While not nearly as well known as its genetic offspring, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc has earned its own fame and with due cause.  Established in the Libournais region of France, Cabernet Franc grapes were nurtured under an abbot named Breton who has since had his name used interchangeably with the official varietal name.  Later, the grape found its way into the Bordeaux region, and has since been regularly used in the blends connected to that region.

While it’s not known exactly when Cabernet Franc made its way to the Virginia vineyard scene, it is undeniable that it has a found a strong and loyal following here.  It is a hardy grape that flourishes in sandy and chalky soils, and it doesn’t require a lengthy growing season to flourish.  In fact, it reaches both bud phase and full ripeness at least a full-week earlier, if not more, than Cabernet Sauvignon.  Sometimes called an “insurance” grape because of its resistance to fungus and disease, Cabernet Franc really flourishes when it has to want just a little for water  Being slightly parched allows the vines to produce a fruit that is more concentrated in flavor with less water content.

The characteristics of this grape can produce flavors in wine that range from sweet to savory, reaching anywhere from dark fruits such as plum, blackberry, and raspberry to hints of tobacco, bell pepper, and even eucalyptus.  This is a wine that pairs well with nearly every food dish:  wild game, roasted pork, lamb gyros, a cheese platter, or any roasted vegetables are the perfect accompaniment to a glass of the always delicious Cabernet Franc.

As one of the most widely grown grapes in the world, Chardonnay has a history as rich and varied as the wines that it produces.  Propagated throughout France by the Cistercian monks, Chardonnay officially became a Burgundy grape when it was planted under Emperor Charlemagne’s rule in the 800s.  One of the legends swirling about this white Burgundy (as it is referred to in France) is that the Empress tired of the red wine stains that were always present on her husband’s white beard, and she ordered white grapes to be planted in the vineyards to combat this problem.  Once planted, the easy growing grape found popularity everywhere.

When colonists moved to Virginia, legislation was quickly passed by the House of Burgesses  to establish a wine industry in the new land.  By the decree of Act 12, each head of household was ordered to plant and maintain ten grape vines.  Knowing how popular Chardonnay has been for centuries upon centuries, it is easy to understand why colonists chose Chardonnay as the first vinifera planted in Virginian soil.  While early grape growers were not successful in their wine-making pursuits, they continued to establish vines and techniques that would be used for years to come.

Chardonnay is the winemaker’s dream grape due to the fact that it is so diverse and malleable by both the terroir (earth it grows in) and the winemaker’s techniques.  Although it comes to the height of flavors in chalky, mineral heavy soils, Chardonnay grows well in a vast array of conditions and the end flavor can be influenced by the height of ripeness at which it is harvested.  Harvesting early in the ripening produces flavors of apple and lemon, and harvesting later in the ripening will produce a wine with tropical flavors of pineapple and mango.

One of the most interesting characteristics of the Chardonnay grape is how easily it is influenced by oak aging.  While oak barrels can impart flavors of vanilla, coconut, and even dill, oaked Chardonnays are most well known for their buttery, creamy feel. This butter flavor is the result of malolactic fermentation.  Once all of the sugar has been turned to alcohol, the lactic acid “eats” the malic acid which creates a byproduct with a chemical composition very similar to movie theater butter.

A wine as varied as this can be paired with nearly everything.  From soft cheeses, to herbed fishes, poultry dishes, and hearty steaks – the right Chardonnay can be the perfect match for them all!

If you are anything like my human brother Taylor, your mouth will start to water at the mere mention of the wine: Petit Verdot.  It has been his favorite since he first tried our lineup in the tasting room.  It was one of the first varietals planted here at SIx Penny Farm, and, curiously enough, also one of the first grapes planted by the Romans in the Bordeaux region. The name itself gives a clue about why some vineyards have steered clear of the grape in recent years.  Loosely translated, “the little green one” offers many challenges to growers as it craves warmer climates and longer growing seasons.  Although it has fallen from favor in the Bordeaux area as vineyards switched to more reliable varietals in the 1960s, it is one of the original six Bordeaux grapes permitted in blends from the area and is often used in limited quantity: just enough to add velvety tannins, hints of herbs, and rich color.

This varietal first made its way to Virginia when Virginia Tech began experimenting with growing it in the late 1980s.  Mostly used in blends, people took note when Ingleside Vineyards (in the Northern Neck George Washington Birthplace AVA) released a single varietal bottle of Petit Verdot many years ago.  Since then, the grape has found increasingly steady footing in the Virginia wine market and has often been hinted at as being one of Virginia’s signature reds.

Petit Verdot needs quite a lengthy growing season with both early budding and late ripening making it susceptible to frost.  For this reason, it does best in a warmer climate, and its shallow roots prefer gravelly, thin soil that drains well.  Interestingly enough, this is one of the few grapes that produces more than two clusters per shoot, which helps to make up for the small size of the grape. The ultra dark color of Petit Verdot is characteristic of grapes who prefer warmer climates and this could be due to the thicker skins that allow the grape to be more heat resistant.

Those thicker skins also help the wine produced from this grape to be tannin heavy, and as with all wines that have plenty of tannins, it ages quite gracefully.  Our own Petit Verdot is delicious now, and we can only imagine what it may taste like in another 4 years.  Dry and full-bodied, Petit Verdot is a wine heavily scented with plum, lilac, violet, and sage.  These are the perfect complement to the lush fruity flavors of blackberry, blueberry, and even black cherry.  Often aged in oak to impart flavors of vanilla, hazelnut, and mocha, as a single varietal wine it is the perfect pair for spicy foods, hearty meats, and a score of cheeses.

Winston here….  As I was loping through the vines yesterday, I started to think about how much I know about each of our varietals, and I decided I should write a few blogs telling you all the facts and quirks I know about the grapes we have growing here at Six Penny Farm.  Seeing as Viognier (pronounced vee-own-yay) was the first wine specially crafted for us, I am going to start with that one.

This varietal is one of the ancient ones, but it found its fame in the northern Rhone region of southern France.  We are actually quite lucky to still have this delicious varietal as it nearly became extinct in the 1960s when just 8 acres were planted in the entire world. One of my favorite legends about Viognier is the origin of the name.  It has been suggested that the name started as “via Gehennae”, and if you are familiar with biblical terminology, you will recognize the name Gehennae as another name for the place of purgatory: Hell.  Taken literally, the original name means “the road of the valley of Hell” and it is supposed that this is a nod to the difficulty cultivars have growing this finicky grape.

It has been long rumored that this grape was Thomas Jefferson’s favorite – and he did, indeed, declare that it was the best white wine in the northern Rhone region – but it was not one of the varietals that he cultivated for wine making.  Viognier was first planted in Virginia by Dennis Horton of Horton Vineyards, and their 1993 vintage gained recognition across the state when HV won an award at a wine competition.  Viognier has continued to build its reputation since that time and earned the distinction of being the official state grape in May of 2011; it is now the fifth most common grape grown in Virginia.

Virginia provides an ideal climate for Viognier because it is a grape that “likes warm, dry weather and cool nights” according to Andrew Ornee of Blenheim Vineyards.  The cool nights help the grape maintain its acidity.  This low-yield varietal reaches ideal ripening before hurricane season, and it is often harvested in the early morning in order to produce the clearest juice possible.  Viognier is a vine that can grow for many years and it doesn’t even hit its peak until it is 15 or 20 years!

Viognier is a full-bodied white wine with rich, lush characters.  It is quite well-known for its aromas of tangerine, apricot, peach, and honeysuckle; when aged in oak, it develops very pleasant notes of vanilla. All Viognier have a slightly oily characteristic mid-palate that comes from the phenols found in the grape skins.  The pleasant acidity, lavish aromas, and lush flavors pair well with many different foods and flavors, particularly ones that are complex and heavy in spice.

I’ve got it on very good authority that the Viognier is a delicious wine (it IS my mom’s absolute favorite), and I would love for you to come experience our Viognier soon!

Oh boy, oh boy, we are right in the midst of my newest favorite time of the year: harvesting season!  We might not have many vines that are producing grape bunches right now, but Mom and I have been practicing checking for all the signs of ripeness.  With all of this practice, we are going to be top dogs at deciding when to pick next year!

There are a few ways you can tell if wine grapes are ready to pick just by looking at them:

  • The stems have turned brown.
  • The grapes have an even color appropriate for that variety.
  • The grapes are completely filled out and plump (and really easy to pull from their bunch).

The best way to tell if they are ready, though is by taste:

  • No part of the grape is bitter, even the skin.
  • The seeds are easy to chew – and have also turned brown!
  • Varietal characteristics can be identified if the taster is highly skilled.

It’s not all about looks and taste, though.  There are two very important factors for winemakers to consider: sugar and acid levels! You learned in my first blog about the refractometer used to measure the sweetness of grapes.  Testing the acidity levels of grapes is just as easy:  we crush the grapes and then measure the acidity of the juice using a pH scale.

Once the grapes are at the just right stage of ripening, they need to be picked as soon as possible.  It is always better to pick on a nice sunny day when the sugar levels will be highest, but it is most important that the grapes are harvested before they are damaged by animals eating them or heavy rain and winds.

All of our grapes will ripen at a different pace- depending on their type and growing conditions – so we are going to need to keep a very close watch on all of our grapes when we have our first harvest next year!

Every evening, I get to go on one of my favorite adventures.  Mom and I (and sometimes Dad) go walking across our property and through the vineyards.  There are all sorts of delicious smells in the air from the creatures that I share Six Penny Farm with, and we also get to check on all of our growing vines.  I love the golden hue they take on in the dusk hours.

Often when I hear my mom and dad talked about our grape vines, I hear them use the words vinifera and hybrid.  It actually took me a while to figure out that they were even talking about grapes.  After some careful deducing, I determined that vinifera is actually a shortened version of the subspecies vitis vinifera, or the grapevines native to Europe. Vinifera are the most well-known of the grapes, and the cultivars (or varieties) possess the names we commonly see on varietal wines, such as cabernet franc, viognier, and petit verdot.  Sometimes the different grape cultivars in the vinifera family intermingle with each other creating a cross. Two common examples of this are cabernet sauvignon (with a parentage of cabernet franc and sauvignon blanc) and chardonnay (with a parentage of pinot noir and gouais blanc).

There are numerous less commonly known subspecies in the vitis species.  Many of these are native to America and have varying degrees of usefulness in the wine industry.  They are sometimes used in hybrid propagation because of qualities such as pest resistance and cold hardiness.  Vitis muscadinia produces muscadine grapes which have earned their name in port-style and dessert-style wines.  The vines, however, are not used to create new cultivars with any other members of the vitis family because muscadinia grapes have 40 chromosomes while the rest of the vitis grapes have 38.  Thus, even though these vines are extremely pest-resistant, they are of no use in hybrid creation as they produce infertile cultivars.   Vitis labrusca is most well-known for its concord and niagara grapes, and is often characterized by its foxy musk.  Extremely cold-hardy, this subspecies is used to create hybrids for the northern regions of the United States.  Vitis riparia grows naturally over almost all of the eastern portion of North America, and it doesn’t have the foxy quality of v. labrusca. Because of the appealing taste and abundant clusters, it is often used in juice and jam making.  Vitis aestivalis is most well-known for the Norton grape.  The grapes from this vine have vinifera like qualities and the vines are extremely hardy.  Vitis mustangensis is the least useful of the subspecies.  It produces grapes that are very acidic and bitter in taste.  This quality is not appealing to the taste-buds and the high acidity can cause discomfort to the skin if handled.

Some of the subspecies (notably v. labrusca, v. riparia, and v. aestivalis) are mixed with vinifera vines to propagate new types of grapes that are more pest-resistant and cold resilient than the traditional vinifera grapes.  Hybrids are especially useful in producing European quality wines here in the United States.  Two hybrids that we are currently growing here at Brix & Columns Vineyards are chambourcin and vidal blanc.  The origins of chambourcin are not known, but vidal blanc was created from ugni blanc (a vinifera cultivar) and Rayon d’Or (another hybrid) in the 1930s

Figuring all of this out sure helps me to know more as I am walking through our vineyards.  My wine knowledge is growing nearly as fast as our vines, and I am so happy to share it all with everyone reading my blog.  If anyone has any questions, comment below and I will do my best to answer them.

Woof!

Welcome to my blog!  My name is Winston and you may see me hanging out here at Brix and Columns as I am the winery dog. They even put me on the back of the bottle!  I know a lot of you have the same questions about me, so I’d like to start off telling a little about me:  I am not a Holstein calf or a Dalmatian or even a miniature horse (although I weigh more than one!!)  I’m a harlequin Great Dane (harlequin just means I have a black and white coat), I’m 7 years old, and I weigh 140 lbs.  I am very friendly and love to be petted, but I’m almost guaranteed to leave your side when I catch sight of my mom.  I love her best and I am a master at being her shadow!  Oh, yes!  There’s the whole “you can’t feed me” rule.  I love people food, and I am really great at asking for it, but Mom says it is bad for my health and manners.  Anyways, a few months ago, my people parents opened their vineyard; they named it Brix & Columns Vineyards.  Makes sense to me!  Lots of bricks and lots of columns- what else would they name it?

Well, turns out I was wrong and I HATE being wrong!  It’s a good thing that I spend so much time in the tasting room because I am learning so much, and now, through this blog, I have a way to share it all with you.  One of the very first pieces of information that made my ears perk up was when a customer asked the tasting room attendant why we chose a different spelling for the word “bricks”.

What?!  Who knew there were two types of bricks?  Turns out there are: bricks and Brix.  Brix (°Bx) is the unit of measurement used to indicate the sweetness of grapes.  Wine makers (also known as vintners) use a refractometer out in the vineyards to crush the grapes and measure the sugar levels; those sugar levels are indicated by the number of Brix assigned. This number helps them to know when to harvest the grapes.  Most wine grapes are harvested between 21°Bx and 25°Bx.  For a frame of reference, most table grapes that you buy at the grocery store are between 17°Bx and 19°Bx. Oh, and if the winemakers need to measure how many Brix are in the juice squeezed from the grapes, they use a hydrometer.

Why does the Brix level matter to vintners and wine lovers alike?  Well, it can help wine makers determine the likely alcohol content of a dry wine when processed in the typical fashion.  Roughly, each gram of sugar is converted into a half gram of alcohol. If you want to be more exact, you can multiply the Brix number by .59.  For instance, a grape that is 23°Bx will produce a wine that is 13.6% alcohol.

Usually, though, wines aren’t processed in the same way at each vineyard and the final alcohol content in relation to the initial Brix level of the grapes can give wine drinkers clues about the fermentation process.  If a wine has an alcohol content lower than it seems it should, according to its Brix levels at harvesting, the wine may have had some of the sweet juice drained off and replaced with water in order to make a more palatable wine.  In days of old, this drained off juice was processed into Rosé wine in much the same fashion that we use to produce our own Rosé (saignée style).  This technique is typically used in warm climates where the growing season produces grapes that ripen beyond the desired sweetness.  One other reason a wine may have a lower alcohol content than expected is because the winemaker didn’t allow all of the sugar to ferment in order to have a sweeter wine as the finished product.

Sometimes, though, a wine has a higher alcohol content than you would expect according to the Brix levels at harvest time.  In this case, the wine has been chaptalized.  Chaptalization is when sugar is added (in some form, be it juice or granulated) during the fermentation process in order to create a wine with a higher alcohol content. This technique is typically used in cool climates where the growing season is not long enough to allow the grapes to ripen to their desired sweetness.

As I’m sure you can imagine, this sweet nugget of information hit me like a ton of bricks.  I’m so glad I know the difference now, so I can tell all my doggie friends who come to hang out with me here at Brix and Columns!