I just returned from Vine Camp in Prosser, Washington. For those of you that don’t know, I am currently enrolled in the Viticulture Program (growing grapes) at Washington State University. The program is 18 months long with three “camps” required. The camps are two days of study where students fly in from all over the country-actually one woman flies in from the Netherlands. This latest camp discussed various diseases to be found in vineyards, with specific emphasis on Powdery Mildew and Botrytis Bunch Rot; both or which can wreak havoc on a vineyard.
Powdery Mildew is a fungal disease that affects the grapevine. The mildew attaches itself on leaves of the grapevines, seriously hindering the photosynthesis of the plant and therefore reducing yield. Botyrtis Bunch Rot infects the berries of the plant, sucking the moisture out of the grape and if left unattended, will destroy the entire bunch, vine and eventually large portions of a vineyard. Botrytis is a fungus on grapes when wet moist conditions prevail. Viticulturists will fight against this by opening up the canopy (removing leaves) to get better air circulation within the canopy. They will also add a host of fungicides to fight its spread.
Now, my class is on Viticulture, so the focus is on fighting diseases of the plant; but, Botrytis isn’t always a bad thing. As an Oenologist and a Sommelier, I know that Botrytis also has its good side. If you have ever had a Sauternes you will understand how Botrytis, when kept in check, is a good thing, though my professors at camp would never agree.
When Botrytis infects a grape, it sends finger like tentacles inside the grape to drink up the moisture inside. This reduces the water in the grape and concentrates the juice. Even better, it also imparts a honey like flavor inside the grape that is delicious.
When you are actually encouraging Botrytis, the trick for the growers is to find the balance between perfect infestation of the fungus and horrible blight. You see, Botrytis is only a good thing when you want it. If you are trying to make a dry Chardonnay or Cabernet Sauvignon for example, you want zero. The French however, specifically in their Semillons in the southern portions of Bordeaux want it.
Washington State is the second largest wine producer in the US. They are growing by leaps and bounds. Our class trip included a visit to Inland Desert Nursery, a family owned nursery that supplies the cleanest and healthiest grapevines available to growers across North America. Inland Desert Nursery works closely with Washington State virologists, and are leading proponents of certified clean and disease-free grapevines. This effort is key to building profitable, sustainable vineyards.
I would be lying if I didn’t say that each day’s agenda didn’t end with drinking Washington wines. All for the sake of study.
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What a difference a year can make. August 2018 through July 2019 was the second rainiest 12 month stretch in the recorded history of New Jersey weather. These records stretch back into the late 19th century, which gives context just to how wet that is. It's not easy growing wine grapes when it rains every other day from August through the end of harvest. As we slogged through a wet May and June, we were making preparations to endure another difficult season. A torrential thunderstorm on July 11th dropped over three inches of rain on most of our vineyards. Todd Wuerker, winemaker at Hawk Haven Vineyard said to me on the phone "it has to stop, it always evens out" and I scoffed at that idea. The weather today doesn't know what happened the day, week, or month before.
Todd was right! An atmospheric switch flipped in mid-July, and high pressure dominated the mid-Atlantic for the rest of the season. There were isolated thunderstorms to dodge through the rest of summer, and Unionville fared particularly well in this stretch. Over the 10 weeks of harvest, less than three inches of rain fell across our vineyards. We went from a historically wet stretch to historically dry, and it came just in the nick of time.
Today, we are picking the first grapes for what is Unionville's 27th harvest. Two years after the first grapes were picked and fermented, they were sold in the newly-opened tasting room- 25 years ago. Although I've been thinking about this moment for about a year, we've started our anniversary celebration and I'm still struggling to put it all in context.
In the past few years I've learned so much that could be shared with you now. I've spent hours at the township building, reading through letters written back and forth between parties involved in the winery's founding in the early 1990's. I've walked the vineyards, pausing with each "King of the Vineyard" as Conor calls them- the craggy, gnarly vines nearly as old as me. I've stared at the black and white photos in the hallway of the 1858 Farmhouse of the family and workers who tended to this property many decades ago.
It’s the most wonderful time of the year! I know that is cliché to say, but it truly is a great time at Unionville. We’ve got all of our reds pressed and in barrel. Cooler, stainless-steel fermentations are finishing up in tank, I’m finally able to breathe a little easier, and wake up a little later. With the holidays upon us, the wine making team has a lot on the mind, but one thing standing out is the blending, bottling, and release of Vat #23 – the latest rendition of our opulent Port wine.
Port has a storied history at Unionville – the fortified delight has been made at the winery since its first vintage in 1993, Before we delve into that, we have to talk a little about how Port is made and the different styles in which it can be presented. Port, named for its origin country, Portugal, is typically a sweet or medium-dry red wine, fortified with distilled grape spirit, then cellared and bottled at different times and in different ways to present specific stylizations. The two most recognizable presentations of Port wine are Ruby and Tawny Ports. Ruby styles are young wines usually aged for only a couple of years (or less). They’re released early to showcase juicy acidity and fruity characteristics of young wine with fuller mouthfeel and complexity
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