If you understood and enjoyed that pun without explanation, I have a glass of Counoise-based Rose' to share with you the next time you're in. For the rest (most likely all) of the Unionville blog reading population, cultivar is a fancy word for plant variety. In our case, we're talking about grapevines, and specifically, those that were born and raised in the Rhone valley of southeast France.
About ten years ago, the Amwell Ridge Vineyard was planted on the hill across from the winery. There were more varieties than you could count on two hands, and these varieties, while all French, come from all corners of that large country that has very different climate, weather, and soils from Bordeaux to Burgundy to Champagne, to the Rhone. Different parts of New Jersey share some similarities with each of these regions, but there are no perfect correlations between New Jersey's grape growing areas and the various viticulture zones of France. So the Ridge was planted to test plots of 11 different French varieties, and ten years later, we've drawn some conclusions. This is what makes wine making in New Jersey so exciting...we're still learning, and will be for quite some time. It's pioneering work.
With the 2017 harvest we will end the Petite Sirah and Cabernet Sauvignon production from Amwell Ridge. The 9 rows of Sauvignon will be budded over to two of our very successful Rhone white grape varieties- Marsanne and Rousanne. We will lose these rows from production in 2018, but by chip grafting- adhering young "bud wood" from the white varieties into a cut of the existing Cabernet Sauvignon trunk- we will see these 9 rows yielding Marsanne and Rousanne in 2019. Through the grafting process we take the shortcut around production loss that a vineyard feels when one rips out productive vines. That will have to be the case with the Petite Sirah. It doesn't ripen consistently enough as it requires a wider growing window than our climate consistently provides. We do not have the opportunity to chip graft in the replacement vines, because the selected variety- Picpoul Blanc- isn't accessible anywhere in the region. Without any in the area, there are no cuttings to be had, so we will have to source completely new plants as we introduce this new Rhone white variety onto the Amwell Ridge.
It will be 5 years before Picpoul weaves its way into production- either as a part of the Mistral Blanc blend, or as a varietal wine if it is special on its own. Again, that's part of what makes vineyard planning, and wine making in an emerging region so exciting. In ten years we may learn that these decisions weren't ideal, but they're markedly more informed that what was happening at Unionville 10, 20, or 30 years ago. With each vintage comes another year of knowledge, and this gets integrated into our entire operation.
I don't think the success of our Rhone grape varieties is happenstance. I think the weather comparisons are a better correlation than those between our part of New Jersey and any part of France. The average summertime high temperatures roast into the 90s, and average winter lows mirror our own in the low 30s. The total annual rainfall of the central Rhone valley and New Jersey are within 5 or 6 inches of each other (although it should be noted that like much of France, their drier months in France coincide with harvest time, which gives FR an advantage). Combine these weather similarities with the well drained clay loam soils of the Amwell Ridge, and I expect these Rhone wines to continue to become a focus of our brand in the years to come.
General Manager, Unionville Vineyards
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My name is Rachael White, and I am the new vineyard manager at Unionville Vineyards. I am thrilled to be part of the team and produce exceptional grapes for exquisite wine. I’m eager to begin this role and I wanted to introduce myself to share a little of my background.
I became interested in grape production right out of high school while working at my local research and extension center with the viticulture team. Little did I know when I started that viticulture would become my passion and career going forward. I got to work with industry famous people like Dr. Tony Wolf and Dr. Cain Hickey and interact with growers that were more than happy to share their joys and dismays about farming grapes. I fell in love with the seasonality and the fact I could always be outside! With a newfound purpose, I attended my first semester at Virginia Tech in the fall of 2013 and immediately focused my degree on wine grape production. I took every wine and vineyard related course offered at the time and enjoyed other horticulture courses along the way. I studied
abroad in Cortona, Italy where I learned old world wine tradition and began refining my palate.
I finished my Bachelor of Science degree in December of 2016 and looked to gain more knowledge from elsewhere in the world. I decided to work a vintage in the southern hemisphere and set my eyes on New Zealand. In March of 2017, I started work at a contract winery in the Marlborough region that produced Sauvignon Blanc, but also small batches of Pinot Noir, Gewurztraminer, and Pinot Gris. I worked on the “Red Team," and processed mostly Pinot Noir
in small orders for clients.
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.
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