In Pursuit of Virginia’s Terroir
by Jim Law
June 1, 2015
In 1981, after a few years experience working in vineyards and wineries, I had two job offers. One was in Oregon and the other in Virginia. I chose Virginia. Discovering the potential of a new viticultural region was too exciting to pass up. In the 1970’s I lived, studied and worked in Europe and Africa and was drawn to regional distinctions of wine and food. Suddenly, I found myself in a position to influence the identity of a new region. I am just as excited now as I was then. Wines produced across the Commonwealth are very good, but the emphasis continues to be on manipulative winemaking rather than winegrowing. This technical approach precludes us from gathering a critical mass of experience and knowledge in the vineyard to take us to the next quality level.
Wines of Effort vs. Wines of Place (Terroir)
A wine of effort expresses a certain house style or brand that can change according to consumer preference. These wines tend to be correct, serviceable, and soulless. Effort is made in the cellar to correct shortcomings in the harvested grapes. These wines are made by technical winemakers who depend on manipulative techniques and additions (acid, tannins, oak products, colorants).
Wines of place express their vineyard site. They emphasize mineral characteristics over fruit. They generally need aging to develop to their fullest potential. In the cellar, the winegrower takes on the role of caretaker, restraining from any unnecessary intervention. Winegrowers do not interfere with the aromas and flavors that are intrinsic to the site. Their job in the cellar is to guide texture and structure by careful decisions relating to extraction, lees contact and declassification. Europeans do this well. They have the advantage of ancestral vineyard knowledge being passed down for generations. Their understanding and respect for terroir is deep and unwavering. Comparatively, we Virginians are in our infancy when it comes to understanding our terroir, hence the majority of wines produced here are wines of effort.
The place has to be the right place. The land, the climate and the variety have to have a magical symbiotic relationship. In Virginia we are still far from understanding the nuances of these relationships, but we are starting to understand the basics. In order to make wines of place, the winegrower’s most important decisions are at the pre-plant stage. Once the vineyard is in the ground, the die has been cast. This is the subject of my article.
Virginia is one of the wettest viticultural regions on the planet. We are all aware of the above ground consequences of too much rain at the wrong time, but the below ground ramifications are also highly influential to wine quality. Because it rains so much here, landscape form and soils have a huge impact on vineyard performance and wine quality. In California the focus is on irrigation. In Virginia, the concern is water evacuation. This is why site and soils are much more critical to us than to our west coast colleagues. Northern Europeans have dealt with excessive water for a few millennia and have a deep understanding of vine/soil/water relationships. We can learn much more from them than from arid regions.
There are many critical stages where vines need to be slightly water stressed to produce their best wines. Berry enlargement in June and fruit maturation before harvest are two, but mid-summer is arguably the most important. Simply put, if vines have access to an abundance of water they grow too much for too long. Red wines made from vines that continue to grow after veraison tend to have unbalanced textures (and chemistry), vegetal aromas and flavors, and green, unripe tannins. Hydric (water) stress before veraison halts the vine’s vegetative cycle and puts energy and resources into the grapes. In 2011, we had a very dry summer. The vines stopped their vegetative cycle just at the right time. I was surprised at the quality of some of the red wines I tasted, even with the debacle of the infamous September rains.
Some sites retain a lot more water than others. There are two aspects to a site’s ability to absorb and hold water: landscape form (topography) and soil water holding capacity.
Landscape form is the most important and easiest to evaluate: Convex (ridges or hills) vs. concave (dips, swales or bowls); steep slopes vs. flat. Even the slightest bulge in the terrain can have a very positive effect on shedding water both superficially and internally. Vineyard block design should reflect topography, not neat, convenient, geometry. The steeper the slope the better as far as the vines are concerned. There is a reason that the greatest vineyards in Northern Rhone, Alsace and Mosel are planted on death defying slopes.
Some soils hold lots of water for the vines to access. Others do not. In Virginia, because of our precipitation, soils that lose water quickly are preferable. Vineyard soil scientists refer to this as plant available water (PAW). It is very complex, but using soil surveys and through observation, we are beginning to set the groundwork for predicting outcome. Soils that are deep, with high organic matter, and certain clay colloids tend to hold lots of water (high water holding capacity). This water is constantly available to the vine, therefore negating any chance of achieving hydric stress at the critical times.
Each grape variety has distinct water needs. Of the varieties commonly grown in Virginia, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc vines need the most hydric stress because of their long and strong vegetative cycle. Merlot prefers a bit more access to water. If Merlot is too stressed it will shut down and not fully recover. White fruited varieties can handle more PAW and still produce excellent wines. Chardonnay is a weak vine that can suffer from too much water stress, but Sauvignon Blanc prefers soils with lower PAW. Vineyard block design should reflect variety requirements and soil PAW.
Harvest sweet spot
The ripening time for the best quality wines is from mid-September to mid-October. Europeans feel that the best wines come from vintages where the grapes ripen at the very end of the growing season: “ripe, but barely ripe”. In most of Virginia, later ripening varieties have the best chance of producing terroir driven wines. This is for two reasons:
- Warm days and cool nights retain acidity, enhance aromas, increase color and give us our best shot at silky tannins.
- In Virginia, August, September and October experience roughly the same average rainfall total (October is statistically the driest of the three). However rot is much less prevalent if it rains when temperatures are cool rather than warm. This is especially true of sour rot.
If more of us desire to move beyond serviceable, wedding/festival wines, we need to start paying attention to vineyard fundamentals. If we put more effort into pre-plant decisions, we can put less effort into the winemaking. The next generation has at their disposal much more knowledge and expertise than we did. My hope is that they take advantage of it.