The Hardscrabble Journal
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
The fog of crush is lifting, so there is time for a bit of reflection on the harvest and the potential nature of the wines from vintage 2016. At this phase it is difficult to objectively evaluate the wines, however we have a good general sense of what we can expect.
The greatest weather influence on the vintage was the hot, dry conditions of August and September. In mid-August we were anticipating a “normal” harvest in terms of timing. In fact the start of harvest was typical, but then ripening accelerated for all varieties. We found ourselves picking and crushing in unprecedented heat. This is my principle concern, especially for the white wines. While the clusters were pristine, and the chemistry was good, I’m thinking that the 2016 whites will be showy when young, but may not have the aging potential that is a hallmark of Linden’s wines. We just tasted the not yet released 2014 Hardscrabble Chardonnay which is the polar opposite of 2016. It is tight, bright and sinewy. It needs a lot more time before it is ready for prime time. The cooler Avenius site handled the heat the best in 2016 and should produce the most promising wines.
Reds handle heat and drought better than whites. We have a lot of good material to work with, but there were some exceptions. Young vines may have been more impacted by hydric (water) stress than we had thought. They did not show overt signs of stress in the canopy as leaves, tendrils and shoot tips were all fairly normal looking. However, in some cases we saw a lack of uniformity in berry development leading to an unusual amount of pink berries on the sorting table. Older vines with deeper, more established roots seemed unaffected and benefited from a mild hydric stress. 2016 brought us the ripest Cabernet Sauvignon since 2010. This favors Hardscrabble Red which is always Cabernet dominated. The reds should be plusher and rounder than the past five vintages.
Now that harvest is over (although we still have Vidal on the vine), my daily harvest missives will come to an end. I’ll be writing about the wines as they develop. My hope is to continue Journal entries on a regular basis. Thanks for reading! Jim
Petit Verdot is an obscure grape variety that came to us from Bordeaux. In Bordeaux it has historically played a very minor role in left bank blends. So minor that most Bordeaux wines contain no Petit Verdot. With recent warming trends there is a renewed interest in the grape as a more significant blending partner, especially in Medoc, as Merlot is falling out of favor with some Chateaux.
Hardscrabble’s first planting of Petit Verdot was in 1991. I immediately became enamored with the vines as they were more or less problem free and consistent in yields (in fact they want to over produce making cluster thinning a bit of a labor drain).Once it became evident that there was a bright future for Petit Verdot in our region we planted a lot more. By the early 2000’s we had a substantial acreage of Petit Verdot.
The wines were inky dark, high alcohol, high acid and high tannin, but rustic. A little bit went a long way. I soon discovered that in blends, Petit Verdot could easily dominate all other components. The finesse of Merlot and the fine grained tannins of Cabernet Sauvignon were overshadowed by the shear power of Petit Verdot. We’ve now pulled back substantially on the percentage of Petit Verdot used in the Hardscrabble blend, and even in Claret. The dilemma was what to do with all of the Petit Verdot in barrel, but not appropriate for blending.
In 2002 we bottled Linden’s first varietal Petit Verdot. While I’m not a fan of single variety Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot does well on its own (although it usually has some help with a bit of Carmenere, Cabernet Sauvignon or Cabernet Franc). At first we made the Petit Verdot in the same way as the other wines, but over the past five years we’ve been backing off the extraction (cooler fermentations, less movement and shorter cuvaison times). This has resulted in a wine that is less rustic and brooding. While hardly finessed, the wines are more fruit driven, fresher, and juicy.
This year will be no exception. The Petit Verdot was generally the last red to be picked and will be one of the first to be drained and pressed off of the skins. Some of it will spend its life in stainless steel and some in old barrels. It will probably be bottled early, in August 2017.
Many of the red wine lots have finished their fermentations and are now dry. The bins and tanks have been “buttoned up” and sealed to exclude any air (oxygen). This stage called “post-fermentation maceration”. We do this on the lots that have ripe tannins in order to extract all the goodies into the wine. Lots where the grapes had less then ideal tannin material are drained and pressed once they are dry (less than two weeks), but the best lots of Cabernet Sauvignon may go up to four weeks.
The amount of time is determined by taste. We aren’t evaluating aromas or flavors as much as structure and texture. Similar to steeping tea, the wines will be increasingly impacted by the skins and seeds. Our job is to decide when they have absorbed enough without going over the top and becoming too astringent and dried out.
Every two days Jonathan draws two samples of every bin that we feel is in the “window”. This would be at least several days after a bin has completed fermentation. We taste one of the samples that same day along with the sample taken two days previously. This way we can better understand the progression of “steeping” or extraction. When we decide that an individual bin is at the point where it could become over-extracted we drain and press.