The Hardscrabble Journal

Weather Worries

It has started. The “worries” give a growing season its official beginning. Vine buds are still as tight as a drum, but sap has been flowing and temperatures for the next few nights are predicted to be in the teens. We saw something similar in 2014 (but temperatures were near 0F). We lost a lot of young vines that year and their replant replacements are just now old enough to produce their first crop. Not again, please! I don’t expect any major problems. Old vines should be fine, but I do worry about the baby vines.

Most non-farmers cannot understand how we can look at risk so calmly and almost nonchalantly. There certainly is a level of anxiety when it comes to unfortunate weather events, but we know that there is nothing we can do about it, except plan and be optimistic about the proverbial “next year”. Perhaps there is an historical context also in play. We are living under the same conditions as our farming ancestors, but it is not as “life and death” as it was for them. Existentialism is relative.

Pruning

Pruning is a winegrower’s favorite job. Especially on warm, sunny days. A small vineyardist has an intimate relationship with each vineyard block and in some ways, with each vine. Right now I am pruning the Hardscrabble Chardonnay I planted in 1985. I don’t let anyone else prune these vines because of our history. We’ve been through a lot together.

While to the casual onlooker, pruning seems like routine, assembly line work. But to the pruner it is an exciting adventure, as every vine is a sculpture. Each block, variety, and clone requires a different approach. An individual vine is quickly inspected. We can see last year’s performance by evaluating the amount of growth that the vine put out the previous growing season. If last year’s canes were small, and the vine struggled to fill the trellis space allotted to it, we prune ‘short’, meaning leave less buds, and therefor potential crop for the coming growing season. This is called balanced pruning. There are formulas for this: one weighs the canes of a single vine then adjusts their pruning cuts. But all experienced pruners get an eye for it and it comes naturally.

Pruning for balance is most important. A close second is form. The structural integrity of the vine contributes to it’s longevity. We are looking for a certain degree of uniformity. Most of Hardscrabble’s vines are pruned in a style called double Guyot. Guyot was a frenchman who developed the system when trellis wires started appearing 100+ years ago. Double refers to two canes per vine. This year we are making some changes in our pruning technique. We were fortunate to have the opportunity to meet with a ‘radical’ pruning expert from Italy who has influenced my thinking. More on this later.

Linden’s Terroir Project Begins

Linden’s Terroir Project

[terroir: the complete natural environment in which a particular wine is produced, including factors such as the soil, topography, and climate.]

Decades ago, a certain intellectual curiosity led me to Virginia to grow winegrapes. That curiosity has not waned. Initial plantings in the 1980s and 1990s where established with great enthusiasm, but without much knowledge or experience. I am now very familiar and even intimate with the soils and slopes on this small farm. These soils have great potential that was never realized because of fundamental mistakes in designing the planting. I’ve given myself a chance to try again by undertaking the painful process of removing vineyard blocks and replanting. This is all being done with the hope of achieving a better expression of the personality and quality of the terroir.

The truth will be in the bottle. If all goes well, the virgin harvest for this new planting will be the 2020 vintage. The official release date for the wine is set for Saturday, December 2, 2023. Mark your calendars (subject to change).

Not only do I want to share the wine, but even more so, I want to share the process. How does one go from a rough, stubby hillside to a finished bottle of wine in just six years? My plan is to update you via this newsletter. When something of interest occurs, I will write about it. The Terroir Project will be a narrative on the series of events that transform a piece of ground to a bottle of wine. Sort of like Netflix in slow motion. Here goes:

Last fall (2016) was the final harvest for the original vines. As soon as harvest was finished the vines were pruned down to stumps, trellis wires removed, then posts, and finally the vines themselves. This was a tremendously long and involved process from which, for emotional reasons, I recused my involvement.

Usually when winter sets in, the ground is too wet to work, but a dry spell in December firmed up the soil enough so we could work the land with tractors.

Our first job was to chop up all the vine canes that were left on the ground as a tangled mess. We use a flail mower that pulverizes long, spaghetti-like canes into tiny pieces that will break down into organic matter relatively quickly.
The next task also involved incorporating organic matter into the soil. Spreading twenty-four tons of chicken manure is not a job that one looks forward to. However the window of opportunity was obvious and we rallied to the challenge. The ground was still firm and able to support tractor and manure spreader. Just as critical, Linden’s tasting room was closed for three weeks during the holidays. Once spread, chicken manure is not organoleptically pleasing. Three weeks is about the amount of time the pungent odors need to dissipate. Chicken litter is ideally suited for rejuvenating an old nutrient depleted vineyard site, but the application timing can be tricky.

Blending Trials Start and Stop

This first week of the New Year, as is our custom, we started blending trials for the 2016 Reds. We have some great material to work with as the ripeness and quality of the grapes was the best in recent memory.

We started with Avenius Vineyard as there are fewer barrels than Hardscrabble and therefor it is a bit easier to have a sense of accomplishment early on. Immediately we (Shari Avenius, Jonathan Weber and Jim Law) were unanimous  about a blend that was majority Merlot. This was no surprise given that these were some of the best Merlot grapes I have ever tasted. We confirmed our decision by tasting several other flights with the favored blend included. Each time the preference was unanimous. We then proceeded to the fine tuning of including small amounts of Avenius press wine into the blend. This can add an extra dimension of complexity and density. Unfortunately there was not consensus, as the Merlot press wine contributed rusticity and the Cabernet Sauvignon contributed a hard acidity. After many attempts at different iterations we decided to stop for the time being and try again at a later date.

Next was Hardscrabble. This is a very powerful wine that was in a very awkward stage. Its tannins are pretty unforgiving right now. Much of the Cabernet Sauvignon is in new barrels and has yet to fully absorb the oak impact. Long story short, we decided to give the wines another month and then re-visit.

Muse Visit

Possibly unique to the winegrowing trade is the time honored site visit. This is where one winery operation visits another with the intention of sharing information, walking the vineyards and tasting the wines. I’ve had the opportunity to do these in situ visits in Europe, South Africa, California and Oregon, and of course the East Coast.

A few days ago we visited Muse vineyards near Woodstock Virginia. The place is enchanting. The approach, a steep switchback descent down to the Shenandoah River, quickly eases my angst of  the endless and faceless fast food/interstate end of town. In the winter, passengers can catch glimpses of the centuries old farm from above (driver must not take eyes off of road). A classic Shenandoah low water bridge with a pedestrian swing bridge adjacent greet visitors who then drive right into the vineyards.

We are greeted by Robert Muse, Sally Grooms Cowal, Aury Holtslag, Tim Rausse and their requisite canine accompaniment. The feel of the place reminded me of Linden: quiet, simple, laid-back and farming focused. Owner Robert Muse has been inspired by many wines over the decades and is determined to try his hand at growing every grape that went into those wines. I was particularly impressed with the Nebbiolo, perhaps due to the deft hand of Tim Rausse, whose Italian father, Gabriele was the first Virginia winemaker I met upon my arrival in 1981. Gabriele was managing Barboursville and I was newly hired to make wine at a now defunct winery called Tri-Mountain located only about 20 miles north of Muse in the Shenandoah Valley.

After several hours of walking the vineyards and tasting from barrel we had a very European like lunch at the farmhouse. By “European”, I refer not just to the meal and wines, but to the conversation, atmosphere, and leisurely pace. Satisfied and content we returned back to our own mountain retreat.

 

Chicken Manure

Jonathan and I just spread 24 tons of chicken litter on land that will eventually become Cabernet Sauvignon. Perhaps not one of the more romantic aspects of vine growing, I’ve found that it is magical in the way this “black gold” can transform old depleted former vineyard soils. We pulled out the original vines in November and are now starting to prepare for a 2018 planting.

The timing of the chicken manure is important. Not so much for agricultural reasons (although it is best if done a year in advance of planting), but more for sensory influences. This field is adjacent to the winery tasting room which is closed until January 7. Catch my drift? Hopefully the aromatic intensity will diminish with time.

Down Time

Reflecting our respect for the seasons, we are now in rest mode with a self imposed ban on doing anything of importance. The seasonality of our work gives us a now uncommon opportunity to go dormant without guilt. I call it our big weekend. From March through early November we work in deference to the demands of Mother Nature. She controls our work schedule.

It is a good time to taste. Last week we got together with the staff at RdV and blind tasted about 20 bottles of young (2012 to 2014) Bordeaux blends from Bordeaux, California, and Virginia. We included our own wines  in the mix. I learn so much from these tastings, as humbling as they are. It is one of the few times that I can taste my own wine somewhat objectively and best understand its merits and deficiencies. We have been doing this for years now and don’t hold back any punches. I cannot think of any better way to improve the quality of our wines than this.

 

Pulling Out Vineyards

“There is a fine line between genius and insanity”
-Oscar Levant
We’re pulling out. But don’t worry. Although I’ve always been intrigued by Nova Scotia viticulture, I’m not moving to Canada. We’re pulling out vines. Quite a lot of vines. These are vines adjacent to the winery, so the now empty fields are the source of two questions: What varieties are you removing and what are you replacing them with? The answer is Cabernet Sauvignon. Removing old vines (20 to 30 years) in their prime, only to replace them with the same variety of baby vines which will take years to produce and perhaps decades to reach their full quality potential admittedly does seem just a bit insane.

I feel compelled to explain.

These vines started their lives in 1988 as Chardonnay. They were planted on a new trellising system called Lyre. The rows were oriented East/West. I made the best decisions I could, given the information and knowledge available.

I’ve learned a lot since then. The soils are some of the best Cabernet soils on the farm. In 2003 we grafted over the Chardonnay to Cabernet, but this was only marginally successful. Many grafts did not take, so new Cabernet vines had to be planted resulting in a vineyard block with different aged vines that ripened at different times. We’ve also learned that East/West row orientation is an inefficient solar receptor. While this may be fine for earlier ripening white varieties, it puts late ripening Cabernet at a disadvantage.

Most importantly, the wine quality was never good enough to make it into Hardscrabble Red. It was a C- planting on an A+ site. Out they go. So after a year of soil preparation we will replant this potentially great site in 2018. By 2020 the vines will produce their first small crop. In 2022 or 2023 we will have the wine in the bottle and ready to release. Mark your calendars.

All Quiet Now

Even after all these years (this was vintage 37 for me), I remain a bit stunned as to how quickly all the frenetic activity of crush comes to a halt. The cellar seems to have an echo. No more bubbling or humming of a fan, a heater, or a chilling system.

This week we put all our toys away: picking lugs, crushers, chutes, manure spreaders are all cleaned on last time and then go to rest until August 2017.

The reds will be topped one last time. we will add sulfur now that the malolactic fermentations are complete. The reds have been very well behaved this year: no problems with high volatile acidity (the ‘vinegar’ acid), off aromas (reduction), or stuck fermentations (residual sugar).

We still have two white wine lots that are taking their time. As usual the Avenius Sauvignon Blanc is in no hurry to complete fermentation. There is still about 10 grams of sugar remaining to be converted into alcohol before it is “dry”. The Petit Manseng is also still active. We need to monitor it closely as we intend to leave about 30 or 40 grams/l of sugar in the final wine (demi-sec). Once we feel the wine is at the right stage we will turn on the chilling system to arrest fermentation. That point should be soon.

Most of the activity is now outside. We are removing over 3 acres of vineyards this fall: wires, posts, and vines. In 2018 the blocks will be replanted in a totally different fashion (row direction, spacing, clones and rootstocks).

Still Pressing Reds

Not quite done, but the cellar feels cavernous now as most of the red fermentation bins have been drained and the wines rest in barrels. The empty bins have been thoroughly washed and sent back to storage in the barn loft. Room to move never felt so luxurious.

It has been hard to contain our excitement about the reds. During our two day tasting trials, the tannins of the Cabernet Sauvignon lots seemed to continue evolving with no end in sight. We nervously made the call to drain off of the skins even though there were no red flags pointing to over extraction. “What more do we want”? was a typical comment.

Jonathan and I were secretly hoping that yesterday’s tasting would result in the decision to drain off the three remaining bins today, but it was not to be as they are still gaining volume and structure from soaking on their skins. Next week for sure.

Poor Vidal is still on the vines. I’ve come to the conclusion that Vidal just doesn’t do well with hot harvest conditions. There was a lot of rot after the late September deluge. The healthy clusters just haven’t developed well and the flavors are wan at best. At this writing it looks like we will not harvest any Vidal in 2016.

Vidal in 2016 probably best reflects why it is so difficult to respond to the question “was it a good vintage?”. What wine are you refering to? It depends. Reds: surely yes (except young vines and some Cabernet Franc). Whites: mostly (except some Sauvignon Blanc, warmer sites, and Vidal).

Overall, we are very pleased and look forward to getting more acquainted with the wines over the winter.