On January 29th, Bill Freitag was named “Grower of the Year” at the annual technical meeting of the Virginia Vineyards Association. Freitag is chairman of the association’s Sustainability Workbook Committee, and has overseen the development of the Virginia Sustainable Winegrowers Self-Assessment Guide, a tool that helps individual growers transition toward “green” products and sustainable land stewardship. Mr. Freitag also serves the VVA as a grower representative on the Virginia Wine Council.

Bill is a skilled grower who is committed to continual improvement of his practices and to producing high-quality fruit,” said VVA president Tom Kelly.

Original, “Deep Thinking” Conference Program

The conference program was original and took a “deep thinking” approach to growing grapes in Virginia. State viticulturist Tony Wolf explained that the committee had a hard time deciding which variety to showcase on the program. “We decided instead to focus on wine types that illustrate the challenges of our natural environment.” Accordingly, the program featured the thick-skinned, fruity and rapidly increasing petit manseng which is versatile stylistically; sparkling wines, which can re-direct chardonnay or pinot noir into a different use when harvested early in a challenging vintage. The third processing trend was “straw wine” (“vin de paille”) or wines made from grapes that have been dried through some technique prior to fermentation.

Bill Tonkins, Vineyard Manager at Veritas Vineyards and appointed to the Virginia Wine Board by Governor McAuliffe, was involved with the planning of the conference program for 2016. He explains that the VVA is looking carefully at the kinds of research projects that get funding (from the state) through the Wine Board, which invites proposals.

For example, a presentation on Friday Jan. 29 was titled “Is it Time to Reconsider Potassium Recommendations?” This was a panel discussion with state viticulturist Tony Wolf, and consultant collaborators Lucie Morton of Morton Viticulture and Bubba Beasley of HydroGeo Environmental, LLC, and was funded by the Board. At issue is the standard recommendation for soil potassium levels; Morton and Beasley claim that soil potassium in Virginia is usually high enough for grapevines to avoid having to add any supplemental K. This is an important issue because high soil potassium has been correlated with high wine pH levels which affects microbial stability and longevity. The results of this study could have a sea change on how growers measure, and adjust, soil potassium levels. Prior to the VVA conference, Dave McIntyre wrote about Lucie and Bubba’s research.

A continual challenge in the Eastern vineyard industry is crown gall, deformities to vine trunks correlated with a decline in vine metabolism and fruit ripening due to the restriction of water and nutrient flow. Crown gall is caused by a bacteria that infects the vine when the trunk tissue is damaged by cold injury.

This year, some robust research was co-presented by Mizuho Nita of Virginia Tech and his fellow Japanese, Akira Kawaguchi, a chief officer in the Okayama Prefecture (county-like) government in that country. The take-away message was that although there is no cure for vines damaged by crown gall bacterium, except replacing damaged vines, there are a range of management solutions from ideal site selection to careful rootstock and cultivar selection that will reduce the risk of crown gall incidence. Both Tonkins and others found the presentation helpful in understanding the issue.

Tasting is Believing

Wine tasting sessions are always a good way to illustrate theory, and the conference offered several tasting opportunities. On Thursday Jan. 28, attendees were able to taste wines from the 2015 Governor’s Case, explained by Jay Youmans, MW who chairs the competition. On Saturday Jan. 31st, there were three tasting sessions on the conference themes. Emily Pelton of Veritas Vineyards and Jeff White of Glen Manor Vineyards each poured and discussed their late harvest petit manseng wines. Pelton then joined Jonathan Wheeler of Trump Winery to discuss their approach to sparkling wines.

For me the most original and fascinating tasting and presentation was jointly given by Molly Kelly, enologist at Virginia Tech, and Jeff Sanders, owner of Glass House Winery in Free Union, on the topic of making wine from pre-dried grapes. While Michael Shaps has previously discussed how his Wineworks uses modified tobacco sheds to dry red grapes at around 20 Brix to 24 Brix, substantially improving wine chemistry, Kelly and Sanders discussed alternative methods.

Kelly presented research on how an inexpensive commercial product can be sprayed on both sides of a canopy in the fruiting zone to make the normally hydrophobic surface of grape berries allow moisture inside to seep out through micropores, thereby concentrating the sugars and other phenolic compounds inside the berries. Studies in 2014 and 2015 used the drying technique in the vineyard on both cabernet franc and merlot clusters on the vine at 19 Brix, then harvested at 23 Brix. These were compared to grapes that were dried in a dehydration barn for 48 hours; half had been treated in the vineyard first, half were untreated.

The results showed that the sprayed vineyard treatment increased Brix, pH, TA and malic acid in both vintages, and increased tannin and pigment in juice and wine as well. Although there is a small decrease in berry weight, the increase in favorable grape chemistry is arguably well worth it. Kelly pointed out that although there was a rise in pH, it was not high enough to be troubling, and the rise in acid meant there was no trade-off in gaining concentration in Brix and phenolics by losing acidity. “In sub-optimum years, this method may provide a means to aid in producing quality wines,” she concludes. The name of this surfactant remains confidential pending confirmation that it is registered for application on wine grapes.

Jeff Sanders grows barbera, the Piedmontese grape that has been a backbone of Central Valley red blends for decades due to its dark color and high acidity. He makes a regular and in favorable years, does a selection for perfect (no surface damage) clusters, and dries them in a greenhouse with a fan. The grapes are put into small lugs and stacked to allow as much air flow as possible. He checks them twice daily to ensure no VA or other degredation is happening.

The resulting reserve resembles Italian amarone, and is highly prized by his wine club members. He poured the regular 2014 barbera and it was contrasted with the 2014 reserve “passito” style. The wines were both high quality but the stylistic difference was striking. The regular was fruity and acidic, but not oaky, a nice food wine. The dried reserve style wine was clean without volatile acidity, but showed definite “passito” influences. On the nose, dried leaves, hazelnut and walnut and a hint of clean earth, with blackberry fruit. On the palate, the wine had huge volume but was balanced, with flavors of herbs and dried bay leaf, clean earth and dried fruits, firm acid, and excellent balance, reminiscent of a classic Amarone.

Andrew Hodson (co-owner of Veritas Vineyards) stood in the audience and announced that he had organized a tasting of true Italian amarones, and included this barbera reserve. He then told the tasters that there was a Virginia wine in the group and asked them to guess which one it was. They all chose the worst wine, but in fact the Glass House dried barbera was one of the top favorites in the group.