One Place, One Life


Starting from scratch

Life’s circumstances led me to Virginia in 1981. I was hired to expand an existing vineyard and startup a winery in the Shenandoah Valley. It didn’t take long for me to realize that I wanted to set my own roots here. I had a background in wine consumption and in farming, but only a couple years of vineyard and winemaking experience. With family support, I was eventually able to put a down payment on an old abandoned apple orchard on the Blue Ridge Mountains. Hardscrabble vineyard was born in 1985 with an eight-acre planting.

There were a lot of unknowns in the 1980s, so priorities centered around three basic requirements in my search for a vineyard site. The land had to be higher than the surrounding land for air drainage (frost and winter cold). The soils needed to be well drained (I had witnessed what happened otherwise). Finally, elevation needed to be over 1,000 feet (Hardscrabble is 1,200 to 1,400 feet) to delay ripening into the cooler part of September and October in order to retain the acidity I admire in wine.

The Hardscrabble site was purchased based on these characteristics. They have served as a good foundation. What follows is the story of how I learned, adapted and fine-tuned since then. One aspect that drew me to Virginia was the opportunity to become a terroir pioneer. How many opportunities in the history of winegrowing can one plant a virgin region and discover its wine possibilities? While those were exciting times, they were very scary. Survivability was more of an immediate concern than sustainability.

With so many new growing regions emerging east of the Rockies, I feel compelled to write about my journey. How does an individual go about figuring out their wine identity in a new region? For those not familiar with the Mid-Atlantic, I’ve included some background information.

Climate

The Mid-Atlantic climate is classically continental with possibilities of damaging cold winter temperatures, late spring frosts, high humidity, and rain during the growing season. These conditions may seem insurmountable to our West Coast colleagues, but it defines who we are, how we go about establishing a vineyard, and how we manage our vines. This is also why we look to maritime- and continental-influenced European regions for advice and inspiration.

Temperatures

Winter damage issues will always be with us but have changed over the past few decades. In the 1980s the winters were considerably colder with below 0°F being the norm. Bud mortality was a major concern, with pruning adjustments becoming standard operating procedure. It quickly became apparent that low lying sites where cold air pooled would be viticultural graveyards. Today our winter temperatures have moderated, but temperature swings often are more pronounced. In a matter of days, we can go from 60° F down to 0° F. This vacillation leads to more vascular damage, crown gall, and death, especially with younger vines. As a result, we are learning that replacement viticulture is a fact of life. Replants are an annual spring ritual. Managing a block with varying aged vines is a headache at first, but becomes routine with time. Dense spacing makes more sense, as the vineyard gaps from missing vines are smaller and quicker to refill.

Ripening “sweet spot”

Producing a wine of natural balance requires that ripening takes place when flavors, phenolics, acid, and sugar occur in unison. Our best shot at terroir expression in the wines is when ripening happens during the “sweet spot” between mid-September to mid-October. This is when the nights are cool, but the days are warm enough to continue the ripening process.

Variety, clone, soil, slope aspect, and rootstock can all influence ripening times. At Hardscrabble, early ripening varieties such as Seyval and clones like Colmar Chardonnay have been removed as ripening would consistently occur in August or early September under hot, humid conditions. Wine quality was acceptable, but never remarkable.

For whites, acidity is our most important quality precursor. While the TA, pH and malic numbers are not ignored, only palate, balance and experience can decipher how that acidity plays with the other components. Our best white vintages are wines that are ripe and dense with high levels of acidity.

While some of Hardscrabble’s white varieties were ripening too early, the opposite was true with late ripening red varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot. The blocks planted on heavier clay-based soils were eventually removed. These cooler soils delayed ripening well past mid-October and the wines from those soils were green, tart, and thin.

Water

The Mid-Atlantic is one of the wettest viticultural regions on the planet. We have fairly consistent rainfall every month of the year. Until recently, I was an apologist for our water, but now I see the advantages. Much has been written about the negative side of rain: disease, excessive vigor, dilution. However, if the site is right and the viticulture precise, there are positive sides that can result in wines that have balance, complexity and poise.

Cloud cover and the haze of humidity filters sun intensity. This has a tremendous impact on sugar (and the wine’s potential alcohol) and wine style (with more mineral/savory and less obvious fruit). With the current trend of lower alcohol, more balanced wines, and the much over-used word “minerality” now firmly entrenched in our lexicon, our hazy days are becoming an advantage.

Our canopy management has to be very, very good. Any vineyard resembling “sprawl” will pay a steep price with regards to fungal disease and ripening. Rain during the growing season commonly produces high vigor vines. Rigorous vertical shoot positioning, lateral and leaf removal, and aeration cluster thinning are often mandatory. Over the decades, I’ve tried every fashionable option to tame an unbalanced vineyard: Lyre, GDC, T bar, excessive leaf pulling, kicker canes. But band-aid viticulture is rarely sustainable. Eventually one needs to surrender, pull the vineyard and start over. If the vineyard would have been correctly planted, vine balance could have been natural without a lot of help.

Rain at harvest is common, but not all rains are equal. The agonizing decision to pick or not to pick as rain threatens depends on the kind of rain. A warm rain from the south can bring lingering humidity and rot, while a cool northwest rain is often followed by ideal drying conditions. If skin integrity is sound, clusters can handle rain, but it doesn’t take much to damage grapes with thin, fragile skins.

Soils

Rain is the reason why our soils have a significant impact on wine quality. In maritime and continental Europe, it is common knowledge that soil drainage and water-holding capacity dictates wine quality. Because the bulk of the U.S. industry and research is in the arid west, it has taken us Easterners too long to come to this realization.

We receive an average of three or more inches of rain per month. It is a challenge to achieve the hydric stress required for high quality red wines under these conditions. Vines planted in high water-holding capacity soils continue their vegetative cycle well past véraison. This scenario leads to under-ripe, green, vegetal characteristics, especially in Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. Often, in early August I can walk a Cabernet vineyard block and see where that vintage’s wine quality problems might arise. Actively growing shoot tips in certain more water retentive sections will not yield the highest quality red wines and may be picked separately.

In 1985 Hardscrabble was planted with little regard for soils. It took about a decade of observation to see the relationship between vigor (vine balance) and wine quality. The physical characteristics in the diversity of soils were producing very different wines.

Water evacuation is the key to growing high quality reds in the Mid-Atlantic. At this stage in our development, it is relatively easy to start to get a read on a site’s potential simply by looking at landscape form. Convex, steep slopes have the best chance of shedding water, both superficially and internally. We’ve always recognized that drainage was important for vine survival. Beyond drainage, low water-holding capacity (a.k.a. plant-available water) of a soil is critical for high quality reds.

Over the past fifteen years most of Hardscrabble has been replanted. Soil water-holding capacity has dictated what is planted where. A combination of observation and extensive soil mapping has guided the process. Cabernet Sauvignon is put on the warmest, droughty soils. Earlier ripening Cabernet Franc can handle a bit more water availability. Merlot needs good drainage, but also more continual access to water (more clay). The whites in general do well with more available water and prefer cooler slopes and soils.

Terroir Winemaking

A terroir-driven winegrower limits winemaking signatures to better reveal place in a wine. How can we learn about our terroir if we continually add stuff to juice and wine? The goal of winemaking based on terroir is to express the vineyard site by reducing winemaking influences. It is safe, conservative and boring. It is based around three aspects: input reduction, picking decisions, and healthy fermentations. All three go hand in hand.

Concerning input reduction, the more that is done in the cellar, the less the wine is about the vineyard. Most of our wines consist only of grapes, SO2 and yeast, but we also are aware that we cannot be dogmatic. There occasionally need to be exceptions. Bentonite is added to Sauvignon Blanc juice given the variety’s tendency to haze in the bottle. When Cabernet Franc is harvested with a potential alcohol over 14% and a YAN under 100, it will probably not finish fermentation without yeast nutrients. Chardonnay needs a lot of TLC (heat and stirring) to coax it to complete the last twenty grams of sugar.

A winemaker’s greatest signature on wine is the picking decision. In order to reduce inputs and have healthy fermentations, grapes need to be harvested at a correct sugar (potential alcohol) and acid balance. If juice requires “adjustments” in the majority of vintages, then one can only assume that the wrong grape has been planted for the site. With today’s viticultural knowledge it is rare that sugars are too low. Excessively high sugars are our biggest concern when it comes to healthy fermentations.

Because of soil differences and vine age as the result of replants, very few of our blocks are homogeneous. This requires precision harvesting, especially for the red varieties. I always have surveyor’s tape in my truck to mark off corners, edges or rows that are to be picked separately. We often do “special” rosé pickings in parts of certain blocks in advance of the red wine harvest.

After picking decisions, a winemaker’s most important job is to have healthy fermentations. Counter intuitively, we have abandoned the practice of risky uninoculated fermentations. We have gone back to cultured yeast because the more robust, problem-free fermentations better express terroir. Unintended residual sugar, high levels of volatile acidity, or overt sulfides in wine are not an expression of terroir.

My hope is that I have laid some groundwork for the next generation to build upon. At this point, we have a better handle on some of the basics, but great wines are distinguished by the finer details. We understand the theory and mechanics, but are still far from understanding specific soil influences on wine style and quality. I’ve remained committed to the well-known “international” varieties that have done remarkably well here, and I will continue to fine-tune my vineyard. Future generations will need to explore the hundreds of other varieties that ultimately may be better adapted to our terroir.

Sometimes I get frustrated that we aren’t evolving fast enough. Fortunately, as the Virginia industry matures, there are more like-minded growers who are finding potentially great sites and then making the hard decisions as their vineyards begin to express themselves.


Wines & Vines


Jim Law