Great Eastern Wine

An Inconvenient Truth

Jim Law

Back in the 1970s, a few hardheaded pioneers dared to plant vinifera on their farms in eastern North America. Their goal was to keep the vines alive and make clean, correct wines. That goal has been met from Niagara to Georgia, but while Thomas Jefferson might have been pleased, Robert Parker and The Wine Spectator still are not so impressed.

The next step has proven to be more difficult: to make great wine. A handful of winegrowers with a unique combination of intellectual curiosity and practical managerial ability are beginning to meet this challenge.

Most of the focus needs to be in the vineyard, as summer and fall rainfall define eastern viticulture. There is nothing magical about high-end winegrowing in these states. Matching variety with site, disease control, precise canopy management, and rational picking decisions are all givens.

The following six factors, however, have proven to be especially important for the progressive eastern winegrower:

1. SOILS THAT SHED WATER — The eastern U.S. is one of the wettest viticultural regions in the world. Soils with low water-holding capacity are important for any high-end vineyard, and the more rain, the more critical is a site’s ability to evacuate water.

Summer rains can encourage excessive and prolonged vegetative growth, especially in deep, water-retentive soils. Getting vines to stop vegetative growth at veraison is one of the great challenges in eastern viticulture, especially for red winegrapes.

Soils that shed water, either internally (large aggregates, shallow, low organic matter), or externally (on steep slopes) give the most balanced vines, especially in high-density plantings. These soils also keep vineyards healthier and producing longer. Old vines make wines with more complexity and structure, that age well.

2. YIELDS — As in northern Europe, cloud cover and hazy skies reduce the amount of sun in the East. Vines are less efficient than in a Mediterranean climate. While it is possible to crop vineyards at relatively high amounts, wine concentration and texture will reflect vineyard yields.

Many eastern regions have a plethora of vine and row spacing regimes, along with about every trellis system known to man. Expressing yields in tons per acre, hectoliters per hectare, or pounds per vine is confusing at best.

There is a slow shift to expressing yield in kilos per meter squared of canopy, or pounds per running foot of canopy. One pound of grapes per canopy foot (1.5 kilos per meter) is typically the yield goal for concentrated reds, with a bit more for whites.

3. PERMANENT SKILLED LABOR — This includes both management and vineyard workers. The eastern climate presents two unique circumstances: cold winters and variable weather during the growing season. This leads to what some refer to as “replacement viticulture.”

Vineyards are not uniform because of regular trunk or cordon renewal and individual vine replanting in established blocks. Pruning, shoot and crop thinning, and even harvest involves individual vine attention and decision making adjustments. Contract crews or casual labor cannot be expected to make these decisions.

Vineyard managers have to constantly readjust strategies during the growing season, mainly because of the variable rainfall and resulting vigor and disease issues. Timing is everything when it comes to spraying, shoot positioning, and leaf pulling. Experience in the same vineyard over many years makes for a much more consistently balanced vineyard.

Winemakers cannot plan for anything in the East. Only experience with the same vineyard will teach winemakers which varieties or blocks can hang through a three-day rain in September, how to handle botrytized Cabernet Franc, or how much bleeding is reasonable when Merlot berries come in swollen after a rain.

4. AN EXPERIENCED PALATE — Numbers and lab results only serve as backup data for palate-based winemaking, as there are too many variables that cannot be measured. Decision making — from harvesting, to extraction, to blending — is all palate- and experience-based. The most successful eastern winegrowers have trained their palates through tasting and study.

The focus needs to be on benchmark European wines from regions where it rains during the growing season. How did the Bordelaise make such stunning reds in the seemingly mediocre 2008 vintage? How did the Burgundians make such mineral, focused whites with all the rot and mildew pressures in 2006?

5. THE COURAGE TO DO NOTHING — “Fear-based” is perhaps the best way to describe eastern winemaking philosophy. The goal is to make a safe wine. Under our conditions this often involves copious use of additives and manipulation.

How can we learn the character and potential of our vineyards if we add acid, tannins, concentrates, and enzymes? Progressive winegrowers are learning that, in order to produce wines of character and “somewhereness,” they need to trust their grapes. As vineyard management and site selection evolves, cellar manipulation diminishes.

6. DECLASSIFICATION — One of the reasons that Bordeaux wines have improved so much in quality over the past 20 years is the introduction of “second” wines. Strict and honest declassification is essential if eastern wineries are to consistently bottle “prestige” wines.

We can have vintages like 2003 where 100% of the wines are declassified down to a lower label, and other years such as 2007, where only a few odd lots and some press wines are cut out.

Declassification is all palate-based. The key is to have a profitable place for the declassified lots to go. Most eastern wineries do a brisk business with direct sales (tasting rooms or festivals). These are great avenues for selling “Clarets,” “regular” Chardonnays, or kitchen-sink blends.

We used to see our climate as our great disadvantage. However, a paradigm shift is emerging, as much improved vineyard management and a better understanding of site/variety relationships lead to balanced wines with concentration, savory complexity, and ageability.

As the trade and public tire of high octane fruit bombs, eastern winemakers are in a great position to distinguish ourselves. This takes an enormous amount of time and dedication. Presently only a handful of wineries are in a position to do this.

Most are still consumed with catering to “regional palates” and are guided more by entrepreneurial impatience than the focus required to make fine wines. This scenario is changing, as many newer entries have the site, the business model (capital), a palate, an experienced team, and a goal to produce a great wine from the East. Stay tuned.