine grapes are more forgiving when variety, soil, and climate choices aren’t in perfect harmony. Very good white wines can be made by respecting basic technical winemaking protocols. However, great red wines cannot be made by numbers, science, and measurements. Art, craftsmanship, and intuition trump science with red winemaking.
There is a slow but very intentional movement by some progressive winegrowers in the Piedmont that focuses on the foundations of producing great red wines. This next generation cannot be defined by age, history, or even experience. It can be defined by intent. There has to be a certain blind faith involved in making great red wines. Even if one is successful, the economic return and satisfaction is measured in decades. This new energy is being devoted to the vineyard rather than the winery, and the early results have been very encouraging.
Three aspects contribute to the shift from “serviceable” to “expressive” Piedmont red wines: choosing the best site, caring for the vines, and blending.
Choosing the Best Site
Taking a cue from our Old World colleagues, we are finding that impact of our land’s soils, slopes, and microclimates is the most important aspect of our wine. Where to establish a vineyard and which varieties, clones, and rootstocks to plant are relatively permanent decisions. These decisions will reward or haunt a grower for his or her professional life.
High-quality red wine grapes require very well-drained soils with meager fertility. In the Piedmont, these sites are most commonly found on steep hillsides. Such parcels are expensive and difficult to plant and to manage. Steep, rocky slopes require more labor and specialized equipment. They can be dangerous for tractor drivers. If a grower doesn’t believe that planting them will result in a vastly superior wine, then he or she will opt to head for the more convenient fertile valley.
Site selection used to involve the Hail Mary approach. With fingers crossed, vines were planted on land that had been acquired for another purpose. This sometimes resulted in decent white wines, but rarely good reds.
Even within a small parcel of land there exists a mosaic of soils, textures, slopes, and aspects that can be welcoming or contrary to a given grape variety. The frustration, not to mention the financial burden, of getting it wrong initially can humble the best of us.
When planting a new parcel, I now depend on my 27 years of successes and
mistakes growing grapes at Hardscrabble. My original one-acre planting of Cabernet Sauvignon was placed on three different soils. After about a dozen years I started seeing a trend: The clay soils produced thin, hard, second-tier wines, but the vines on steep slopes with meager soils always made richer, more balanced, complex wines.
Progressive growers no longer need to wait that long. They have access to soil scientists who can dig soil pits to look at soil profiles. This information guides a new grower to make more intelligent planting decisions. Informed site selection is the key to the bright future of Piedmont’s emerging leap in quality.
Caring for the Vines
So what do we winegrowers do all summer? The term “canopy management” best defines the difference between a winegrower and a grape grower. A grape grower is a traditional farmer whose goal is to cut costs and increase yields. This
American business concept is taken for granted by production agriculture. High end viticulture contradicts this concept, as the meticulous and expensive handwork required in the vines usually results in less yield. The goal is not high yields but concentration of grape, and therefore wine, flavors.
Great wines are produced in the vineyard by two methods. The first is to grow grapes on a centuries-old proven site where the work of our ancestors provided us with a grape variety, soil, and climate relationship that works simply and effortlessly. To see this in action one must travel to Burgundy, Barolo, Hermitage, or Medoc. The mid-Atlantic Piedmont is too virgin for this to be an option at this time.
We neophytes can embrace the second option—the “blood, sweat, and tears” required to handwork the vines into a balance that emulates the vines of the great terroirs of Europe. Amazingly it can work, but it requires a fanatical commitment of time, money, and labor. Shoot thinning and positioning, leaf pulling, hedging, lateral removal, bunch thinning, and green
harvest demand hundreds of labor hours per acre. None of this has to be done to grow grapes. But it has to be done to grow great wine grapes in our region.
Deciding when to harvest is usually confounding for new winegrowers. It is easiest and most convenient to let numbers make the decision. When the percentage of sugar, acid, and pH intersect at the right point, it is time. This formula can sometimes work for white grapes, but the foundation of red wine grape quality is based on tannin maturity, which can only be measured by the human palate. It takes time and work to train one’s palate— time because we only get one chance a year and work that involves regularly and objectively tasting benchmark red wines.
Virginia wine marketers are obsessed with declaring the one grape variety that we can hang our hats on. This is unfortunate and in fact detrimental to producing our best red wine. There are four best red grapes that, in most cases, should be blended: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot have proven themselves. Each requires slightly different soils and microclimates to show its best stuff. Each one also needs one or more of the others to make the most balanced and complex wine.
The “next generation” of which I write is not afraid of abandoning the marketing convenience of varietal labeling in order to put a superior wine in the bottle. They have been thinking outside the box from site selection to vine management, so this is only a natural progression.
All of the above is expensive. It couldn’t have been done 30 years ago because consumers would not have been willing to pay the money for the elevated quality of the wines. Ultimately, the success of this next generation will depend on customers’ support and willingness to explore the wines grown in their backyard.
Flavor, November–December 2010